On Itzhak and Toby Perlman’s mission to impact students

On Itzhak and Toby Perlman’s mission to impact students

Itzhak Perlman with his wife Toby Perlman and students of the Perlman Music Program
(Photo credit: Rod Millington)

Feature: Itzhak Perlman Plays it Forward in Florida
By Bill Deyoung
Creative Loafing Tampa Bay
December 28, 2017

For 17 days at the end of each year, the world’s greatest living concert violinist makes his home in Sarasota.

But Itzhak Perlman doesn’t leave New York behind to sit on a beach. It’s not a vacation. He comes here to teach young musicians during the Perlman Music Program Sarasota Winter Residency.

With a resume that includes 16 Grammys, four Emmys, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Kennedy Center Honor, the 72-year-old Israeli-American icon is always in demand for concert performances. He’s played for presidents, heads of state and the Queen of England.

The thing is, he loves working with students.

“When you teach somebody else, you teach yourself,” Perlman tells CL. “And I always tell the kids, never miss an opportunity to teach, on any level. Because it really helps you with your own music-making.”

Headquartered on Shelter Island, New York, the Perlman Music Program was founded 24 years ago by Perlman’s wife Toby, herself a Juilliard-trained violinist (they met as teenagers at music camp, and have been married for 51 years). It’s an intensive school for gifted, under-20 string players, featuring a world-class faculty and a friendly, nurturing and non-competitive environment — the opposite, Toby Perlman says, of most other music programs.

“As important as the music is, and as lucky as these kids are to be able to work with such stellar faculty — and a stellar peer group — community is as important to me,” she explains. “Part of our job is to set an example of how to operate in the world. Like telling the truth is a good idea, no matter what. And caring about your friend sitting next to you.”

The Sarasota series was added in 2003. “It’s a wonderful thing for the kids who are with us for part of the summer to come back in December for more brainwashing,” Toby Perlman laughs. “In the best sense of the word, where they’re again immersed in chamber music and working hard.”

“It’s good brainwashing,” adds her husband.

Violinist Sean Lee, a rising star in the classical world, is a former PMP student who now serves on the faculty. He confirms that it’s unique among music schools. “PMP really goes out of its way to avoid any impression of competition, so that the kids can really form friendships, feel comfortable and feel safe,” he says. “I think that’s one thing that makes the PMP community so special.”

“But of course, the sheer level of talent is really incredible. Combined with great, nurturing faculty members, that means that everyone’s just glad to be a part of it.”

Lee, of course, studied under Itzhak Perlman. “One of the great things about teaching is that you’ve got to think of what you can tell the student,” Perlman says. “If there’s a problem, how do you solve the problem? If there’s a music problem, what do you say about that to make them think more musically?

“Almost every lesson, I say to the student: You cannot play the violin any more. You have to now play music. You know how to play the violin.”

During the Sarasota Winter Residency, the public is invited to attend stop-and-start orchestra rehearsals, chorus rehearsals, master classes and recitals. Admission is free. You can sit in and watch Itzhak Perlman conduct the orchestra, and listen as he interacts with the young musicians — and the audience.

Events take place in an enormous, heated tent on the USF Sarasota-Manatee campus. The December 30 “Super Strings” concert features 54 specially selected Florida string students, ages 8-17, performing alongside PMP students under Perlman’s baton.

At the Sarasota Opera House, Perlman conducts the PMP String Orchestra’s “Celebration Concert” Thursday, January 4. This event also features the PMP Chorus, led by Patrick Romano.

The program, Perlman insists, was “Toby’s baby” from the beginning. “I was kind of looking, and saying ‘Hmm, interesting, very nice,’ but I was not in the original plan, unless she didn’t tell me.”

Toby: “Of course you were in the plan! You were the key to the plan.”

Itzhak: “I had no idea. I thought I was going to do a little teaching, and that was it. Then one thing led to another, and she asked me to maybe do some coaching with the orchestra … it evolved rather quickly and I was very happy to do it.”

Toby (to the reporter): “Let’s be honest. We would never, in a million years, be where we are, do what we do, none of it, without him.”

It’s not just his musical gift, she stresses, that makes him “the key to the plan.” It’s his humanity and his humility. “I have to say my husband’s biggest contribution is he sets an example of how to be in the world. And they see that. We don’t talk so much about this stuff; they just see it.”

Born in Tel Aviv in 1945, Itzhak Perlman first played the violin at the age of 3; a year later, he contracted polio and was never again able to walk without crutches.

He gave his first recital at age 10, and the United States, so Itzhak could begin studies at Juilliard. “That was my dream, to go to the States and to be an artist,” he remembers. “To be a professional violinist. It never occurred to me that people had doubts.”

For many years, “Every review had to describe how I walked on the stage with great difficulty, and that when I sat down, everything was forgotten.” Perlman’s rite of professional passage — his Carnegie Hall debut — occurred on March 5, 1963.

“After a while, when people got used to me and got used to the fact, they stopped mentioning it. And then I started to complain! ‘You should mention it to show an example for everybody else to see that people with disabilities don’t necessarily have to sit at home, or think about what is their talent?’ Rather than the fact that they have difficulty walking, or whatever it is.”

These days, he gets around on a motorized scooter. “Travel is difficult,” he sighs. “But once I get onstage, I have a good time.”

Even when he’s not teaching, he’s thinking about teaching. About applying the many things he learned, on his own journey, to the next prodigy in line.

He maintains he’s still learning — every day, ever rehearsal. “You never stop, because if you stop, you go backwards. If you stop, it becomes like a carbon copy. You might as well just say ‘For tonight’s concert, here is my CD, that’s the way I play it, and I’m going home.’”

Perlman Music Program Concerts
December 30 (USF Sarasota-Manatee) & January 4 (Sarasota Opera House)
More info: www.perlmanmusicprogramsuncoast.org

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