Make Music with What You Have Left

The intent of this blog is not to relate personal stories. But, for the second post in a row, I'm going to do exactly that. 

My 6th grade daughter had a “harrowing” night last week. She plays the harp in 6th grade orchestra. In her first concert this fall, she used the school harp. She wrongly assumed the same would hold true for the concert last week. Instead, her teacher expected her to bring the one rent for practice at home.

My daughter was mortified (I know these are strong words but they’re accurate). Trying to fight through her embarrassment she found me in the packed auditorium to help her move the school harp to the gym. First, it had to be tuned in about 10 minutes. Hands trembling, she got through the job, all the while telling me how this was the most humiliating thing to happen to anyone in the universe.

I stood by and cautiously tried to offer some perspective that, perhaps, others have endured similar or worse fates. I quickly realized that was not the right tact (I’m new to middle school, too). I needed to let her have this experience and let perspective come later.

Because we had to transport the harp to the gym, my daughter had to sit alone in the jam packed gymnasium waiting 5 minutes (an eternity) for the other members of the orchestra arrive. Yet, when the time came to play she sat tall in her seat and played with a look of confidence.

Little did we know that midway through the performance one of her harp strings snapped. From our location on the far end of the gym, she played on as if all was fine. She simply shifted octaves and played on. All the while, she was thinking, “How will I pay for the string.”

She was petrified (again another strong word but captures the moment) to report the news of the broken string to her teacher. She recruited me again to move the harp and be by her side when she “fessed up.” Her teacher, the epitome of calm among chaos, immediately put her at ease and erasing the evening’s anxiety. My daughter left the building knowing she could be proud that she’d played on.

I was inspired to write this blog with the perspective that came from a friend a day later. She sent a newspaper column which my daughter and I read together.

At the risk of making this an obnoxiously long post, here is the column by Jack Riemer of the Houston Chronicle. It takes your breath away.


– by Jack Riemer, Houston Chronicle, February 10, 2001


On Nov. 18, 1995, Itzhak Perlman, the violinist, came on stage to give a concert at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center in New York City. If you have ever been to a Perlman concert, you know that getting on stage is no small achievement for him. He was stricken with polio as a child, and so he has braces on both legs and walks with the aid of two crutches.  To see him walk across the stage one step at a time, painfully and slowly, is an awesome sight. He walks painfully, yet majestically, until he reaches his chair. Then he sits down, slowly, puts his crutches on the floor, undoes the clasps on his legs, tucks one foot back and extends the other foot forward.  Then he bends down and picks up the violin, puts it under his chin, nods to the conductor and proceeds to play. By now, the audience is used to this ritual. They sit quietly while he makes his way across the stage to his chair. They remain reverently silent while he undoes the clasps on his legs.  They wait until he is ready to play. But this time, something went wrong. Just as he finished the first few bars, one of the strings on his violin broke. You could hear it snap – it went off like gunfire across the room.  There was no mistaking what that sound meant. There was no mistaking what he had to do.  People who were there that night said later: "We figured he would have to get up, put on the clasps again, pick up the crutches and limp his way off stage – to either find another violin or else find another string for this one."  But he didn't. Instead, he waited a moment, closed his eyes and then signaled the conductor to begin again. The orchestra began, and he played from where he had left off. And he played with such passion and such power and such purity as they had never heard before.  Of course, anyone knows that it is impossible to play a symphonic work with just three strings.  I know that and you know that, but that night Itzhak Perlman refused to know that. You could see him modulating, changing, recomposing the piece in his head. At one point, it sounded like he was de-tuning the strings to get new sounds from them that they had never made before. When he finished, there was an awed silence in the room. And then people rose and cheered. There was an extraordinary outburst of applause from every corner of the auditorium. We were all on our feet, screaming and cheering, doing everything we could to show how much we appreciated what he had done. He smiled, wiped the sweat from his brow, raised his bow to quiet us and then he said – not boastfully, but in a quiet, pensive, reverent tone, "You know, sometimes it is the artist's task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left." What a powerful line that is.  It has stayed in my mind ever since I heard it. And who knows? Perhaps that is the definition of life – not just for artists but for all of us. Here is a man who has prepared all his life to make music on a violin of four strings, who, all of a sudden, in the middle of a concert, finds himself with only three strings; so he makes music with three strings, and the music he made that night with just three strings was more beautiful, more sacred, more memorable, than any he had ever made before, when he had four strings. So, perhaps our task in this shaky, fast-changing, bewildering world in which we live is to make music, at first with all that we have, and then, when that is no longer possible, to make music with what we have left.


8 Responses to “Make Music with What You Have Left”

  1. Brian Herman Says:

    Great post John and a good job by your daughter not letting panic take hold, that’s a hard thing even for those of us with a few more years under our belts!

  2. A Higgins Says:

    Thanks great post!
    I really laughed because of your thought that you needed to offer perspective in her time of crisis. I recall my father doing that also. I trust you will learn. I am sure your daughter will continue to teach you many life lessons.
    I would offer that perspective in a time of crisis does not get you through the crisis. The thought that you are fighting for survival brings out the will to overcome the situation.

  3. Brad Jolly Says:

    The well-known anti-hoax site says the Perlman story is false. They call it “a story of anecdotal status which includes a moral typical of so many fabricated, glurgy tales.”

  4. John Creighton Says:

    I can imagine that perlman tail is modern mythology. There is a place in our lives for mythology to inspire and add perspective. Good to know about

  5. John Creighton Says:

    Perlman Tale, of course.
    Adding comments late at night leads to typos.

  6. Brad Jolly Says:

    I’m not big on mythology. I find true stories, such as your daughter’s, much more inspiring and useful in truing one’s perspective.

  7. Bud Hunt Says:

    Your daughter’s story is the real story here. Good on her!

  8. Brad Jolly Says:

    I second Bud’s comment!

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