For musicians, belief in art and the gift of song is the coin of the realm

     Gergana Haralampieva is a third-year violin student at Curtis. (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

    Gergana Haralampieva is a third-year violin student at Curtis. (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

    Gergana Haralampieva, a third-year violin student at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, told a personal story at a special musical First Person Arts storytelling event. Her tale takes place on a very cold day in the Czech Republic, where, as a 10-year-old, she received a gift from a stranger she would keep her whole life.

    Gergana Haralampieva is a third-year student of violin at the Curtis Institute, a world-renowned classical conservatory in Philadelphia. Born in Bulgaria, she lived in the Czech Republic until she was 11, when she moved to Boston.

    She told a personal story at a special musical storytelling event at Curtis, created by First Person Arts, on April 25. Her tale takes place on a very cold day in Olomouc, a city in Eastern Czech Republic where, as a 10-year-old, Haralampieva was visiting relatives over the New Year’s holiday.

    As part of the performance, Haralampieva performed two movements from “Miniatures,” a suite composed by another Curtis student (and Haralampieva’s roommate) TJ Cole.

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    Read a transcript of her story below, followed by a Q&A with Haralampieva.

    For the radio version of this story, we kept one of Cole’s “Miniature” movements, but asked Haralampieva to perform Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” to illustrate a key moment in the story.

    It was the day of New Year’s Eve when I was walking with my Mom, my sister, my aunt and uncle in the city of Olomouc, Czech Republic. It was extremely cold that day, windy and gloomy, wind blowing from every direction. There were not very many people on the streets since it was New Year’s and everyone was home preparing for the evening’s festivities.

    As we were walking down a small cobblestone street passing a 17th century church, we see this homeless man wrapped in a really big coat and clothes. A little filthy — you could see that the clothes and coat were too big on him, and he had a really long beard. He was holding a stack of fresh newspapers he was selling that day.

    As we walked by, he smiled and greeted politely. My mom turned around and, as was her custom, she got some cash out of her wallet and approached the man to buy one of his newspapers.

    He was just delighted. He was so happy. We were probably the only people to walk down that street that day.

    “Thank you, ma’am. Thank you so much!” His voice was really loud, echoing off the church walls.

    My mom decided to give him some extra cash, since it was New Year’s.

    He was so happy he started yelling, “Thank you! You really deserve a song!”

    My mom said, “Pardon?” She was so confused.

    “Yeah! I’ll sing you a song!”

    “No, no. Please. You really don’t have to do that, sir. It’s my pleasure. You don’t have to sing.”

    She did not give him money to sing a song; she gave him money to buy a newspaper and to be nice. But he insisted. To her surprise he started singing this really long, complicated Czech poem set to the music of “Ode to Joy.”

    He kept singing for about four minutes. I remember we were standing in the cold, freezing. My mother had to stop him.

    She said, “How did you know all this?” We were so surprised.

    “I’m a musician. I used to be in a professional rock band back in the day.”

    “Really?” She gestured to us. “We’re all musicians here.”

    He looked down at the 10-year-old me. “Do you play an instrument?”

    I was really shy, but said, “Yeah, I play the violin.”

    He proceeded to take a coin out of his pocket. “Here. It’s for good luck.”

    To this day I have the coin. I keep it in my violin case to remind me of that man, and to remind me that my mother’s act of kindness led to another act of kindness. We can really find surprise and joy anywhere, from places we don’t expect.

    Why did you choose this story to tell?

    It helps with my musicmaking to have that coin. I feel very loved whenever I see it. It reminds me that there are people who love music, and believe in me, and believe in art. I love the coin and keep it close to my heart.

    Even though it came from a stranger?


    This poem that he sang to the tune of “Ode to Joy,” it’s a well-known Czech poem?

    Yes. I was 10 at the time, so I didn’t recognize it, but my sister — who was 17 — she recognized it. She said it was well-known. I remember it was a morbid poem. It wasn’t romantic. It was about death and dead children — like Mahler, that style. It was extremely ironic that he set it to “Ode to Joy.”

    Do you remember the name of it?

    I don’t know at all. I was too young.

    And you haven’t encountered it since then?


    You keep this coin in your case. When you first got it, you knew this was something you would want to hold on to, even as a 10-year-old?

    Yes. It was such a weird situation. I wanted to remember it forever. The other reason I kept it was because he said it was for good luck. It reminds me that people believe in this art form and they support each other. We go through rough times as musicians. If I’m having a really rough day and I feel like I absolutely can’t play the violin — I have many of those days, actually — it reminds me that there are people out there that love music. That’s why I do it. They believe in music and believe in musicians. We just have to keep going.

    For more FirstPerson Arts audio, subscribe to the First Person Arts podcast.

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