LA Review of Books

The Journey of a Musical Émigré: On Inna Faliks’s “Weight in the Fingertips”

By Herb Randall
March 18, 2024

“I KNEW I was a musician long before I knew I was Jewish, Ukrainian, or Soviet.” So begins the captivating memoir Weight in the Fingertips: A Musical Odyssey from Soviet Ukraine to the World Stage (2023) by Inna Faliks, a distinguished concert pianist and now a music professor at UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music. Her journey from child musical prodigy in Soviet Ukraine to an émigré artist at the highest levels of her profession takes several surprising twists, described in prose alternating between thoughtful and delightfully breezy but always deeply wise in its contemplation of a life spent pursuing an individual musical voice true to the disparate components of her identity.

Memories of Faliks’s upbringing in the Odessa of the 1980s filter through nostalgia about an “ideal childhood” and the naivete of a precocious wunderkind whose time is mostly spent practicing at the keys. Despite later realizations of the antisemitism and other injustices of the Soviet system, Faliks has a special fondness for the Odessa of her childhood, a city that so often casts a spell upon the many members of its far-flung diaspora. It is there, in the shadow of the city’s famous opera theatre, that Faliks begins her musical training and career, while also discovering a lifelong love of literature, particularly Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita (1967).

Born in Ukraine but baptized in the totemic works of Russian culture, Jewish by ethnicity but not practice, Faliks reflects often on her conflicted sense of identity via her writing and music-making. Her sense of belonging (and not belonging) manifests while probing for a unique musical identity of her own:

How the arm was used, the body was centered, the shoulders lined up—all changed the sound and the expressive intent. In a performance, musical simplicity and directness were more moving than fanciful, histrionic pyrotechnics, giving sense of continuity and inevitability. I had been trained as a virtuoso—and [my instructor] was helping me use this technical confidence to channel the elegance and depth of the music. She was showing me that the sound I could coax from the piano was specifically mine—like my own voice. The voice had to speak honestly, naturally.

Faliks’s relentless practice schedule, intense training, and performance in competitions force her to grapple with the dichotomy that faces all musicians who take their art seriously: head versus heart. The most satisfyingly accurate performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations might astonish with its perfection in rendering every marking of the score but still leave the audience cold, while some of the most emotionally powerful music might involve little more than a punk band’s three power chords on an amped-up guitar, accompanied by a mighty scream. Equilibrium between these two extremes is the musician’s elusive Zen.

The quest to fuse technical brilliance with emotional depth drives Faliks’s formal education, from Europe to the United States, before she eventually returns to Europe. Like an apostolic succession of priesthoods, she recounts the series of piano teachers who ordained her, an unbroken line connecting generations of famous pianists and composers. This sort of authority counts for much in the elite world of professional musicianship, where the pupil’s teacher may matter just as much as his or her talent when it comes to competitions or securing a position. As she matures as both a performer and an adult who marries young (and disastrously), trying to balance a grueling practice schedule with domestic and social life, Faliks comes to realize that her instructors both fostered and sometimes frustrated her music-making. Finding her own musical voice requires her to choose the best elements from these mentors while digging deeply into her own rich experiences of joy, love, and tragedy to breathe life into her performances.

To the facets of identity that Faliks lists when asked “where are you from?” she adds the reality of being a young woman facing the inherent sexism—and occasional bullying—of the old guard of male critics, teachers, composers, and celebrity artists that dominates the industry. She recounts an incident when she was 18 and the teacher of a master class she was attending leered over her shoulder and down her shirt while playing a piece that required extreme dexterity—and that, coincidently, also had the effect of accentuating the breasts of female artists. “The best revenge is living well,” she writes,

so instead of reporting this incident and every other similar incident throughout my career—as I perhaps should have—I simply chose to forge on. It has never been about the discomfort and fear of speaking out in the treacherous, male-dominated […] field of classical music. For a long time, I simply didn’t know that speaking out was a choice.

Today, many victims of such abuse have come to understand that they do have this choice and perhaps more power than they once did to bring offenders’ misdeeds to light and break the cycle of predation. Much progress still must be made in the rarefied world that Faliks inhabits, as witnessed only this spring when the renowned conductor John Eliot Gardiner was forced to withdraw from an opera tour after assaulting a young singer who vexed him by exiting the stage on the wrong side. However belatedly, the idea that such musical “geniuses” are untouchable is finally being challenged.

Faliks cleverly adopts the musical device of the interlude several times throughout Weight in the Fingertips, momentarily pausing or shifting her narrative with beautifully descriptive essays that focus on specific musical pieces or artists that have touched her deeply. One of the most affecting of these interludes is devoted to Clara Wieck-Schumann, a rare female composer in the first half of the 19th century. Married to the more famous Robert Schumann, she abandoned her own promising career to support her husband’s. Yet despite her admiration for Wieck-Schumann’s music and its inspiration for the women who would forge ahead as composers after her time, Faliks conveys a sadness when performing the woman’s music, recognizing that, like others of that time and place, Wieck-Schumann expressed troubling antisemitic views and disparaged the works of female composers. “Not all great artists have the opportunity, the capability, the historical circumstances to see past the assumptions of their time,” Faliks writes, “as much as we’d like to view them as perfect heroes.”

This nuanced appreciation for the fact that timeless art can come from flawed individuals is a lesson Faliks clearly applies to her own artistic progression, taking the best of what she can from her various instructors to strengthen her own voice. Having found in that voice a sense of adventure, and an openness to creating innovative interdisciplinary programs, such as her pairing of piano performances with poetry readings, she naturally turns her love of music towards fostering the success of tomorrow’s classical musicians. Her first official university-level teaching position was at Northeastern Illinois University, but fortunately for the classical music community of Los Angeles, she applied for a position as tenured professor of piano at UCLA in 2012, where she has taught ever since.

Faliks looks forward to the future of music while describing a tour she takes through China in 2019. She is greeted by enthusiastic crowds, showered with honorary degrees, and besieged by students eager to learn. Her vivid, colorful descriptions fascinate throughout, although the reader might wish for a deeper consideration of why classical music seems so vital in contemporary China. Why do crowds of all ages and incomes flock to see performances there while American orchestras struggle to fill seats and coffers, resorting to gimmicks to court a younger audience and relentless philanthropic appeals to stay afloat? Faliks draws comparisons to the elevated role of artists in the Soviet culture of her youth, and the expectation of dedicated practice and competition that underpinned it. Whatever the reason for the fascination about classical music in China, one must admire Faliks’s advocacy for the many young Asian musicians who come to the United States to continue their studies and build their careers. She warns against the stereotype often expressed by critics that non-Western musicians are too in thrall to technique, feeling that performers of any background must be given permission by their instructors to feel, and to express that emotion in their music. Regardless, it is encouraging that an educator and performer of her stature is so optimistic about the future of classical music, at a time when that feeling is not widely shared.

Weight in the Fingertips ends appropriately with a somber reflection on the current war in Ukraine. The poignancy of her questions is shared by many in, and formerly of, that country: “Did I feel Ukrainian? What did this mean to me? Suddenly everyone wanted to know, and I had no idea how to answer. I have always dreamed of going back to beautiful, elegant, funny, gritty, and culturally bubbling Odessa to perform. But I have never been back.” Even for an émigré like Faliks, who long ago left Ukraine behind for a new life that afforded her nearly limitless possibilities to grow into an esteemed professional artist, the land of her childhood still exerts a profound claim on her heart.

Today, despite the tragic war that rages there, the neo-baroque confection of the Odesa Opera and Ballet Theatre, where one can still hear the sounds of student rehearsals while strolling through the surrounding gardens, stands ready to welcome home the prodigy who traveled the world, performing her art and fostering the next generation of classical music’s vanguard. After reading Weight in the Fingertips, the reader can only wish for that long-delayed reunion in a happier, peaceful time.



  1. La Campanella, Paganini - Liszt Inna Faliks 4:53
  2. Rzewski "The People United Shall Never Be Defeated" (excerpt, improvised cadenza) Inna Faliks 8:36
  3. Beethoven Eroica Variations Inna Faliks 9:59
  4. Gershwin: Prelude 3 in E-flat Minor Inna Faliks 1:25
  5. Mozart Piano Concerto #20 - II Inna Faliks with Chamber Orchestra of St. Matthews 10:27
  6. Gaspard de la Nuit (1908) : Scarbo - Ravel Inna Faliks 9:07
  7. Sirota by Lev 'Ljova' Zhurbin Inna Faliks 7:45