01/04/2014 08:37 pm ET Updated Mar 06, 2014

Speaking the Music

Some moments offer life's lessons when I least expect it. Yesterday, several hundred of us gathered in a cavernous tent on the campus of the University of South Florida to hear 26 local young violinists play a Vivaldi concerto. They were practicing with the String Orchestra of the Perlman Music Program, in Sarasota for its winter residency. The program is the ten-year-old brainchild of Toby Perlman and the orchestra is conducted by her husband, the virtuoso Itzhak Perlman. The program this year brought 33 musicians, aged 14-20, from the United States and as far away as Australia, Germany, and Israel, for an intensive, 17-day series of rehearsals, recitals, and performances.

As the students tuned their instruments, a torrential rain attacked the tent, cascading down its sides and sending those of us sitting near the tent's edges scurrying to move violin cases out of the way of the steadily advancing water. Yet, almost as if it were the first chair violinist who had just tuned the orchestra, the storm stopped and Perlman walked to the conductor's chair.

Stricken by polio at age four, Perlman moves with crutches, a small impediment to a man who began teaching himself to play on a toy violin when, at three, he was turned down at music school because he was deemed too young to hold a real one. Now in his late sixties, Perlman communicated with those a third his age with ease, humor, and the respect shown to fellow musicians.

After jocularly asking the local students what tempo they preferred for the Vivaldi piece, he led them through it twice, the second time at a faster pace. "Which tempo is right?," he asked, and then noted that the answer was "both." A tempo can be good or better, but it can rarely be judged wrong he said -- a simple point yet one it seemed was calculated to make the students think for themselves, not blindly defer to orchestral authority. Perlman opened the floor to questions in a session moderated by Toby. At first hesitant, the local students eventually plunged in, after experiencing both the easy repartee and the honesty with which the master responded. "How much do you practice each day," he was asked. "Three hours a day when I was your age," came the reply. "Do not practice five or six hours. The brain cannot handle that." Not letting him off the hook, Toby Perlman replied that, that day, he had practiced for a minute, then took a phone call, then practiced a few more minutes, had something to drink..." This seemed intended not to make the music maestro embarrassed but to make him real. A career in music is demanding, but it need not make you obsessive or dull.

Nor should it make you isolated, sitting in a room, practicing and protected from human interaction. Indeed, the Perlman Music Program is intended to foster a society of musicians to insure that the solitude required to gain excellence does not come at the price of human connection which, after all, is the point of the music.

Perlman next conducted the program orchestra in Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. The sound of this late eighteenth century masterpiece, performed by those born near the start of the 21st, communicated the enduring beauty of the music and of human achievement across the dimensions of time, space, and nationality. Perlman, it suddenly occurred to me, was not so much conducting the orchestra as giving it -- and us -- a gift. His students may well forget this day and the surroundings. In their long careers, whether in music or another profession, this particular piece of music will most likely not loom terribly large in their minds. But Perlman's passion, his deep, focused, and demanding understanding of the music's phrases, and his humanity will have most likely penetrated these young heads and hearts to become a part of them and the way they approach their lives.

A mother of one of the local students, sitting next to me, bemoaned that, that very morning, her son told her he wanted to become an engineer, not a musician. I suspect that she has overly focused on what he will lose by subordinating the violin to another choice of career, but she has less reason to worry than she thinks. One of Perlman's last directions to his orchestra was to remind them that talent, which they already have, is not enough. "You can play the music. Now you have to speak the music." Technical proficiency without passionate performance, whether in music or engineering, risks a life not lived to its full potential. If her son learned that lesson today, as I expect he did, he will bring to his chosen craft the perspective and art of a musician. What, for any of us, can be better than that?