Talk Story: Tomasa Irek

Classical music is an international language, as is love. So when Tomasa Irek, an immigrant from El Salvador, met her future husband Anton Irek, a Croatian master pianist, on the beach of Santa Monica, her heart filled with affection for him.

Not able to speak one word of English, she read images Anton drew for her in the sand. He taught her to play piano and they fell in love.

Her life changed on that day and the two of them built a classical music empire, taught hundreds of piano students — including the Jackson family — at their school in California and raised a family together.

When they moved to Kauai in 2003, Anton fell in love with the island, the aloha and the people.

Sixty-four-year-old Tomasa Irek, now widowed two years, still loves classical music. At her home studio, teaches the language of classical music to those who wish to be inspired by it.

Why did you decide to stay in the United States instead of going back to El Salvador?

I was a teacher, but not a music teacher. I had two loves. I got my major in clothing design in El Salvador. I taught pattern design in El Salvador.

I also loved music. But I wasn’t very serious about it. I would make more making clothes than music. I had to pick one skill. I chose design. But I still want to be a designer. I want to share that with the kids of Kauai.

So on vacation, I came to California in 1978. But during that time in 1979, when I was getting ready to go back, the revolution opened the civil war in El Salvador and I made a decision to stay.

It would have been easy for me to go back, but it would not have been easy to get out. And being the oldest of the family, I had to make a decision. I stayed. I made the best decision to stay.

I lost family, I lost my brother, I lost everything. The revolution lasted seven years. A long time.

Can you tell us what you mean when you say “you lost everything?” Can you describe what the revolution was like for someone who has never experienced that?

Fighting civilians against the government. In other words, the poor against the rich. It was like swimming in the lake and you cannot breathe because you get a little bit higher and they put you down.

I’m not into politics like my husband is, but we care about that. His country went into a revolution, too. Croatia. No one recognized Croatia. Only Yugoslavia. He went on a 44-day hunger strike.

Our country was poor. The first thing they did was kill teachers, because they have to stop the knowledge. We lost all the civilians who were teachers. This way they cut the education.

Poor against rich. How can you get rich? It was impossible. There was no middle class. That’s why they started the revolution.

But unfortunately, the revolutionaries they called communists. That’s bad because it wasn’t that they were communist. It was only the communist government that could help them. The other government are for the rich. They had no choice.

During that time, they were killing. My brother was in his first year in college. He got killed in his first year. They did not have much arms to fight. They killed a lot of young people because those were the ones that were fighting in the beginning. Later on, it became confusing. They would take your uniform and put it on and they wouldn’t know who was fighting who.

One time, they came with a list, because they thought my parents were revolutionaries. They are not revolutionaries. They are poor people fighting for the bread.

There were two houses. Thank God my parents did not go that day. There were 50 people killed that day.

That was the revolution.

How did you meet your husband and your business partner?

I was walking on the Santa Monica beach and this is where I met my husband. He told me what he is. I was so excited, because I do love classical music.

We were dating and I started taking piano lessons from him. I did not speak English and he did not speak Español. But music is an international language. You don’t need to speak the language of your parents, but you know the language of love through music. And really that’s how we fell in love. Through the love of classical music. It just changed my life.

He was a professor, majored in piano. He was teaching piano in Vienna. He was born in Croatia, married in Croatia and he emigrated to Canada and then he emigrated to California and that’s where I met him.

When I met him, he was living in Tarzana. We were neighbors with the Jackson family. That’s why all the Jackson family went through our school.

In 1982, we came to Kauai on our honeymoon. My husband got crazy about Kauai. I only had three years in California. He wanted to stay on the island. I’ve never been married before. He was my first husband. And when he came here, he loved this island. He wanted to live here.

He passed in Aug. 19, 2014, on the day of our wedding anniversary.

Before he passed he told me, don’t leave the island. Continue teaching on the Kauai.

Everywhere I drove, he always said, “Look how lucky we are.” It’s unbelievable. He loved it here.

I can’t ever leave this place. His wants his bones to live here and I’m going to leave mine right there, too.

What’s the best way to teach piano students?

My husband taught me how to teach. That’s why I learn the best method to teach, because he was teaching teachers.

In Canada he was teaching teachers how to teach music. So he changed my life. I love music. Now I’ve been teaching music for many years.

Here (Anton) was retired, but I still continued music because children ask him, “Where are you?” and we see that the kids need it — a good teacher. They are so limited. Nothing is better than learning how to read music and to start right from the root. The root is classical music and that makes the difference.

That’s why I learned the best method to teach because of him. In California, we had it as a business. On Kauai, we had it just for fun for the kids.

My students are my second family. They accept me for the way I am and I accept them with all my open heart and love to give everything to them. They respond to me very well.

You can never count with students. I lose students when they leave the island. You cannot have a lot of students. I teach three days a week. Sometimes, students come for three months or six months. I’m flexible. I deal with students who are more serious. That’s why I give free trial periods. During the free trial periods, I can see if they have time to practice, if their parents are helping them, if they are coming on time and all those things. When I decide to accept them, I decide how much I will charge for the lesson.

Do you think there is a correlation between listening to classical music and higher IQs?

Where I’m from, we never heard classical music. We had tropical music. I don’t know how God put in me this gift that I can teach and change the direction in so many kids. The more I look into it, the more I love what I do.

I read an article in the Los Angeles Times entitled, “Will piano lessons make my child smarter?” And it said that new studies “suggest that playing music and even just listening may improve learning, memory, logic and general creativity.”

I do believe that classical music has ability to make children smarter. When I was pregnant — I was 41 when I had my only child — and when I would get ready, I would have a jewelry box with classical music playing and put it by my tummy.

So when he was born, one day he was crying and crying and I went to get the box. I put it next to him and he stopped crying. So that means, he could listen while he was inside.

God makes us everyone likes music and talents. How much talent depends on our genes.

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