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Young Ukrainian Masters Music and Computers, By Ear

Meet a young Ukrainian living in the Washington, D.C. area, who faced some special challenges in his life before becoming an accomplished musician and computer specialist.

These days Victor Tsaran, a slight, boyish-looking man of thirty, spends his evenings performing in coffee houses and other venues in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington. His day job is as a consultant in a small computer company that advises government agencies and private companies how to make websites and software applications accessible for people with disabilities.

“If I had a choice, I would make music the first profession in my life,” Victor says. “But you know how it goes with music, you don't want to risk… I guess if I would be a street musician, maybe that would be the only choice, but since now I've got computers, I know that I can earn money doing something else, so therefore music at this point is more for self-enjoyment.”

The roots of Victor Tsaran's music are in his native Ukraine. Victor's early years were not easy, but he talks about them in a very matter-of-fact way. His parents abandoned him when he was 2, and a cataract operation at age 5 left him totally blind. Until he was adopted by a couple from Western Ukraine at age 13, he lived in a Russian-speaking boarding school in Eastern Ukraine. “I was studying in this school for the blind, and the thing is, it's a so-called inclusive education,” he says. “Basically it's a school that has a dormitory, and we have classes, and we sleep there, and it's all just one big building and it serves all purposes. During vacations, for example, I would go to some camps, you know. The school had some dedicated teachers who would stay with us orphans during the winter holidays, and like that.”

After his eye surgery, Victor began playing the bayan, an accordion-like instrument that has buttons instead of keys on the right side. Then when he was twelve someone showed him a few chords on a guitar, and his interest in music really took off. “When I was studying the bayan I had to learn Braille music, because you know there is also Braille notation for music. And that's what I used to learn my notes,” he says. “That's what I used to write all the homework. But somehow when I started to play guitar, that's when I really started to rely more and more on my ear. In a way I distanced myself from real music literacy, because I felt, like, my ears are really good enough to do what I need to do, so I don't really need to worry about notation anymore.”

As a teenager, Victor Tsaran says, he wanted to imitate all the artists and groups that he listened to on records, so he played mostly rock. After he moved with his adoptive parents to Lviv, a city in Western Ukraine, he joined a succession of well-known bands and performed at concerts and festivals. At the same time, he enrolled in Lviv University to study philosophy. In his second year at the university, he received a scholarship to attend the Overbrook School for the Blind in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He says this first trip to the United States changed his life.

“Once I came here to the States in 1994, it was my first encounter with a computer. I never really touched a keyboard before,” Victor says. “They were regular computers, the only exception was they used speech synthesizers to give you feedback. I had never actually touched a keyboard before. For the first time in my life I saw all these computers, and I got so excited about it, I said, okay, I'm going to switch to computer science from now on!”

The Overbrook School changed Victor Tsaran's life in another way, as well. He met a partially sighted fellow student from Poland, Karolina, who eventually became his wife. When Mr. Tsaran returned home to Ukraine two years later, he established the first computer center for the blind in Lviv. “But meantime I already had some other ambitious plans,” he says. “I thought that I definitely had to go back to the States a get a formal computer science degree, if I really wanted to do something serious with computers.”

Mr. Tsaran received a scholarship from the Soros Foundation, and came back to the United States in 1997. In due course, he received his bachelor's degree in computer sciences from Temple University in Philadelphia. While there, a small event had a big impact on his development as a musician. Somebody gave him a compact disc of famed Bossa Nova guitarist Astrud Gilberto. “I really got interested, because I liked the rhythm, I liked the melodies, I loved the, you know, complex harmonies,” he says. “It just, well, fell into my ear, if I can say it this way.”

The Bossa Nova influence is now an integral part of the music Victor Tsaran composes and performs, which he characterizes as soft jazz. And music is a big part of his plans for the future. “I'm hoping to eventually move from working for somebody to establishing my own business,” he says. “ It's probably going to be something connected with accessibility. And if I will be able to earn enough money to do things that I like to do, then probably music is going to be my first choice.”