Widgets Magazine

Toby Perlman on The Perlman Music Program’s Origins, Approach to Teaching, and Community Connection

Q: I understand that The Perlman Music Program is your baby, that you are the person who made it happen. Why a summer music program? What inspired you? A: The why has a couple answers to it; I myself went to summer music programs as a kid. I have some wonderful memories, but some that were awful, such as how competitive it could be and how, sometimes, it was about playing fast and loud.

While studying at The Juilliard School, I remember designing my dream summer program on the back of a napkin. Years after that, as my own children were looking for summer music programs, I realized there are some great programs out there, but with each of them I thought, if I ran this place, I would do things differently.

While I was raising my kids I thought I couldn’t do anything else, but when my youngest turned 10, I decided the time was right. And then, the opportunity was simply there. It took a long time to put it together; but when we decided to make it happen it happened overnight.

Q: What is at the core of your vision for the program? What is it that really makes your program different from the other wonderful summer programs, what you might try to explain to a potential student?

A:  Ours is a very particular population, a rarified and elite group. The level is very high. Our youngest may only be 12, but they’re pros! It’s very competitive to get in, but once in, you’re in, and you have the right of return until the end of your 18th summer.

My goal for the program is this: by the end of the summer, I would like for our students to trust themselves enough to be able to listen to their own musical voice. Here we try to create a safe environment, where a child who plays the phrase differently is welcome.

Q: Can you give me an example of what that might mean in practice?

A: One thing we do is encourage students to encourage others. In my husband’s studio class that happens once a week, two or three students play as part of the class. Then the students talk about what they heard in each other’s playing. And the rule is: You must begin by giving a supportive statement. Everyone is so extraordinarily talented, we explain, you can always find something nice to say—I loved how you played that second movement. Then, you can say something else that isn’t necessarily a criticism, but rather a question: Why did you play the first part that way?

Q: The students you have—all prodigies—must love that; it runs so counter to the stereotype of what prodigies go through. You mention that once in, students have the right of return. Do any not come back?

A: That’s the big problem—everybody keeps coming back. Some don’t return because of a visa problem, or an illness. Each year we take a maximum of 40 students, so there are few enough spaces as it is. This year we had only 9 openings. A terrific group of kids; frighteningly gifted. Next year we’ll have more openings—a lot of our students are 18 this year.

Q: A striking feature of your program is how many free concerts you offer, and how many open rehearsals, where the public can just come and enjoy the music. Even the concerts you charge for are not expensive. What drives that accessibility?

From the very beginning, when we rented space, our idea was always to open rehearsals to the public, to be welcoming. When we bought our space here on Shelter Island, we became able to do it properly. Everything is free and open to the public; we want everybody to come and listen, and they do!

When you think about, it is amazing that my husband [the virtuoso Itzhak Perlman] plays in concerts without getting paid. And he’s never in the papers for doing that, giving for free; and that’s how it should be. It isn’t about us. I believe it is our job to be available to the community. If we didn’t do it this way, it wouldn’t be ok.

Q: Speaking of concerts, you’re coming to Greenport soon, right? When, and why Greenport?

A: The concert is at the Greenport auditorium on July 30, and we do it because we love to; we love the North Fork.

It’s kind of a big deal for us to travel, we have to move the whole camp, and we need a truck just to move the bass section. But it’s worth it; our experience is that the North Fork is very appreciative. Usually the auditorium is packed, and the audience is very responsive. We love to do it, and they love to have us.

Q: Do you ever make more than one trip across the ferry?

A: We have on occasion done more than one, once at a winery, once at Peconic Landing. We’ll see next year, maybe we’ll do more. It’s really a lot of work making it all go smoothly, but we do love doing it!

Q: Has the summer camp changed much over the years? And do you have any expansion plans?

We’ve added little things here or there, the basic curriculum hasn’t changed. We’ve gotten better over the years. In 2003, we added the Chamber Music Workshop, a two and half week intensive program for people over 18, to our summer calendar.

I do have other ideas. For example, I’d like to expand our curriculum, though for the moment we have no plans to do so. Our enemy is the calendar; we can’t run a camp when school is going on. We run the camp for seven weeks, and we keep the group size small; that’s the key to its success. I’d like to have a program for 9-12 year olds, but when could we do it?  I would love to run a violin seminar, only violin, for grown ups, say 30 year olds.

In terms of expanding in some sense other than adding curriculum, I have no interest in that at all. This size suits us. As it is, this is a very expensive program for us to run; we have to raise $3 million every year. If we won the lottery I’d love to be tuition free, and I’d love to give the faculty a raise, give them better housing.

Q: Speaking of housing, why did you bring the camp to Shelter Island?

A: Because it’s perfect. We love it here.

Imagine a place that’s safe and beautiful, a real community. Shelter Island is the kind of place people think doesn’t exist anymore. Ssshhh, don’t tell anyone about it.

The Perlman Music Program presents an Orchestra and Chorus Concert at the Greenport High School on Thursday, July 30 at 7:30 PM, conducted by Maestros Itzhak Perlman and Patrick Romano. A free open rehearsal with East End Arts young musicians precedes the performance at 5:30 PM. Door price $25; advance price $20 at local North Fork businesses including Dellaquila Beauty in Jamesport, DiAngela Leather in Greenport, The Village Cheese Shop in Mattituck, and Wednesday’s Table in Southold, as well as at the PMP Campus at Works in Progress Concerts on July 23, 24, and 25 at 7:30 PM. Greenport High School, 720 Front Street, Greenport, NY. For more information, call 212.877.5045 or visit perlmanmusicprogram.org/events.