Aside from a three-year stint as a civil engineer in Moscow, Vladimir Fridman crows that he’s never worked a day in his life.
“After three years I told my boss I wanted to be a full-time musician. He told me, like a father, ‘That’s a stupid thing to do,’” says the Gaithersburg-based master guitarist, 63, who now teaches and performs throughout the DMV region and in Europe. “But I did it. And I never regretted it. I never worked a single second in my life after I stopped being an engineer. I’m always doing what I want.”
These days that means more teaching and less performing due to COVID-19 closures. Fridman teaches guitar — classical, jazz, folk, tango, you name it — to about five students a day, previously in his home studio in the Quince Orchard neighborhood, but now online. His students can be as young as 6, but they must demonstrate enough finger strength to hold down guitar strings and sit still and listen for 30 minutes. His curriculum for older students — teens and adults —includes classical repertory, jazz, klezmer, pop, improvisation, tango and Latin and Russian music.
As a child in the Soviet Union, Fridman became enamored with mameloshen — Yiddish, the mother tongue — from hearing the few words and phrases his grandparents and parents spoke.
“My mom was a very good singer, and she often was humming Yiddish songs — my favorite was ‘Afn Pripetchik’ [about a boy learning the Hebrew alphabet] — and I loved those melodies and taught myself to play them from memory,” he says. Beyond those warm memories, Fridman didn’t have many other Jewish experiences in the Soviet Union, save for a visit to a synagogue a few times with friends.
“Many parents didn’t want the kids to show that they are Jewish because it could have some consequence,” he says. “I never really felt that I was oppressed — except that one time I was beaten in my fine arts summer camp because I was Jewish. Most of the time, I never felt any troubles.”
After studying engineering in college, he did his required three years of state-mandated engineering work, while practicing guitar daily before and after his job.
He quit the day job as soon as he could and built a successful career playing both solo and in ensembles, at home and abroad.
By the 1990s, though, Fridman and his family — including wife, Natasha, and their then-teenage son — decided to emigrate.
“At the time was the Chechnya war and my son was 14,” he says, letting the fear of seeing his only child drafted go unspoken. “Both my wife and I wanted to try something else. In Russia our life wasn’t so bad at all. I had a manager, I was touring with a group to Germany and pretty successful [as a musician], but life [in the former Soviet Union] was pretty drab and gloomy.”
That is, until one cold morning, when Fridman received a phone call. “I had won the green card lottery. We couldn’t believe it …. We didn’t think too long about it … it was a new opportunity.”
In 1998, the family left Moscow for Gaithersburg, joining some friends. Natasha had no difficulty finding a job in her field as a computer programmer, while Fridman began re-building his career, gigging with groups, playing weddings and b’nai mitzvah, piano bars and senior homes.
Pre-COVID-19, his evening and weekend schedule was filled with performances and tours. He is sought after for his varied and eclectic repertory, playing classics, Argentinian tango, klezmer, jazz, Russian folk, his own compositions and the American songbook as a soloist.
He also has two regular bands, Music Pilgrim Trio, featuring clarinetist Seth Kibel and bassist Bob Abbott, and TransAtlantic Duo, with fellow Russian ex-pat Alexander Paperny.
These days Fridman works with Yiddish scholar and translator Miriam Isaacs to learn the language. They have collaborated on lectures annotated with music, and most recently on “A Yiddish Song and Its Story,” a YouTube series that explains a different song in each episode, including “Afn Pripetchik.”
This video features illustrations by the musician’s 100-year-old uncle, Leonid Schvartsman, a well-known cartoon animator in Russia who, even with shaking hands, was inspired to draw again after hearing his nephew sing.
“Music makes us feel that we’re not alone in this world,” Fridman says. “Music participates as a friend who shares your mood. You hear music, and it touches you, then at least one other person in the world feels like you.”