Ljova, Irena, and Alexander Zhurbin at a Paul Simon concert in Moscow in 1989


At Paul Simon’s Graceland tour concert in Moscow, June 24 1989, Gorky Park

Today isn’t my parents’ anniversary or birthday or anything special — it’s just a rainy day here on the East Coast.

It’s no secret that I disliked practicing music as a kid, but my parents said that “one day, I’d be grateful”.

That day came nearly 20 years ago when I walked into Sam Ash with the bright idea of hooking up my viola to an amplifier and going to play Bach in Central Park. Nobody pushed me to do this – it just seemed “logical”. (The trouble with crazy ideas is that they all start out as being very “logical”.) I came home with a copper pickup and a battery-powered amp. The sound was absolutely horrific — my viola sounded like a rusted trombone — but in that moment I heard my instrument differently for the first time and its new sound became an inspiration. I never took the amp to play Bach in the park — instead began to record and improvise and compose more seriously.

Over the next 20 years I’ve been grateful to be very active as a composer, performer and collaborator, in person and online — but that very first moment of playing Bach through an amp was pivotal in turning something I learned in childhood into a personal adventure for the years ahead. Composing / Improvising / Performing became a single occupation — making music. Practicing became more fun and suddenly it all made a lot more sense.

There were other pivotal moments — the first time I played chamber music, the Haydn “Sunrise” quartet, coached by Leo Ahramjian at Luzerne Music Center when I was twelve; the years I spent playing in school orchestras under Jonathan Strasser

But I couldn’t have done any of this without first spending years learning how to read music, play an instrument with some facility, developing affinity and curiosity for composers and repertoire with which then to follow my instincts while keeping an ear to the ground. My beginnings were not effortless and my parents were very persistent.

In these Corona times, as we all involuntarily look at our screens for work, entertainment, latest news, and in search of connection, I’m especially grateful to my parents, Alexander Zhurbin and Irena Ginzburg, for giving me the gift of music, so that I can look away and listen.

This is an odd time to be a musician — everything we know about gathering a community, whether in a concert hall or on a street corner — is only virtually possible now. The luxury of physical community is not at our disposal.

But I know this much — the music we make tomorrow will be built on the steps we take today.

Take lessons, kids… make music, be silly… you just never know.


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