Conversation and Q&A with Violinist Itzhak Perlman

June 7, 2023, 2:42 PM · NEW YORK - With or without his violin, Itzhak Perlman is a master of the stage. On May 24 he spoke with wit and wisdom about his stunning life and career as a concert violinist and pedagogue, sharing his experience and advice with the participants at the Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at The Juilliard School.

Speaking in an interview at Paul Hall with Symposium director Brian Lewis, Perlman also described his experience with his former teacher, the late Juilliard violin pedagogue Dorothy DeLay, who remains an important presence at the Symposium that bears her name.

Itzhak Perlman Brian Lewis
Itzhak Perlman and Brian Lewis.

In fact, it was her teaching that most informed his own, he said.

"She always asked me what I thought and never told me what to do - and I hated that!" Perlman said. "She made me think a lot - I didn't like it because had to work more. But as much as I didn't like it, this is the way I teach now."

Perlman, 77, first gained recognition in the United States when he appeared on the Ed Sullivan show as a teenager - some 60 years ago. He made his Carnegie Hall debut in 1963 at age 18, and he went on to perform as a soloist with nearly every major orchestra across the globe. He has won four Emmy Awards, 16 Grammy Awards, and the 2008 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, as well as Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. Lately he has been performing a new multi-media show called "An Evening with Itzhak Perlman," which features not only Perlman's playing, but also videos, photos and talking from the stage.

Perlman came to the U.S. from Israel to study at Juilliard with the great pedagogue Ivan Galamian - who sent his then-assistant, Dorothy DeLay, to meet the young man. Perlman recalled that first meeting: at the time, he did not yet know the language. He was staying at a "horrible hotel," and DeLay showed up wearing a lamb's wool coat with a fur collar. He played her some Mendelssohn, and when he was through, the translation he got was that "she kind of liked it."

Of course, DeLay was to go on to be one of the most sought-after violin teachers in the world, teaching not only Perlman but violinists such as Midori, Sarah Chang, Chee Yun, Philippe Quint, Frank Almond, Anne Akiko Meyers... the list is long. Brian Lewis, who was conducting this interview, was once DeLay's assistant.

Before all that, Perlman studied with both DeLay and Galamian.

Perlman said he learned much from Galamian, but "if I wanted to try something new or unusual, I would bring it to DeLay." He related an amusing story about Galamian's reaction, when Perlman played him Alban Berg's Violin Concerto. The Berg is a rather atonal, 12-tone-inspired work that has a few musical references to church hymns, including a Bach Chorale entitled, "Es ist genug," or "It Is Enough" - or as Perlman translated, "I've had enough!" Perlman said that when he reached this point in the piece, Galamian barked, "Listen to the composer - Stop!"

He said that both teachers taught the same basic violin technique, including the Franco-Belgian bow hold.

"For Galamian, I was scared stiff," Perlman said. "With DeLay I never practiced - I knew no matter how badly I played, she'd never give me a hard time." (Editor's note: Suspecting he never played "badly"...)

Perlman said that for his wife, Toby, DeLay's approach had the opposite effect - she practiced like crazy for her.

Speaking of practice, one question from the audience was, "Were you a reluctant practicer?"

Perlman didn't miss a beat: "I was always a reluctant practicer."

Lewis followed up, asking, "How did you get beyond that, how did you make the bridge to the next stage...."

"There was no next stage!" Perlman said. Everyone laughed.

Seriously, a lot of people are reluctant to practice, but you still do it, and Perlman offered advice for how to practice, and how to look at practicing:

  1. Practice in small sections. Make sure that, when you repeat something, you are doing it accurately, so that your practicing is accurate and actually doing you some good.
  2. "Don't expect miracles when you practice!"
  3. You might get something done today, but "tomorrow might not be as good." Don't get too upset by this.
  4. When you are wondering, Why don't I sound as good at studio class as I do in the practice room? Why don't I sound as good at my lesson as I do in the practice room? There is an obvious answer: nerves.
  5. "Practicing more than necessary is not helpful." Perlman recommended no more than five hours a day. "If you go past five hours, forget about it. Our brains cannot get any more from that."

Perlman shared his memory of meeting Jascha Heifetz for the first time - he had a lesson with Ivan Galamian at the old Juilliard School (near Columbia University). The young Perlman played a Paganini Caprice, as well as Lalo Symphonie Espagnole, and Heifetz had little to say - "I think he said I played a wrong note in the Paganini," Perlman said. Perlman was getting ready to leave, when Heifetz said, "Just a second - scales!"

Scales were very important to Heifetz, but what Heifetz did not know was that they were also very important to Perlman's teacher in Israel, who had made him play scales every day. So Heifetz put Perlman to the test: F# minor, double stop scales, octaves - all the scales, all the difficult ones. Perlman knew them well.

"That was the thing that really impressed Heifetz," Perlman said, "scales!"

Perlman married Toby in 1966, and they now have five children and 12 grandchildren. It was Toby's idea to start the Perlman Music Program (PMP), a summer program on Shelter Island, N.Y. for aspiring young string players and pianists that has been going for almost 30 years. The idea was - and is - to provide a nurturing and supportive environment where collaboration and connection take priority over competition. To that end, all the participants sing in a chorus together, among other things.

"It's a different social experience," Perlman said. For example, the kids may be whizzes at their instruments, but everyone's bad singing puts them on even ground. In orchestra, they constantly changes seats, to discourage competition over "chairs."

Perlman's conducting career actually found its beginnings at PMP, when he conducted the orchestra.

"I conducted with a pencil, because if you conduct with a pencil, you are not really a conductor," Perlman said.

And so how did he go on to be a conductor?

"I started with a pencil, and I graduated to a baton!"' he said.

Perlman performed with some amazing conductors - to name just a few: Zubin Mehta, Sir Georg Solti, Leonard Bernstein, Daniel Barenboim...

"I've learned so much from each one," he said.

Lewis offered him another question from the audience: "Do you ever get nervous?"

"Of course," Perlman said. "If you are not nervous, it means you are not aware that you are supposed to be nervous."


"Put yourself in situations where you will get nervous," Perlman said. "It's not about getting rid of it, it's about learning to live with it. It's knowing your enemy." That way, when you experience nerves, it will be something familiar.

Also, concentrate on the music, things like the timing of a phrase. "But don't say, 'What comes next?' That's murder!" Perlman said. "Trust your practicing." And take your time, when it comes to learning the music.

"If you practice slowly, you forget slowly," he said, "if you practice fast, you forget fast."

Also, you can't always rely on your own perception of how your performance went.

"You think if you feel good, it must sound good, and if you feel bad, it must sound bad - and neither is true," Perlman said.

What is the best advice he has ever had?

"Believe in what you do, and don't look at what somebody else is doing," Perlman said. And use your imagination. "The person who can change lanes is a lucky person. Do something well, but do it because you love it."

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June 7, 2023 at 11:24 PM · Thank you for that article. The violin world is lucky to have him (and his wife) as one of its most important role models.

June 8, 2023 at 07:53 AM · Fascinating! Eden has said it all!

June 8, 2023 at 03:46 PM · I sent this to my daughter who has been part of PMP last summer and this year. She says it's a really great article! Several things from the interview remind me of her comments from the program last summer.

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