In a large Victorian a block off of Bowdoin’s campus, a bedroom becomes a practice room for Almita Vamos and her violin. It’s her home for the next two weeks, while she attends the Bowdoin International Music Festival as a member of the faculty. As a performer and an instructor, she has been recognized and awarded nationally and internationally for her achievement in violin.

It might, then, seem like a dowdy place to rehearse. But Vamos doesn’t complain. This is her second time attending the Bowdoin Festival after a decades-long hiatus, and she likes that “it’s not glitzy.” She enjoys hearing the harp player practicing just next door.

In fact, Vamos never complains. A refrain throughout our conversation is “I feel very lucky.” She is appreciative of the life she has lived, a lesson she learned from her parents, both immigrants from present-day Ukraine. Through her teaching, she reaffirms the lessons she learned from her parents — to value education and inclusivity and above all, to be grateful — at a time when these lessons seem more important than ever.



“I wasn’t one of these kids who said, ‘Mom, I have to play the violin, I love it,’” she said. “I would say more, it was given to me, and I made the most of it.”

She does love the violin, but it was her parents who encouraged her to pick up an instrument in the first place, growing up 15 miles from New York City in Elizabeth, New Jersey.

“They were immigrants, and they wanted their children to have everything in education that they didn’t, or that they were not exposed to when they were younger. And so music was part of that,” she said.

Her older siblings — two sisters and one brother, who died when he was just 12 years old, before Vamos was born — all learned piano. Playing violin made her unique in her family, but being a skilled musician made her unique in general.

“I felt that music made me special, and I think that that was the driving force, that I didn’t want to just be like everybody else,” she said. “I wanted to do something that was different.”

By the time she was five, she decided that one day she would play better than Jascha Heifetz, a 20th-century violinist who is still regarded as one of the greatest of all time. Though today she shrugs and says she’s “still striving,” her music career has been nothing short of impressive: she studied violin in the Julliard Pre-College program, earned her undergraduate degree at the Julliard School under Mischa Mischakoff and Louis Persinger and went on to teach at nearly a dozen schools and university music departments. She has lived in Ohio, Kentucky, Illinois and Minnesota, and she has attended summer music festivals for years.

She has done much of this with her husband Roland, a conductor and violist instructor. They met at Julliard when Vamos was 16, and they married five years later. They have three sons: one is a professional cellist, one plays classical guitar and teaches music at an elementary school and one is a Realtor.

“Thank goodness for that,” she said of her non-musical son. “We like a little variety in the family.”

Today, Vamos and her husband live in Chicago, where they both teach private lessons as well as at the Chicago College of the Performing Arts at Roosevelt University and the Music Institute of Chicago, a prestigious high school for serious young musicians.

Though Vamos may once have aspired to be a famous performance artist, she has found her true passion in music instruction.

“I perform, but little because when you’re teaching, it’s more important that you’re there for your students all the time,” she said. “My family, my children came first, my students right next to them, and whatever I do for my own fulfillment as a musician is a side dish. It has to be.”

Part of her success as an instructor has been her dedication to her students, no matter where they are from. She has had students from Venezuela and Iceland, who traveled to the United States just to study under her.

Julimar Gonzales is one of those students. In 2013 she moved from her home in Venezuela to Chicago after sending a recording to Vamos, and she has been studying violin with her ever since; this summer Vamos invited Gonzales to attend the Bowdoin festival with her. Vamos believed that anyone could be a great musician, and she created a new home for Gonzales.

“She is like almost like family to me because she really cares,” said Gonzales. She remembers a few times when Vamos would invite her and other students to her home, where they would play for one another and give and get feedback. After, she would have desserts or other treats to share.

“I find not many teachers would do that, and it’s something that makes Mrs. Vamos even more special,” Gonzales said.

What motivates Vamos to foster such a close connection to her students, particularly those from overseas? Perhaps it’s in part that she recognizes her parents — their bravery and perseverance — in them.

Vamos recently traveled to Hungary and Ukraine with her grandchildren, in order to show them the places, then part of the Russian Empire, where their grandparents and great-grandparents came from. She retraced the steps of her father, in Kiev, and her mother, in Lviv.

Vamos’ parents were Jewish in the time of the Russian pogroms, she explained, when “they didn’t like Jews to live, but they also didn’t want Jews to leave.”

One of the most poignant parts of the trip for Vamos was the visit to the tiny town three hours away from Lviv, a town that lay right on a river, the border separating the Russian Empire from Austria. There were barracks on the border, and soldiers guarding it. Vamos’ mother, along with her mother and siblings, escaped over the river by pretending to be washing clothes. Eventually, one dangerous trip after another, they made it to the United States. “My mother never went back,” Vamos said.

They had settled in, but they were poor. Vamos’ mother dreamed of becoming a doctor, but her family couldn’t afford to send her to school. She worked while her brother was educated and became a cardiologist.

But, to Vamos, the amazing thing is that her mother never abandoned that dream completely.

“She went to school when she was 79, got her high school diploma,” Vamos said. “She was in college at the age of 82. She was a sophomore in college when she died.”

That persistence and value for education became their legacy, and Vamos instilled it in her children.

“What would grandma think?” she would ask her sons, and they would immediately be spurred into action.

“It had an influence on all of us,” Vamos said of her parents’ tireless work ethic, which, of course, allowed her to pursue violin with some of the best instructors available. “They weren’t born to have everything, and because they didn’t have everything, they appreciated it more and they worked harder and it meant something to them.”

She sees that same work ethic in her students, particularly in the international students. It’s a reciprocal relationship: she teaches them, but they enrich her life and the music community as a whole. Working with them, and always remembering her parents’ story, influences her philosophy on current immigration debates.

“We can’t comprehend — why are you afraid of an immigrant? We’re all immigrants here, or our parents were immigrants,” she said. She finds that many musicians are accepting and inclusive, due to the international nature of music.

“There are people who feel differently who are musicians, but that’s their right,” she added. “We honor the fact that somebody might feel differently.”

She’s no politician or activist, but she’s making a statement in her own way. And as long as she continues to play, to teach and inspire, others will carry on her message, too.

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