Do you remember who you wanted to be when you were 9 years old? Superman? Barbie? I’m not sure what age bracket you fall in so I’ll leave it at that. Honestly, I don’t even know who kids my own age wanted to be. I was already swimming around “under the sea” with my violin. I was too busy to wonder who the kids “on land” liked. But I DEFINITELY knew who I wanted to be. I wanted to be Itzhak Perlman, perhaps the most accomplished violinist of our time. Please tell me you’ve heard of him. Even if not, you’ve definitely heard him play if you ever watched Schindler’s List. My awesome early violin teacher (Shout out to Beth Elliott ❤ ) lent me a VHS of him playing a concert when I was 9, and I was hooked. Unfortunately YouTube and iTunes didn’t exist, but I scrounged around to borrow CDs of him whenever I could.
My fixation sparked a quest to figure out how to be just like him. Obviously, step 1 was to go to Juilliard. I knew he taught violin there. When I was 10, I looked up their audition requirements and made a list of all the pieces I needed to learn to audition. I checked them off one by one as the years passed. Step 2 was to go to a real concert and hear him in person. Mr. Perlman finally scheduled a concert in our area when I was 13-ish. He sells out everywhere, but my middle school violin teacher came to the rescue (thanks, Yuliya Smead! ❤ ). Somehow Mom bought 2 tickets, and I was beyond myself with excitement. Until he canceled the concert. He’d experienced a death in the family so it was impossible to be angry. But I knew I probably wouldn’t see him again unless I left Wisconsin (very rarely do famous classical violinists book tour stops there).
Fast-forward to my time at Eastman. ( It’s a rival school to Juilliard.) When I was 16, I’d found an Eastman professor whom I admired so much that I had to learn from him, whatever it cost. But I hoped I’d still find a way to Itzhak Perlman, too. Sure enough, he made a visit during my freshman year. That concert made much more sense than the Wisconsin one since Eastman is such a well-known music school. My dream would come true this time for sure! Nope. His tickets started at $90. The box office workers barely concealed their contempt for all my questions. Was there a student rate? No. What about rush tickets? No. Could I hang around just in case someone no-showed? The lady’s glare told me it was time to go. Insult was added to my injury since Mr. Perlman performed in Kodak Theater. I played school orchestra rehearsals there every single day, and concerts once a month too. Now he was on that very stage, shining under the same warm golden stage lights, while I was shivering in the cold marble hall outside. The marble was sound-proof.
Seven years later, I live in San Jose. Can you guess who just played with the San Francisco Symphony? Can you guess who went? Yes and Yes!!! This was perhaps one of the most ill-advised gambles we’ve made so far, but I just HAD to go. I’d known about the concert since last fall, and been saving and planning ever since. You’d think the epilepsy explosion would have dissuaded me, but no. I didn’t care how much medication, blood tests, whatever. I was going to get better by May so I could go. A semi-unbalanced obsession with that concert tantalized – but probably also motivated – me as I fought through another brutal wave of recovery. Discovering that we’d reached the end of the medication road crushed some goals for me. But I was going to get to that concert somehow. Playing my own concerts got taken from me, but there was no way that Perlman performance was going anywhere. I didn’t even care how many seizures I might have right as Ivan rolled my travel chair into the concert hall. Itzhak or bust!
So what happened?? Yes, I had a regrettably large number of seizures in the lobby, yes Ivan gave me the rescue drug, and yes, Ivan wanted us to go home. I didn’t care. 16 years of waiting was enough. An usher helped Ivan wheel me into my handicap spot and the lights went down. Mr. Perlman rolled out – in a wheelchair. I knew he had health problems throughout his life, but I wasn’t sure how often he performed in a wheelchair. His vulnerable entrance sent shivers down my spine given how hard I’d struggled just to get in the hall that afternoon. Mr. Perlman’s first piece was the perfection I’d imagined it would be. And then my heart skipped a giant beat. He was conducting the second piece himself, but I’d assumed he would stay in his chair. Not so. He turned to the regular conducting podium. That podium was almost four feet high, complete with large steps to reach the music stand on top. Mr. Perlman dragged himself upright so unsteadily that I wondered if he’d fall then and there. Orchestra members flinched…and I think everyone in the audience wanted someone, anyone to lend him a hand. Except for Mr. Perlman, apparently. He grabbed a pair of crutches before stubbornly twisting, wobbling, and hopping his way upward. There was a final, dangerous sway even as he sat down in the chair. After a cursory bow to acknowledge thunderous applause for his unprecedented climb, he raised his hands and began milking a marvelous orchestral performance. I only had the strength to stay a few more minutes but I’d seen enough. My Superman is super in more ways than one. I’ve never felt more inspired in my entire life.
PS. It’s significant that my first performance as a soloist with a grown-up orchestra was the theme from Schindler’s List. I think I was 12 or 13 at the time, and I remember listening to Perlman over and over again as I practiced. Since then I’ve lost track of the number of times I performed that piece…with or without an orchestra. If you’re curious, you can check out this video of me and Ivan performing a contemporary version just a few months before the accident. Throughout the years I’ve always listened to recordings from my rehearsals and performances so I could compare them to, well…Perlman. Ya gotta keep learning from the best, right?