Playing A Violin With Three Strings
On Nov. 18, 1995, Itzhak Perlman, the violinist, came on stage to
give a concert at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center in New York
If you have ever been to a Perlman concert, you know that getting
on stage is no small achievement for him. He was stricken with
polio as a child, and so he has braces on both legs and walks with
the aid of two crutches. To see him walk across the stage one step
at a time, painfully and slowly, is an awesome sight.
He walks painfully, yet majestically, until he reaches his chair.
Then he sits down, slowly, puts his crutches on the floor, undoes
the clasps on his legs, tucks one foot back and extends the other
foot forward. Then he bends down and picks up the violin, puts it
under his chin, nods to the conductor and proceeds to
By now, the audience is used to this ritual. They sit quietly
while he makes his way across the stage to his chair. They
remain reverently silent while he undoes the clasps on his legs.
They wait until he is ready to play.
But this time, something went wrong. Just as he finished the first
few bars, one of the strings on his violin broke. You
could hear it snap - it went off like gunfire across the room.
There was no mistaking what that sound meant. There was no
mistaking what he had to do.
figured that he would have to get up, put on the clasps again,
pick up the crutches and limp his way off stage - to either find
another violin or else find another string for this
one. But he didn't. Instead, he waited a moment,
closed his eyes and then signaled the conductor to begin again.
The orchestra began, and he played from where he had left off. And
he played with such passion and such power and such purity as they
had never heard before.
Of course, anyone knows that it is impossible to play a symphonic
work with just three strings. I know that, and you know that, but
that night Itzhak Perlman refused to
You could see him modulating, changing, re-composing the piece in
his head. At one point, it sounded like he was de-tuning the
strings to get new sounds from them that they had never made
When he finished, there was an awesome silence in the room. And
then people rose and cheered. There was an extraordinary outburst
of applause from every corner of the auditorium. We were all on
our feet, screaming and cheering, doing everything we could to
show how much we appreciated what he had done.
He smiled, wiped the sweat from this brow, raised his bow to quiet
us, and then he said - not boastfully, but in a quiet, pensive,
reverent tone - "You know, sometimes it is the artist's task
to find out how much music you can still make with what you have
What a powerful line that is. It has stayed in my mind ever since
I heard it. And who knows? Perhaps that is the definition of life
- not just for artists but for all of us.
Here is a man who has prepared all his life to make music on a
violin of four strings, who, all of a sudden, in the middle of a
concert, finds himself with only three strings; so he makes music
with three strings, and the music he made that night with just
three strings was more beautiful, more sacred, more memorable,
than any that he had ever made before, when he had four strings.
So, perhaps our task in this shaky, fast-changing, bewildering
world in which we live is to make music, at first with all that we
have, and then, when that is no longer possible, to make music
with what we have left.