Mrs. Tatiana Zhuk has a kind face with petite features, and short, reddish hair. Her visage is filled with life, indicating a deep happiness that radiates, helplessly infecting others. She welcomed me into her Sheepshead Bay home with open arms, offering me macarons, tea, Russian candy, and a chance to pet the little Scottish Fold kitten that meanders around the house. The living room had two pianos, one electric and one grand, adorned with portraits of great composers like Mozart and Bach. I knew from the very beginning that this was a den of music.
Mrs. Zhuk is a piano instructor. “I started to teach piano at home for little kids, and then at some point my friend introduced me to the music teacher who was teaching at Green Meadow School, and I went there once a week to accompany a choir. And that was my first serious job.” She spoke English well, but with a Russian accent that added zest to her words. Mrs. Zhuk emigrated from Ukraine twenty years ago, leaving behind everything she knew for a different life. Well, almost everything she knew: her love for music, having proliferated since childhood, stayed with her, and provided her means of surviving in the new and strange land, though not at first. “I was studying in Ukraine for seventeen years to be a musician, but I had a little detour when we came here. My relatives told me ‘you will not have a career being musician, learn something useful.’ So, I went to FIT and graduated as a patternmaker. And I worked several months in the industry, but I cannot do it for a whole day. So I came back to music.” She was at ease sitting on her couch, discussing her life passion.
She told me about her technique for when she teaches. “I teach by Russian music school program. I brought it from the Ukraine. It’s a good school; you need to do theory, technique, exercises, scales, and then repertoire. I also teach singing. One of my students got into professional performing arts high school last year.” She beamed when she told me about this success. Mrs. Zhuk graduated from pedagogical college in the Ukraine, and so she was prepared to teach all forms of music, from conducting to composing to piano and accordion, the latter of which we broke into laughter about, startling the reposed kitten on the floor. Mrs. Zhuk is one of the few lucky immigrants that got to continue working in their field upon immigrating. She says it is because her husband makes a majority of their money running his business, but this didn’t bother her. She is fulfilled by music, and would like to continue teaching for the rest of her life, though she would help her husband in his business if he needed it.
Mrs. Zhuk began to tell me how music became such a significant part of her life. “My mom wanted me to become a composer, even when I wasn’t born yet. She wanted to play piano herself, but when she was eleven years old, World War II started and she couldn’t learn. She got into concentration camp and she spent four years there, and then they were liberated by Americans, actually. She always remembered the black pilot who gave her a leather jacket. She remembered him for her whole life. She became an electrician, graduated from college, but still wanted to play piano. When she was 25 she went to music school. She was playing piano her whole life.” It was out of that struggle and subsequent determination that Mrs. Zhuk was enabled to become the musician she is today. Her mother taught her and encouraged her to play music, fostering an unbreakable love that shines through her words and through the wide smile on her face. Her mother always told her, “‘you will compose one famous song and you will be famous!’” I asked if she composed anything seriously and she replied, laughing heartily, “No, not really!”
Her favorite part of her job is seeing her students grow and blossom. “When I teach, I just like to see the progress on what kids do. When they come to me, they are a blank slate, and after some time, they play. This is amazing, to see how it happens from nothing to something. I have a student who still comes to me after twelve years. He plays by himself, he doesn’t need my help anymore. This is my goal.” She smiled proudly, and began to laugh. Amazingly, even her laugh is melodious. She is musical in everything she does.
To aspiring musicians, composers, and piano teachers, Mrs. Zhuk says with compassion, “Just do it if you really want to do it. Do it from all your heart. Give your heart to all your students. Everybody needs to play music; it’s good for everybody. People need to continue to pass this love of music to future generations.” She slowly stopped to think, and added soon after, “But also be a businessperson. You have to know how to advertise to make money.”
She gracefully sat down at the piano and began to play. Her nimble hands fluttered up and down the keys like butterflies in a dance, enchanting the cozy Sheepshead house with beautiful Bach. By her posture, hand movements, and facial expressions, it was obvious that her music is the product of years of struggle, triumph, pain and victory. The house rang with sorrow and joy as Mrs. Zhuk poured her heart into the keys.