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A conversation with polio survivor and violinist Itzhak Perlman

Itzhak Perlman

Jonas Salk and Itzhak Perlman both overcame polio in different yet profound ways. Salk developed the first effective polio vaccine, lifting a shadow of fear from the world. Although he contracted polio at the age of four, Perlman refused to allow the disease to define him or undermine his gift for music, and went on to become a world-renowned violin virtuoso and conductor. Six years after he contracted polio, Perlman gave his first public performance and he appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show at age 13. Now in his late sixties, he continues to perform worldwide and remains one of the most recognizable names in classical music today.

It was particularly fitting, then, that Perlman gave a private recital at the Salk Institute last November to honor Jonas Salk’s 100th birthday. Joined by Rohan De Silva on the piano, Perlman performed several classical works, including Robert Schumann’s “Three Fantasies” and John Williams’ hauntingly beautiful theme to Schindler’s List.

World-renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman is accompanied by pianist Rohan De Silva at the Salk Institute.

During his visit, Perlman, who is a diligent advocate of efforts to eradicate polio in those countries where it still exists, received the Salk Medal for Public Service. Irwin Jacobs, Salk’s board chairman and a previous recipient of the Salk Medal, presented the award. Perlman is only the fifth person to receive the Salk Medal, which is given to individuals who have contributed to the fields of science, medicine, public health or public service.

In a conversation with Salk President William Brody, Perlman spoke about his passion for the violin and the importance of hearing what others might miss.

I understand you began playing the violin at age three. What made you choose that instrument?

The sound from the radio. I heard it and that was that.

And the rest is history, as they say.

Well, there was a little interruption. I had polio when I was four. I was in kindergarten at the time and I told my parents, ‘My legs feel very weak and I can’t walk.’ So then I was in the hospital for two to three weeks. After that, life proceeded. There was the violin, there were braces and there were crutches. That was my life.

How did your career develop?

I began in the Conservatory in Israel. Then I was on The Ed Sullivan Show in the U.S. and then I went to study at The Juilliard School. It was a pretty normal development for an abnormal situation. Yes, polio was there but it was not an issue. People say, ‘Oh what you’ve done is so amazing.’ But it’s not that I succeeded ‘despite polio’–the talent is there or it is not.

One of my favorite quotes is by Nobel laureate Szent-Györgyi who said, ‘Discovery consists of seeing what everybody else has seen, and thinking what nobody else has thought.’ That is true for much of science. Does it apply to music?

It does. You have to listen, almost with an X-ray ear. You have to hear what to do both before you play and as you play. The more you develop that sense of hearing, the better your playing. And I think that talent gets better as you get older.

So, do you play differently now than you did when you were younger?

The difference in how I play now versus how I played 30 years ago is that I hear better. The actual playing is not as important. It’s already there; it’s automatic. And this is what I tell my students: After a while, stop playing. You know how to play. Now you have to hear. Just listen now and talk the music.

From left: Salk Board of Trustees Chairman Irwin Jacobs, Itzhak Perlman and Salk President William Brody

Talk the music?

Yes. Sometimes I have my students read a paragraph with me. For example: ‘One very beautiful morning the sun was shining bright and we were walking on the beach.’ I go over the words with them until they express the emotion in that moment. It is the same with the music. If you hear a harmony that is especially meaningful to you, you must express that harmony to the audience. You must talk the music.

Jonas Salk believed that art and science have more to give to each other than people think. Did you ever meet him?

No, I didn’t meet him, but I met Albert Sabin (who developed another form of polio virus after Salk). I received an honorary medical degree from the University of South Carolina in 1982 and Dr. Sabin, who was retiring from the university, gave the speech. He said, ‘The reason we are giving you a medical degree is because your music is medicine.’ I like that.