When Regina Spektor moved to the Bronx from Russia as a young child of 9, she could speak no English and her family was so poor, they could afford nothing, yet she carried with her a love of the piano and music.
“For me, the thing that I loved the most was playing the piano, so when we left [Russia] I was so afraid I would forget how to play, I would just find a little table or windowsill and I would just play my pieces,” she told ABC News before a recent set at New York City’s Le Poisson Rouge. “When you spend your life doing something like playing the piano and then you take that away, it’s so surreal.”
Her father, Ilya Spektor, said that, little by little, the family saved enough money to afford their first apartment.
“I was a photographer and, in six weeks, I found my first job in a big photo lab in Manhattan,” he said. “I opened a bank account. … I was a very, very happy person.”
On the subway one day, Ilya Spektor spotted a man carrying a violin case. The man also seemed to have an Eastern European accent. A conversation led to a visit and, eventually, Regina Spektor was introduced to Sonia Vargas, a piano teacher.
Vargas, a well-known professor who taught piano, took Spektor under her wing and trained her for years, at no cost. Spektor said Vargas’ husband also adopted her family as his own.
“I remember talking to Sonia,” Spektor said. “She said that there’s an old proverb that says that when a student is ready, a teacher appears. So she said that I must have been ready to study piano, and so that’s why she came into my life.”
“Immediately, how she played,” Vargas said. “You can tell the sound. The sound tell you whether the person loves the instrument, loves the music.”
Bella Spektor, Regina Spektor’s mother and a public school teacher, said the singer had always wanted a career in music.
“She never wanted to be famous,” Bella Spektor said. “She wanted to be a musician, even when she was absolutely very little. … She wanted to be a piano player.”
Much later, while playing her own music and selling a CD that she’d created, Regina Spektor caught the attention of a music producer. The rest is history, complete with concerts around the world and performance in front of the Obamas at the White House.
She said she greatly appreciated her parents, piano teachers and friends and family for helping her become the musician she is.
“Sometimes, I get really overwhelmed. … I’ve always been really amazed at the amount of incredible people that I’ve met in my life and amount of people that have so selflessly given to me,” she said. “I love the idea that if you are walking toward the world that the world will take some steps toward you.”
ABC News’ Catherine Cole and Tess Scott contributed to this story.