News | May 20, 2022

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Ukrainian cellist at FGCU pairs passion for music with jujitsu

Contributors: James Greco, Photography

Tetyana Pyatovolenko of FGCU’s Bower School of Music & the Arts likes to say she didn’t choose the cello. The cello chose her. When Pyatovolenko was just 10 years old, her parents enrolled her in piano lessons in Dnipro. The city was formerly called Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine’s fourth-largest with a million inhabitants on the Dnieper River in central Ukraine. But the piano didn’t come naturally to Pyatovolenko. The movement of the hands, the sound of the music itself—none of it spoke to her. “I hated it,” she admits.

But then, one day during her lessons, she had the chance to listen to a cello. The music instantly resonated with her. “How deep it was, how melodious, how harmonious,” Pyatovolenko says. “To hear somebody play so well and so profoundly – I just wanted to learn how to do it.” When her teacher asked, “Do you want to play?” Pyatovolenko immediately said yes. From the first moment she held the bow in her hand, she knew the cello was her instrument.

Photo shows FGCU faculty member
“I like to share my story – my feelings – through music,” Tetyana Pyatovolenko said.

There was just one hurdle to overcome: telling her parents. For weeks, Pyatovolenko practiced in secret at her music school until, one day, she was given a cello to take home. “It’s a big instrument, and I was a tiny kid,” she says. “People stared at me.” People still stare. In a restaurant recently, a gentleman approached her and said, “I’ve seen people take pets on a date, but I’ve never seen someone take a cello.”

By the time Pyatovolenko made it home to her family’s house – one built by her great-grandfather – she was terrified of what her parents would say. “It was the scariest moment of my life,” she remembers. “I was afraid they would yell at me and tell me I couldn’t do it.” But her parents weren’t angry. More than anything, they were surprised. Here was their daughter, a very independent little girl, practicing the cello in secret for weeks.

Her parents gave her their blessing, and the cello became her entire focus. Pyatovolenko went on to earn a scholarship at the music school, and at 18, she received a full ride to Messiah University in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, to study cello performance. After graduating, she received another full scholarship for her master’s in cello performance at Pennsylvania State University. She also has a master’s in public administration from the University of Michigan. Now 30, she plays in both symphonies and chamber music groups, and she was hired as the administrative specialist at FGCU’s Bower School in December.

“Tetyana is someone who understands the ins and outs of running a very busy department like ours from the stance of a professional musician,” says Krzysztof Biernacki, director of the Bower School. “She’s multilingual, she has a wonderful personality, she doesn’t get stressed out or thrown off balance easily, she can take a lot of pressure and doesn’t lose her cool. She’s a very interesting and accomplished young lady.”

Like so many Ukrainians, Pyatovolenko is deeply affected by the current conflict in her home country. Though her brother – a brilliant violinist who studied at the Kyiv Conservatory – left Kyiv with his family, he has had to stay in Ukraine. Men between the ages of 18 and 60 cannot leave the country because they might be called to fight. Pyatovolenko’s sister fled to Italy with her 2-year-old son, forced to leave her husband behind. And her mother stayed in Kyiv to care for her grandmother.

In April, Pyatovolenko hosted a benefit concert at FGCU to raise funds to help Ukraine. More than 100 people attended the concert in person and more than 150 watched the livestream of the event, including Pyatovolenko’s friends and family still in Ukraine. “I kept receiving messages throughout the concert about how moved they were to be part of the event while being thousands of miles away,” she says.

Photo shows FGCU faculty member
Tetyana Pyatovolenko is ranked No. 3 in the world through the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation.

During the performance, Pyatovolenko played selections of music from Beethoven, Shostakovich and Lysenko as well as the Ukrainian national anthem. She wore a sleeveless black gown that showed off the powerful musculature in her arms. She played with confidence, authority and strength. “Beautiful” is a word that often comes up when people describe her playing style, though it’s something Pyatovolenko has resisted. “For many years, I’ve been trying to avoid that word,” she says. “But now I think that’s where the music is coming from, a beautiful and deep place where I can express a lot of emotions.”

Pyatovolenko’s approach to music serves her well in her other passion: Brazilian jujitsu. While she came to the cello early, jujitsu is a more recent endeavor. She’s currently ranked No. 3 in the world through the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation and credits her trainer, Fábio da Silva, and team, Gracie Humaitá. “It’s a mystery to me how it just came so naturally,” she says. “It was the same as with the cello. The sport chose me.”

In Pyatovolenko’s jujitsu competitions, she brings a fighting style that’s reminiscent of her musical performances. “I’m very calm. I sustain my technique. People cannot break my grips. It’s the same with the music. I like sustaining the notes to show the beauty of the music.”

Her jujitsu skills are well-known at the Bower School, and her colleagues like to rib her good-naturedly. “We joke around that if anyone misbehaves, we just send them to Tetyana,” Biernacki says. “She can take anybody out in seconds.”

Pyatovolenko smiles at the suggestion. “With the cello, it’s very personal. I like to share my story – my feelings – through music,” she says. “But Jujitsu is the opposite. On the mat, I like to be a fighter.”

FGCU professors help create emotional display of support for Ukrainian colleague