Goodbye, Leyla. A tribute.

I heard of the passing of – let’s call her Ms. Jelenović – one of my early violin teachers several months after it happened. The news reached me last fall, while I was in my hometown of Belgrade, Serbia. My host, an old friend and a professional pianist, played chamber music with my teacher’s daughter, a violinist herself, and it was mentioned in a conversation that Ms. Jelenović had died. I immediately felt great sadness and had to quickly excuse myself to another room, where I quietly shed a few tears. My own reaction surprised me, as I hadn’t talked to “Leyla”, as everyone informally called her, in decades and she was no longer someone I thought about much. But her influence and effect on me were considerable, to say the least.

I first met Leyla at age eight, once my overambitious father decided that my then violin teacher, a laid back fellow who rewarded me with ice cream money whenever I successfully sightread a new piece, was no longer adequate. My father inquired about the best local violin teachers for children and a few names came up, Leyla’s among them. A meeting was arranged and off we were to an introductory lesson. I don’t remember much about it, except that it was a hot summer day, and after I played a few short pieces, Leyla informed my father that I was accepted to her studio and could start taking lessons with her in the fall.

Lessons with Ms. Jelenović were forty-five-minute, twice-a-week affairs. She was a stern, middle-aged woman who wore old fashioned clothes and heavy eye makeup and dyed her hair a reddish brown. She quickly raised her voice when displeased, with a deep, raspy timbre directly proportional to her chain smoking. Speaking of smoking, Leyla had a reputation for throwing ashtrays at the pupils who angered her. I remember once anxiously peeking at the ashtray on the table while she happened to be looking away. Its heavy glass base frightened me, but I soon discovered that its use as a punishing tool was anecdotal – it never left the table as far as I knew, except to be emptied of cigarette butts. The lessons took place in huge, formerly gorgeous prewar apartments which, shabbily converted into classrooms, served as the string department of one of Belgrade’s prominent music schools. Leyla’s little studio was spartan, with an upright piano, a sheet music chest, a few standard school chairs for visitors, as well as an office desk with an Art Deco chair for Ms. Jelenović, in which I’d never dare sit, even when she wasn’t around.

The school was on a quiet tree-lined street which housed a few foreign embassies, and I passed those of Brazil, Iran, and Turkey just steps from the school. Daydreaming about those countries gave me the last opportunity to escape that sharp dread in the pit of my stomach I’d increasingly feel as lesson time came nearer and nearer. It felt like I rarely played well for Leyla, or perhaps the memories of her angry voice and the deep fear it instilled in me are too strong. I left our lessons in tears more than a few times. She was generally never verbally abusive, though I distinctly remember being called “dumb” one time, but do not remember the details. The notebook she insisted we acquire for her comments was full of instructions on how to practice or acerbic remarks about my playing, with her angular writing in Cyrilic, always in all caps. Combined with my father’s insistence on being present at most of my lessons, and his overbearing attitude at home whenever violin was involved, it seemed as though my time after school was split between practicing, being anxious about practicing, or a combination of the two.

But my relationship with Leyla had other layers too. She treated me as someone who could already think for themselves, she showed appreciation for my talents and could be encouraging and caring, even though that chain smoker’s voice always seemed to filter out some of her positivity. She’d confine in me about the her elderly mother living with them, or advise me how to deal with my difficult father. (Her advice was, “Be diplomatic and agree with him whenever possible, and worry about the rest later”.) Ms. Jelenović even confronted my Dad on several occasions about letting me practice freely and without his constant meddling, which she knew drove me mad. She’d affectionately call me “chicken”, which is an unusual term of endearment in Serbian, and would sometimes slice an apple for me after a lesson. She was cool. I actually really liked her.

I also enormously appreciate her teaching to this day – it was heavy on technical exercises, scales and simply building a solid foundation. She made me work on complex technique pretty early, but had a problem with my bow arm, claiming that it wasn’t developing well. This became a mini war between us. After a few years of infrequent appearances at school concerts, she put me on a strict diet of exercises and said I would not play in public until my right arm improved. I wish I could see now what was going on and how we were behaving, but all I can remember was the months and months I spent drilling Ševčik and Flesch exercises for budding violinists, and feeling like tuneful music didn’t exist anymore and my life sucked.

I was about nine here and was studying with Ms. Jelenković.
I was about nine here and was studying with Ms. Jelenović.

After five years of study with Ms. Jelenović, things seemed to change, and not for the better. I expressed some doubts to my parents about continuing my violin studies and they were surprisingly receptive, but Leyla paid us a visit at home and strongly suggested I continue ‘for the sake of my talent’. A few months later, in seventh grade, she gave me a C in violin at the end of the first semester and announced that the embargo on my public performances would continue.  My father no longer came to my lessons, but kept close track. The C enraged him to no end, so he penned a letter to the head of the school’s string department, claiming Ms. Jelenović’s neglect, unreasonable treatment and dubious methods caused me to unnecessarily receive a lower grade than was just and be ‘kept from flourishing’. Changes came swiftly and within days I was placed with a new teacher. I never properly said goodbye to Leyla, but kept passing her in the school hallway and we’d politely greet each other. She did stop me once to ask about my Dad’s letter and its contents, and I lied that I hadn’t read it, feeling embarrassed about the whole thing. I entered the university-level Academy of Music a few years later and never saw her, except at joint concerts of promising young Serbian violinists, whose ranks I was finally joining. Soon thereafter I left the former Yugoslavia, already engulfed in the Balkan conflict.

The last time I saw Ms. Jelenović was at one of my first appearances after a long absence in Belgrade. After my viola recital, she came up to me, said “Bravo, chicken”, pinched my cheek while I said nothing, and walked away. This almost became a ritual, as that was the way she spoke to me the last five time or six times we met. I was so glad to see her after almost fifteen years and felt validated by that brief sentence, but remained quiet. She still looked the same to me as ever.

I will never forget how much she meant to me through a difficult time growing up, when they were few adults willing to listen to me the way she did. I just wish I had been able to thank her for it, and for believing in me when it felt like things around me were turning upside down. I never got to thank her, but I am sure she just knew.