Following is an interview with Sabina Slepecka, the coordinator of many youth-oriented music events sponsored by the PHSR. The interviewers were Marta Sobotka and Slawka Wojdak.
If you lived in Rochester for some time the chances are that you either met Sabina in person or at least heard her music. Now, we provide you with the opportunity to get to know her better.
Sabina, tell us about your Polish Roots.
I was born in Katowice, Poland almost a thousand years ago (hahahaha) to Polish parents of course. I have one sister who immigrated to Canada about 20 years ago.
Because music plays such a significant role in your life, tell us about musical influences in your childhood.
In my family singing went on for as long as I can remember. My mother would sing from early morning to late at night. We had lots of gatherings with friends and family with lots of good Polish food and of course lots of singing, and that was the beginning of my musical education. As a young girl, I was admitted to Muzyczna Szkola Powszechna, a school for students that were musically gifted. I recall participating in many musical contests. My fondest memory was at the age of 12 when I was selected from a national pool of students to play music at Belveder, the Polish House of Parliament. I was one among 15 others. This was a very prestigious and rewarding event, for the first time in my life at Belveder I saw and ate “pomaracze” oranges. At the age of 14, I won the national violin competition and entered the School of Music in Katowice. At the age of 16 I won another competition. After that I moved to Warsaw and entered the Academy of Music in Warsaw, Poland. There I studied violin and piano.
Was your musical talent something that came naturally to you?
There was a violin in my home that was passed down from generation to generation and one day I picked up this violin, which was beautiful. Automatically my teacher recognized some sort of talent.
I was 9 years old, and actually all my teachers would tell me over and over again that I need to practice, practice, practice. I remember my mother would make me get up at 4 in the morning, she had breakfast ready and I had to practice starting at 4:30 in the morning. I would practice each morning for 3 hours with my mother sitting right next to me. I didn’t have time to go to movies with my friends, I did not go out on dates, no time was allowed for social activities. I was denied the childhood that every body else had.
What is the most pleasant memory from your childhood?
Let me think… the most pleasant memory, well of course the first competition that I won. It was a big surprise for me and it was very pleasant.
When did you meet your husband?
At the age of 16 I had a crush on this one boy that would not look at me and I was very heartbroken. I didn’t date much after him. Then Eugieniusz came along. He was very caring. We got married very soon. We dated for about two weeks.
Did your parents approve?
They had no choice. I was 29 at the time. Back in those days there was always trouble with girls that have their career before they meet the person they marry. We know who we are, we know what we want, and the disapproval from others for having a career before marriage brings up a storm. I chose my career before marriage, I was talented, I was willing to play, I was touring all over Poland, and my name was known. I worked very hard for it thanks to my mother.
So she is the person that had the most influence?
She was the person that was pushing me the most, there were days when I didn’t want to play anymore and there were days when I loved it.
So years later you become a mother and had two daughters… and one of your daughters Kasia is a pianist. Were you with Kasia the same way that your mother was with you?
Yes. When Kasia was entering college I gave Kasia two choices: either biology or music. And she chose to become a musician and here we are. My other daughter Ewa chose biology from the very beginning and told me to leave her out of the singing.
Tell us more about how you ended up immigrating to the United States and how you ended up playing for the Rochester Philharmonic.
After an international competition in Budapest in the 1960’s, I was offered a job in Norway in Bergen, and I took it. Nothing could stop me from going, not a new husband, or a new apartment that was so difficult to find at the time. I went to Norway and one of orchestra concerts took place in New York City. As soon as we got to New York I auditioned for a job. I got the job. Leonald Stojkowski auditioned me and automatically put my papers through immigration. So you could say that he was the sponsor for bringing me to the United States. When I came back to Norway I wrote a letter to my husband and the Polish government gave him permission to visit me. When I saw him I told him to get ready because we were going to the United States of America. He was speechless, and he had no choice; he came along. This was in 1967, I was pregnant with Ewa at the time. It was very hard at the beginning; there was a baby on the way, not a lot of money, no language. My husband got a job right away, but there was no security. What we experienced is help from people around us. Everybody was very nice, the Polish community, the Jewish community, and the German community. We lived in New York City for 3 years. During that time I also worked on cruise ships as a soloist singing gypsy music. I needed to find a steadier job and I auditioned for the Rochester Philharmonic. And that’s the end of the story.
Tell us about your involvement in the Polish community here in Rochester, NY.
Well, I really do care very much about Polish youth. Polish youth could be so talented and capable. I organized the Polish Classical…a concert at the RPO. That was a big event.
And tea with Sabina…a
The annual concerts, sing alongs, playing with Polish Scouts. Most importantly I want to cultivate the tradition that we have in Poland. I want every young person to feel that Polish culture and Polish tradition is something. We have a big tradition in the world, and I want everybody to know who Chopin is, who Wieniawski is, who Copernicus is, and who is Mickiewicz.
Do you have any advice for parents who want to make music an important part in their child’s life?
Every person should have a goal. If the child wants to play sports let them play sports but don’t make your child go into one area. Keep their interest in other activities, so they can become well-rounded human beings. When a person is educated they should know about culture, about music, theater, movies, about science. The parents need to introduce the child to all sorts of different activities and let the child have a choice. They should stand behind the child and support them. But make sure that they have a goal and achievement in their specific area of interest. The parents should sow the seed of achievement.
In your free time what kind of music do you listen to?
I like Motown… it is fun. But that doesn’t give me the tranquility that I need sometimes. Sometimes I like to sit quietly and just be with myself, for times like that Bach is my choice in music.
What do you think about trends in music today?
Art is an expression and people need to express themselves. And rap for example is an expression that someone feels and music is feelings. Just like painting or theater. Rap is here and we could do nothing about it.
There are rumors that you are possibly moving out of Rochester, how true is that?
It is true, it would be in about 2006.
Would you come back and participate in Polish life here in Rochester?
Oh yeah. As Rumsfeld says “You can take it to the bank”. I plan to stay in the Philharmonic Orchestra for a little while longer at least part time.
Anything else you wish to tell us?
Just sing with your children whenever you can.