Face Your Fears and Rise Above
ON GIANT SHOULDERS
Daughter of Itzhak Perlman
Because I was already fourteen years old, I clearly remember watching my father change my youngest sister’s diaper. He palmed her in one hand like a basketball, lifted her out of the crib like a waiter carrying a tray above his head, and pivoted 180 degrees to get her onto the changing table. Changing a diaper may not seem like a remarkable feat even if it was an era when few men were changing diapers. But for a man on crutches who was stricken with polio as a child, it could not have been an easy task. At the time, however, I didn’t think of this as an extraordinary performance, because my father was always doing things like that and never making a big deal about it.
As a violinist, dad didn’t put on a suit or go to an office every morning like a “normal” father. There were many times, of course, when he was away giving concerts for days at a time, but when at home, he was a hands-on dad. I traveled to school by carpool from the West Side to the East Side of Manhattan, and if he wasn’t away performing, he would volunteer to drive the carpool. This was a time when stay-at-home dads were extremely rare, so he was the only father who ever drove for the carpool. He was sometimes the class parent on my school field trips. I didn’t appreciate then how unusual it was to have him there.
Sometimes he took the whole family with him on the road where we had the chance to visit foreign countries, go to museums, and dine out. We spent a lot of time together in the summer when our family often went to Israel for weeks at a time. My father would plan this trip around his concerts there, and we would spend time visiting relatives and sightseeing. When I was about 10 years old, I watched my father climb the steps of the Masada, an Israeli fortress atop a high mesa with a long, snaking path. I thought nothing of it, because going up steps had never daunted my father despite his dependence on crutches. He climbed the Masada steps by leaning on a rail with one hand and putting one crutch in the other hand while leaning on the remaining crutch under that same arm. Though it took a long time, I never thought he was struggling, because that was not how he saw it. He always ignored his disability in that he did what he wanted to do–from being an active father to a world-class musician. Now I can see what an awesome feat it was to mount all those steps.
It was in this same quiet way that my father shared his love of music with me, never bragging about his own accomplishments, never forcing anything on me. In fact, when I was five years old, I started begging my parents for piano lessons. For a year, I nagged my mother who kept putting me off. By the time I turned six and remained persistent about the piano, my parents realized I was serious and found me a good teacher. It was my mother who practiced with me, but as I got older, I was allowed to sit in on some of my father’s rehearsals. Music and going to concerts were simply part of the fabric of our lives. My father let it be that way quite naturally without ever teaching me in any formal manner. As I got older, he might have a discussion with me in the car on the way home from a concert. He would casually mention the choice of repertoire or the tempo of a certain movement, but never with any kind of authoritarian manner–always a dialogue. By high school, I was already a serious pianist, going to Juilliard on weekends and playing concerts.
When I was sixteen, I woke up one morning and couldn’t move my left arm. For the next few years, I took mild, non-steroidal drugs to try to control what turned out to be serious rheumatoid diseases. Despite increasing pain, I continued to play concerts and applied to college. Both of my parents supported me in my decision to go to Brown University instead of a music conservancy. There, I could receive a liberal arts education and continue to play piano concerts. So even though it was a bit of a balancing act to manage the concert schedule and a college career, it was something I wanted to do, so I did it. My father never imposed his expectations on me, but always encouraged me in what I had decided was the right course for me.
During my freshman year at Brown, my health worsened, and my parents began to panic. Even writing an hour-long midterm exam for school had become next to impossible because my neck wouldn’t support my head bent over the exam book for more than a few minutes without going into spasms. My father decided it was time for me to see a specialist, a brilliant rheumatologist in Boston whom my dad had known years ago from summer camp where they had played together in a string quartet at age sixteen.
He diagnosed my condition, and I began seeing him on a weekly basis. When I was nineteen, my health deteriorated even further, so the doctor called a family meeting with my parents and my then boyfriend (now my husband). He explained that he would have to put me on stronger drugs with more serious side effects such as not being able to get pregnant. Also, since I was playing through extraordinary pain in my concerts, the doctor advised me to stop playing the piano. Though this was depressing to me, I was even more grateful to my parents who had let me attend a liberal arts school where at least I had studies other than music.
Eventually, I started to feel a little better with the increased medication, and my first thought was to go back to performing. While many people thought this was foolish, my father said it didn’t matter what anyone else thought. If that’s what I wanted to do, then I should do it. Then he took a risk by going on stage with me. First, he used me as a stand-in to play some of his recitals. He also convinced Samuel Sanders, his longtime collaborator, to give some of his previously scheduled dates to me and to stand by in the wings in case I could not go on at the last minute. After a five-year hiatus, there was also no telling how I would react in front of an audience. Only my father could understand my great desire to play again, and he helped make that happen not only logistically, but also with his own life-long example of courage. Soon after I started playing again, a manager working on some publicity materials was trying to figure out how to explain my long absence. My instinct was to be honest about my condition, but the manager didn’t agree. My father backed me up, saying I had nothing to hide and that once an audience heard me play, no one would remember that any part of me had been badly injured by disease.
When I boldly decided that I wanted to attempt to have children, my father bolstered my resolve against all the naysayers once again. In order to try and conceive, I had to stop taking one of the arthritis drugs, which I had depended on for many years. Though it was a scary process to wean myself off this drug that had helped me live without pain, my father never doubted that I could do it. Pregnancy miraculously improved my health, and I was fortunate to have four children. I no longer have the chronic pain and other symptoms I lived with for so long. As a parent, it is a great joy to watch my father playing with my children. He can be very childlike, and I see this clownish side of him emerge once more as he jokes around with my children as he did with my siblings and me when we were younger.
His humor is one of my favorite qualities. While announcing a particular encore that he plays by the Italian composer, A. Bazzini, he always tells the same joke which is a stupid pun on the “A” part of his name. If anyone else told this joke, no one would laugh. I find myself laughing along with everyone else no matter how many times I have heard it or how unfunny I know it to be. It took me years to realize the virtuoso nature of this particular piece of music because my father makes it look so easy. This is the unconscious charm of a man who doesn’t see roadblocks in life even in illness. To him, these adversities are simply just opportunities to perform at the highest level, whether he’s playing the violin, conducting an orchestra or changing a diaper.
Itzhak Perlman was born in Israel in 1945, the son of a barber. Undettered by his early bout with polio, he studied to become a musician making his United States debut at Carnegie Hall at age 18 and winning the prestigious Leventritt competition a year later. He has been honored with four Emmy Awards, fifteen Grammy Awards and several honorary degrees from Harvard, Yale, Brandeis and several other universities. In 1986, he was awarded the “Medal of Liberty from President Reagan. In 2000 President Clinton awarded Perlman the “National Medal of Arts.” Undeniably the reigning virtuoso of the violin, he enjoys superstar status rarely afforded a classical musician. Beloved for his charm and humanity as well as his talent, he has come to be recognized by audiences all over the world.
Navah Perlman Frost, known for her lyrical eloquence on the stage, is one of the most poetic and admired pianists of her generation. She has performed to critical acclaim in major concert venues throughout North America, Europe, and Asia. Navah began her piano studies at age six with Ronit Amir Lowenthal and later attended the Juilliard School and holds an honors degree in Art History from Brown University. She lives in Manhattan with her husband and four children.
On Giant Shoulders… A Daughter Can See Clearly
- Setting Clear Limits and Providing a Moral Code (submit your story here)
- Spirituality and Religion (Ingrid Peart)
- Standing Up for Your Beliefs (Dominique Sharpton)
- The Importance of Humility (Kathryn Ho)
- Lasting Values Over Materialism (Nan Nicklaus O’Leary)
- Helping Others (Helen Rafferty)
- Failure…and Learning from Mistakes (submit your story here)
- Value of Hard Work (Stephanie Staubach Phillips)
- Mindfulness (Carmela Cipriani)