Vera Koval’s Story
As retold by Rachel Gonser
My story is made up of many threads woven together in such an amazing way, like my beautiful Russian shawls. I will tell you about the threads woven into my life’s shawl: When I was a child, life in Russia was limited because we were not allowed to leave the country like a shawl without the potential to reach full vibrancy. But, I grew up surrounded by beautiful, colorful shawls that inspired me to dream of a life filled with all the vibrancy I could find.
I dreamed of going to music school: The town my family lived in when I was a child had no music school. However, when I was eleven my family moved to a city called Togliatti—which is in the Samara region of Russia and sits on the banks of the Volga River; it is home to the AutoVAS company, the largest car factory in Russia, and a sister town of Flint, Michigan, USA—one day while my mother and I were walking the streets of this new town we saw a beautiful building with, “Music School” written above the doors! My heart fluttered, music was finally within reach; the dream was there in front of me. I saw the picture of a violin and fell in love. I clasped my hands and told mother, “This is the instrument I wish to learn!”
This memory is a bright, warm thread in the pattern but every dream has challenges: When we applied for the Music School, they said I was, “Too old.” At eleven-years-old, I had already missed two years of Music school, and five to six years of violin lessons. But with determination, I told myself, “I will be a musician someday.”
They allowed me to take the entrance examinations (which I passed) and admitted me for academic and music lessons; I practiced every spare moment of every day, and my skill grew with each passing year. Though I started my journey late, I climbed to the top of my class. After I graduated, I enrolled in the College of Music in Togliatti—swirling more vibrant colors into the pattern—I continued to practice, compete and perform. I graduated in the top of my class again, and was conferred the title “Artist of Orchestra” and “Teacher of Violin.” The title of musician was officially mine! I was invited to attend the Conservatory as part of the Music Faculty of the Institute of Arts. This invitation is reserved for the most skilled musicians; my family was so proud of my accomplishment!
The honor of attending the institute of music would require me to move away from my family for the first time; their threads had always been interwoven with mine, but I knew in order to achieve the most vibrant threads, I had to reach out and grasp this brilliant opportunity. So, I threw myself into the challenges of attending the institute.
The biggest of these challenges was finding a place to practice in the crowded dorm, there was a schedule for practice rooms, but no matter how early I got up, it was always loud. After five years, I was conferred with the title “Soloist of Orchestra” and “Teacher of Violin.” With this, I obtained a teaching position at Syzran Music College for 3 years as a Violin Teacher and Teacher of Chamber Ensemble Activities. I then moved to the city of Togliatti and worked at a music school as the Music Department Chair and violin teacher.
By this time, Russia was more open. In 1992, we were sent an invitation from “The Center for Creative Initiatives for Peace”—an organization that coordinates special events to promote peace—for six musicians, which included my old teacher, me and four students, to travel to Alaska and play with the “Kenai Peninsula Orchestra” at the Summer Music Festival Gala Concert. Our participation in the program was announced in the program saying, “These wonderfully talented young people come to us through the auspices of The Center for Creative Initiatives for Peace.” We played in several towns before returning to Anchorage, then back to Russia.
During my years of teaching in Togliatti, I met an English woman, Elspeth, who was the secretary of the European String Teachers Association. Over the years, we stayed in touch through letters and email; she was invited to Togliatti to give master classes for teachers of the String Department in music schools throughout the region. It was during this time I realized the importance of fluent English skills; I tried to learn it on my own, but it was very difficult. A fellow teacher talked to me about a Russian-American Club of Friendship, which was associated with AutoVAS, and we started attending together.
As our English improved, conversations got easier, and we met a wonderful woman named Beverly who led the club, and she asked us to perform for them. In 1993, Beverly organized a cruise, on the Volga River from Togliatti to St. Petersburg, for Russian and American teachers and students. I was invited on a cruise to perform. We made stops in major cities along the river where we visited parks, cinemas, theaters and museums. In St. Petersburg, the Americans flew home and we sailed back to Togliatti. The trip was amazing, filled with vibrant sunsets and moments of connection between the groups; the chance to experience each other’s culture and traditions created a bridge. Eventually my friend, who introduced me to the Russian American club, met an American, married him and moved to Flint, Michigan in 1995. In 2009, I came to visit her and met the man I am now married to; I moved to Flint and am attending college again; my old music professor lives an hour away, and I visit her on holidays.
Though my family is farther away than ever, their thread still weaves into the pattern; we talk frequently, and I visit them as often as I can. As I step back and look at the shawl that was woven through time, I can trace the dreams I had as a girl—dragging my fingers along their threads—the memories rise and swirl around me, enthralling me in their richness: These memories make up the vibrant patterns woven intricately around me, and now rest on me as my beautiful Russian shawl.
This story originally appeared in Facing College: Immigrant & International Students’ Stories, a publication of The Facing Project that was organized by Mott Community College in Flint, Michigan.