In Memory of My First Mentor

Alt text

Last week a woman I consider my very first mentor passed away. This news made me reflect on her life as I knew it and how she changed mine. I spent time bringing back memories about her and analyzing how they affected me when I was a child and whether I carried them through the years. She taught me many important life lessons but the one that had the special place in my heart was about perseverance. She used to be my cello instructor for about ten years.

Her name was Natalya and her life was quite remarkable – she was raised in a poor family in a small town in Siberia, moved to Moscow with little money and almost no support when she was just a teenager, became a cello teacher and was eventually recognized as the Best Russian Cello Instructor in 2015. When she was young she used to perform at concerts, study, teach, work part-time jobs, whatever would pay the rent and provide food. From what I know, she had some hard choices to make along the way and she sometimes made decisions she wasn’t proud of. But she kept pushing forward because she had a dream and wished to make it a reality. I don’t know much about her youth because I met her when she was in her early 50s and she rarely told me stories from her past (mostly because I was a child and couldn’t possibly understand them).

This was late 1990s and early 2000s when Russia was flourishing on high oil prices and many entrepreneurs could make money like there was no tomorrow. Natalya was a cello instructor but she knew that this alone would not provide for her, her children and, at that point, her grandchildren. Besides teaching, she started a fashion company, then a travel agency and other businesses I am not even aware of, all of which got her the income necessary to provide for her big family. Teaching cello was not her “main” job but it was the one she was truly passionate about and never quit no matter what financial situation she was in. She didn’t just teach at school, she gave her students private lessons – sometimes painfully lengthy ones – and never charged for them. Her students won awards on many Russian and international cello competitions, went on to become well-known cello performers or left the country to play in famous international orchestras. In my mind, this was not just because Natalya taught them how to play cello, but because she saw it as her responsibility to raise, educate and mentor them like they were her own children. I was one of them.

My earliest memories of her were when Natalya was sitting in the left corner of her classroom and ordering me – a ten-year old – around the room. She was a big woman and didn’t like to walk much. So, on her command I had to water flowers, open or close a piano, bring her notes or call my dad and ask him to pick me up at school later because previous student’s class had run over by an hour. I would then get to my chair and start playing the piece I was supposed to prepare for the class. The chair I sat on was situated in the center of the room and was put on a podium which was both good and bad. The good part was that if I played well and other people were present in the room (which there were always quite a few) she would compliment me. My physical centricity in the room would let me feel the triumph of being praised while everyone was watching. The bad part was when I didn’t play well. She was furious and could easily embarrass me in front of a lady who was playing a piano accompaniment, other students and their parents. Chair centricity made it feel hundred times worse but I guess this was all by design. If I didn’t play well she would basically kick me out of a classroom and tell me to practice in the hallway until I was ready, and would let the next student in. I hated these moments the most because I had to play in the hallway and everyone who was familiar with Natalya’s best practices knew I was punished for not being prepared. Two years into being her student I started performing at various city concerts which I was very proud of. One year I participated in a cello competition and came in 10th. Even though there were more than a thousand kids competing, I was very upset with my result. I thought I wasn’t good enough for music and that there were many more talented kids out there. It was then when she told me: “Today you are tenth, tomorrow you are fifth, so strive to be the first. You have to fight and it isn’t easy. But as you go through your life and fight a hard fight you will persevere and become stronger. When everything is easy the life loses its meaning”. My life has never been as hard as hers but this was one of the first pieces of advice I received at a very young age, so I took it as a motto. Incidentally, the next year I participated in another country-wide competition and came in fourth.

Alt text This is me playing solo with the orchestra at the "ACROPOLIUM", International Music Festival in Carthage, Tunisia, 2003

Natalya, unlike most teachers, didn’t have strict rules, well… almost. She believed that in order to be a good musician you had to practice for at least 6 hours a day. I absolutely hated an idea of practicing for a fixed period of time. I would rather have a goal and strive to reach it no matter the time. But she insisted that I practiced every day. I practiced for 2 hours three times a week and I dreaded every time I had to take out my cello. What I didn’t realize at the time was that the “goal” I wanted to set for myself was not really reachable in the short term, and that in order to get to a level where I could actually start setting goals I just had to put in a certain amount of time upfront. Of course, I didn’t understand it when I was thirteen. I wanted to be a rebel, dye my hair purple, wear fake plastic nails (a horrible predecessor of gel manicure), date troubled 16-year-old boys and listen to punk rock. She put up with my bi-polar teen attitude quite well – she just ignored it and insisted on following my practice routine.

I did make a feeble attempt to resist though. Once I came to her house for a private lesson with those long fake nails on and painted them scarlet. If you have ever seen a cello performance up close you would imagine how impossible it is to play with long nails. Natalya looked at my nails, asked me to sit down and take out my cello while she briefly left the room. She came back with a pair of secateurs (a big pruning shear used to cut thick plants) and cut my nails off. While she was at it she didn’t really look at where she was cutting or how deep into the nail she had gone with the scissors but amazingly my finger was intact and wasn’t even bleeding. Needless to say, the shock I experienced from the scene took any potential rebellious ideas completely out of my head after this incident.

Natalya taught me to play cello with precise technique and tremendous passion. All emotions I was going through as a teen I poured into music and learned to love my instrument as much as I loved my family, my friends and Natalya. I also experienced having real goals and obstacles, competing against thousands of people and race to become the first. I learned how to perform in public and keep a smile on my face, even when I was visibly failing a passage. I understood the importance of playing my part and adjust to the group when I joined a string orchestra, which again was Natalya’s idea. Finally, I learned to not give up, no matter how dire the situation seemed in the heat of the moment.

I eventually decided not to pursue music as a career. I went on to do my bachelor’s degree in Economics at Moscow State University and later moved to the U.S. to become a data scientist in New York. I kept in touch with Natalya throughout the years and went to her 70-year anniversary party a few years ago. To my surprise, most of her guests were her students, many of whom she had stopped teaching 20 or 30 years ago. They didn’t just show up, they showered her with love and gratitude. There were probably over 50 people in the room, all of whom were indebted to her for their careers and accomplishments. Even though I did not pursue a career in music I was one of those who expressed my deepest gratitude to her. She taught me many lessons about music and life that I have carried through my life.

She passed away last weekend, I was not at her funeral. I heard there were more than 200 people most of whom - I’m sure - were Natalya’s students. She changed lives of hundreds of people and I am humbled to be one of them. She played a transformational role in my early development and shaped me in ways I could not have even imagined. She was a talented entrepreneur, a caring mother and grandmother, an inspiring teacher and an incredibly strong woman who persevered no matter what. Because, as she liked to say, when everything is easy the life loses its meaning, doesn’t it?