Minnesota Sounds and Voices: Helina Leino Pakola's singing stringsby Dan Olson, Minnesota Public Radio
EDINA, Minn. — Helina Leino Pakola was a talented violinist headed for the concert stage in her native Finland. And then life threw her a curve ball.
"My career was destroyed by falling in love with a man!" she laughs.
The man in Pakola's life brought her to Virginia, Minn., on a wintry January day in 1962 and she still remembers her reaction. Even by Finnish standards Virginia seemed like a polar ice cap.
"I never forget my feeling," she says. "It snowed, and the snow drifts were as high as this room, and I thought, 'gosh, I entered the North Pole."
Still, she stayed. And she's taught a couple generations of young Minnesota musicians, first on the Iron Range and then in the Twin Cities.
Pakola is a survivor, literally. She and her identical twin sister were born two months premature.
"I had to fight so hard, even to be born. They didn't expect me. They didn't know I was coming," she says.
The daughters went to prestigious music schools, studied with masters, the oldest daughter played with the Helsinki symphony.
Living in Virginia, Pakola was a founder of the Mesabi Community Orchestra and a violinist with the Duluth symphony.
She and her twin sister started a performing arts school there in 1986.
When her husband died, Pakola moved to the Twin Cities in 1997 and continued teaching music, dance and singing.
Some of her students may find their way to the concert hall, but she says that's not the mission.
"Bring up beautiful people, bring up people that understand art, understand music that will support the Minnesota Orchestra or will support the museums," she says. "That's what I'm after."
Pakola's students range from 4 years old to 18. Her youngest students hold miniature violins as she rehearses them for a recital. And Glenn Thomas says Pakola tells the students, including his 13 year old daughter Mabel, they have to practice every day.
"She's firm with them, she's direct, and she demands a lot," he says. "They respect that and they give her a lot."
Pakola says she's old school in that regard: "Oh, I only think there's one way to live your life. You have to demand. From yourself as well as anyone else."
However, she's made adjustments. As a student Pakola practiced three hours a day, even in summer. Now she asks her students to practice a half-hour each day in recognition of all their other activities.
Some of Pakola's students are in her traveling music group called The Singing Strings. They've performed all over the country, including a visit to the White House in 1994.
Altogether Pakola guesses she's taught hundreds of young people over the years and declares there's not been a clinker among them.
"I haven't yet had a student that has gone under my expectations," she says.
Now, current and former members of Pakola's Singing Strings will perform a reunion concert Friday evening in Virginia, at Kaleva Hall, and Sunday afternoon at the The Minnesota Discovery Center near Chisholm.
Play the audio above to hear the full interview with Helina Leino Pakola.
- All Things Considered, 06/22/2012, 5:52 p.m.