Making Music With Whatever is Left
Recently, I heard a story about a famous Israeli born violinist named Itzhak Perlman. I remember Perlman from my childhood—he was the violinist on Sesame Street when I was 6 years old. He played with “Placido Flamingo” and “Oscar the Grouch,” and taught me about kindness and determination and beauty. He was incredibly talented. He also had polio as a child, so he walked with leg braces and two metal crutches under his arms. (Click the title here to watch Perlman’s “Easy and Hard” video from Sesame Street).
The story I heard is of a time in 1995 when Perlman appeared at the Lincoln Center. As was customary, he walked out across the stage, slowly as walking was a challenge, with his braces and and crutches, to sit at the center. This night, he sat down and began to play as usual. Within only a few bars, though, one of his strings broke. There was an audible snap and no mistaking what had happened.
The audience waited, anticipating his need to resume his braces and crutches to make his way back across the stage and retrieve another violin. Instead, Perlman sat very still. He waited a moment with eyes closed, then he nodded to the conductor to begin again.
Then, somehow, Perlman picked up where he’d left off, playing with only 3 strings. It was clear that he was modulating, recomposing the piece to accommodate for the missing string, yet his music was, as ever, filled with passion and purity.
When he finished, and the crowd finally stilled from their applause, Perlman stood and wiped the sweat from his brow. He turned to the audience and spoke, not boastfully, but with quiet reverence. “You know,” he said, “sometimes it is the artist’s task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left.”
I’m not sure this story is entirely true, but I don’t think it really matters. Isn’t this, perhaps, the best and only task of each of us? How much music can any one of still make—how much beauty, how much tenderness, how much joy, how much of the best of humanity—with what we have left?
This week, I watched my friend’s children get ready to start a new school year without her. My friend Victoria, who died last fall, knew how to make beauty and music with whatever was left, even when what was left was the hardest of hard. Now I watch as her family does the same. I watch them modulating and recomposing their lives, with 3, rather than 4 strings. It’s a kind of courage that breaks my heart and fills it, like an incredible piece of music that refuses not to be played.
So then, I’m reminded, this is what it means to live past the time when we believe we must have all the right tools, all the right resources, all the right body parts, all the right people, to keep on living, to keep on making beauty and tenderness, and music.
I take a deep breath, wipe the sweat from my brow and the tears from my eyes. I pick up where I left off. I remember, it’s the task I’m made for.
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