Growing up, Michail Konstantinos Chalkiopoulos knew that he loved music most of all, and he urged his mother to help him receive piano lessons. But the family resources in their home in Patras, Greece could only be stretched so far. Instead, he studied hard at school, starting with English classes in elementary school, and training in sports to please his athletic mother. Finally, on his 10th birthday his grandmother surprised and thrilled him by purchasing an upright piano. He no longer had to practice on a loaned keyboard. Jubilantly, Chalkiopoulos continued piano lessons, laced with lots of practice.
In the bustling city of Patras, Chalkiopoulos was admitted out of a hundred competitors to the Music High School, and his days were lively. Caring for a younger sibling while his mother worked, he threw himself into his school piano classes, plus learning from his piano teachers at the conservatory after school.
Halfway through high school, Michail’s home life began to crumble. His mother fled with him and his much younger sister back to her roots: the island of Corfu. Uprooted to this island, Michail found himself in a new home, a new music school with new teachers, With his father in absentia, and his mother working long shifts, Michail assumed the role as caretaker. He had little time for his music, and felt estranged from the other teenage music students, who were a close group which partied together. An outsider, Chalkiopoulos felt like a misfit as he advanced toward graduation.
Putting aside his fears and anxieties over his mother’s health, his little sister’s well-being, their shaky finances, and the loneliness of “being different,” Chalkiopoulos reviewed and released his concerns through his music. Whenever possible, despite the increasing responsibilities, he expressed his feelings about his unstable life in his music. He was impressed with the power of music and how time would shrink or expand during a performance.
“We bring our lives to our music,” he said. “The more authentic we express what we feel, what we believe, the more genuine and authentic is the music we make.”
While still viewed as an “outsider,” Michail’s piano teacher advocated for him to be included in an upcoming concert—his first in Corfu. Trained in classical music, Chalkiopoulos performed Chopin’s Etude Op. 25, No. 1 (The Harp). After the recital, things changed. Although Chalkiopoulos was different from the other high schoolers, he was now treated as a talented young musician. However, he resolved to remain always authentic to who he was, and not be pressured to be like the other music students. He also saw that with his talent—despite poverty, family upheaval, and his unwillingness to run with the pack—if he worked very hard, he could become the musician he dreamed to be.
But as it turned out, the way would only grow more difficult. As Chalkiopoulos was preparing for his final concerts in Corfu, his mother’s health plummeted. After years of serving from a young age as surrogate parent and caretaker, he realized he could not study abroad until his sister finished with high school.
For the next 18 months, he built an exciting life around his music in Athens. Scrounging jobs and places to live, he fine-tuned his ideas about himself and his music. Through a chance meeting during his participation at a music festival he became friends with an American pianist and professor. And as their friendship deepened, the professor counselled Chalkiopoulos to come to the United States.
After so many years of juggling his family responsibilities with his music and his own journey into adulthood, Chalkiopoulos summoned his youthful daring and applied for a tourist visa. During this whirlwind first visit to the U.S., he was introduced to many musicians. And before his three-month visa expired, he decided to reach for the biggest prize: entrance into an American music school.
Chalkiopoulos learned, however, that it was not enough for an American school to accept him into their music program. There was a more immediate non-negotiable hurdle: He must also pass a challenging language test, which prevented many aspiring foreign students from entry into U.S. academia. New friends checked out every study guide they could find in local libraries, and Michail practiced piano as he crammed.
He told himself, “If I succeed at this test with only one week to prepare, I will keep going.”
And he passed. He auditioned and was accepted, but was summoned home as his mother’s condition worsened. He returned to Corfu and assumed his role as caretaker through his mother’s death.
A year later, Chalkiopoulos arrived at Ithaca College in January, in one of the worst Ithaca winters of this decade. He had to quickly find work to supplement his financial aid. He knew no one. But he was in America.
In the beginning, Michail lived in survival mode. He took everything in and tried to make sense of his new life in this cold, dark place. Mostly, he remained quiet, watching and reflecting. He was not tempted to grab on to superficial friendships and relationships or be pulled into the bustling world of exuberant young people. He was older and had lived through a lifetime of challenges before he managed to arrive at Ithaca College.
Then, there was Diana Dimitrova. An engaging Bulgarian-American administrator at IC, music lover, wife and mother, she greeted Michail in the international students office and became his guide to Ithaca College and Ithaca. She too had experienced the transition from another culture to America. Having someone in the administration who could guide and mentor Chalkiopoulos was a lifeline. By summer, he could see that he was ready to emerge from the self-imposed isolation of winter and spring in Ithaca, and soon he began to fall in love with his new home. Diana and her family became Michail’s American family.
Chalkiopoulos used his time, energy, and resources while studying, practicing, and earning money to reflect on who he was meant to be. As Chalkiopoulos’s studies with Professor Charis Dimaras and other IC faculty grew deeper, Chalkiopoulos delved deeper and deeper into his music. Dimaras was an inspiring pianist and instructor, generous with his time and friendship.
As a Greek musician with a Russian-like first name, blonde hair and green eyes, Chalkiopoulos was an older foreign student. He felt proud that he had managed to survive intact while “maintaining his original self.” With much practice as a caretaker since childhood, he was conscious of the need to now put his music first. He said he has experienced the power of a wide range of emotions, and has learned how to translate pain into “something meaningful and beautiful,” and how to communicate that to audiences.
“As a disciplined artist devoted to the ideal of music, I now treasure the insights I have with my music, as much as the techniques I have practiced and improved,” Chalkiopoulos said. “I now see that the path I have taken is my path, and while different, it gives me great joy and much gratitude to remain true to myself, to live my authentic life.”
“Music connects us,” Chalkiopoulos said. “This symbolic language connects our emotions, our ideas. It reflects the collective experience of humanity. It transcends race and gender, status and national boundaries. It transcends feelings that we are not good enough. We experience self-worth, as we are delighted by the music presented. The music’s language is available to all, regardless of power, politics, money. Music conveys loss, longing, joy, nostalgia, sadness—which every human being feels—and that unifies us. We are not so different. We each have trauma and pain, and we each yearn to be healed and loved, to be safe and secure. This universal language brings us together.”