2019-01-16 / Home

Elvira Kipnis lives an inspiring immigrant story set to music

Rea Bochner, Voice Staff

By the time Elvira Kipnis came to the United States from the Former Soviet Union in 1990, she already held three hard-won degrees in music. “Because I was Jewish, it was hard to get into the school of my choice,” she said. “They see your last name and make sure you don’t get through. I passed the music exams, but they tried to fail me on the general exams.” After receiving her MA in choral conducting, she earned another Master’s in piano performance from the prestigious Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Kiev.

Though she was able to secure a job as a teacher, Elvira’s then-husband pressed her to leave with their three-year-old son. “We could feel the anti-Semitism our whole life,” she said. “There was no violence against Jews, but it was on a government level. You couldn’t get into school of your dreams, or get the job you deserve. My ex-husband saw the future for our son.” Also pushing them to go was the requirement that every young man serve in the Russian army, which their son would have to do if they stayed. “To serve in the army and to be a Jew was also extremely difficult,” said Elvira, who agreed to emigrate to the US with her family.

After waiting for paperwork in Vienna for six months, Elvira and her family moved to Cherry Hill. Though she already spoke English, the transition, she recalled, “was not as easy as I thought. You are immersed into a completely different culture and a different language. It’s even harder to do it without money, because the Russian government took everything we had. We left with two suitcases with our clothes. That was it.”

To earn a living, Elvira traveled from home to home giving piano lessons, even if her students lived miles away from each other. She also got a job at Cong. Beth El as an after-school music teacher.

As Elvira’s teaching practice grew, she went back to school for a degree in music education. At her very first class at Camden County College, an English as a Second Language course, the professor noticed her intelligence and asked her to tutor students in Russian. She agreed, and eventually was offered a position as an adjunct professor in Russian Language (she would do the same at Rowan University). She taught Russian for the next 20 years--even after she’d earned her degree.

Meanwhile, Elvira’s students now came to her for lessons at her home studio--to remarkable results. Some of her most promising students have played at the nation’s most prestigious concert halls, including the Kimmel Center, Steinway Hall, and Carnegie Hall in New York City. “There have been many thrilling moments,” said Elvira. “Just recently, my seven-year-old student got third place in the prestigious NJMTA competition, where they select the top three kids in the state. It was wonderful.”

Even more powerful for Elvira is watching her students’ progress. “When they play really well, when you see how they can transform their playing, this is one of the most rewarding experiences. It’s amazing to see them change in the moment.”

Not that it’s always easy. “Sometimes, it’s a very difficult profession,” she said. “The hours aren’t easy, students cancel, parents stop lessons because they don’t want to commit the time or money. But I think it is very, very important for children. Playing piano develops their brains. It’s the most intellectual activity that anyone can experience.”

But what about her playing? Did Elvira ever wish to become a concert pianist? “Playing professionally requires hours of practice, travelling and touring,” she said. “This wasn’t possible because I had a little child. Even in Russia, I taught.” But that doesn’t stop her from performing once in awhile. “Sometimes, students ask if I’ll play for a party. That I can do.”

Ultimately, it is the students, and the music, which give Elvira the most satisfaction. “I get some students who are really worth all the effort,” she said. “I inspire them, and they inspire me.” 

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