The Perlman Music Program: the 20th anniversary of Toby Perlman’s dream


August 2014


The Perlman Music Program (PMP) celebrated its 20th anniversary this year. Toby Perlman and her husband, the legendary violinist Itzhak Perlman, started the project in 1993. The program is open to string players aged 12 to 18. In addition to the summer program, PMP offers year-round mentoring, international studies and performance tours. Since 2000 the summer camp has been held on beautiful Shelter Island situated at the eastern end of Long Island near New York City.


The Perlman Music Program puts the accent on how confortable they want to make the students feel. When presenting themselves, they don’t even talk so much about music: music is implied. If everything around is taken care of, the music will sing marvelously by itself. The Perlman Music Camp provides what lacks so much in today’s music world: love. The small size of the program makes all the difference. It enables Toby Perlman to begin by creating an amazingly close relationship with every child. Then she can find out what it is that the students need to help them create music. The whole idea is to create an amazingly supportive community, to offer anything that the children need, from A to Z. From bow rehairing, to a psychiatrist, to the world’s best hand surgeon, the Perlmans are remarkably capable of bringing the resources together. They help the children become not only good musicians, but also good people, good citizens.


At the Perlman Music Program the children learn how to be responsible for their time. A lot of the students come from families, backgrounds and environments that are very high pressure. They work hard all the time; there is no balance. So PMP makes sure that they have time to work incredibly hard and get the support that they need musically from their teachers but also be able to have a good time, get ice cream and play games. There is nothing bad about showing and promoting the good sides of music. From the morning stretching classes to the late afternoon chorus rehearsals, the children are given all the nurture they need.


The chorus is a great example of what the program is about: everybody getting together - literally everybody: the Perlmans, the students, the staff – and having a good time while learning. Not everyone comes to PMP knowing how to sing and they are taught a few chorus singing skills. The chorus enhances connectivity in an environment where everyone is working so hard. They learn something that they are not necessarily good at. It reminds them that they will have experiences in life where they are not always the best. It teaches them how to conduct themself in these situations.


From the beginning, Toby Perlman had a clear design of what she wanted. “I knew that I needed a big chunk of every day to practice. I knew that that had to be sacred no matter what, that had to stay in place. I can’t do exactly the way I wanted to do it. I knew I wanted everybody to sing. I knew I wanted a heavy emphasis on chamber music. Those things were really crystal clear. I knew about the tone I wanted to set.” That is: justice and trust. “It’s something very important, I need the students to trust me. Otherwise it would become like anyplace else. That means I have to trust them and I have to be honest.” Therefore, she has to listen very carefully to the children. She respects the individuality and needs of each child. Also, if she had more money, she would like the program to be tuition-free to avoid mistakes and unfairness in the share of the scholarships. “I would like enough money so I would not have to worry because I am always worrying. We try to be fair but I am sure we make mistakes: we give too much to one and not enough to another and how do you know. So if you don’t have tuition it’s much better.”


Toby Perlman’s whole dream came out of many experiences – good and bad. There were a lot of unfortunate experiences when she was growing up: she felt like she wasn’t good or fast enough. But the experiences she had in summer programs were good. The program is really a work in progress. It’s a combination not only of Mrs. Perlman’s life experiences but also those of her children and grandchildren.


The Perlman Music Program is there to give children a little space. They encourage them not to rush into everything. Toby Perlman has made multiple speeches and appeals to the students on the subject. “This is a program where the emphasis is not on the performance but on work and learning – and learning in the right way: taking a breath, thinking about the phrase. All of this takes time, the piece has to cook.” Apparently the students have responded fantastically but Mrs. Perlman is not so sure the parents share her point of view.


The parents put terrible pressure on their children. Nothing good can come out of it. “A good parent knows when to be quiet, knows to try not to interfere. Less is more”, feels Toby Perlman. “How do you get the child to not always be oppositional? I think it’s by not creating a lot of areas for the kids to push against.” Sometimes it’s very difficult to see your child making a mistake. But the trick is to stop yourself and think how serious would this mistake be. Not too? Then you have to let it go. As a parent you have to think about what are the issues. You have to think about what is really important because when you have a big issue you really want your children to listen.


Parenting is a very tricky subject. Most children practice with a parent. The parents become so enmeshed with the child they can’t let go. But it comes to a point when the parents have to step back. “It’s a very difficult process to wean the child off of that practice support but I think it’s very important”, believes Mrs. Perlman. “It’s very important for the child to own what the child does.”


The program takes each of the children as an individual without comparing them. They are very strict about not discussing student’s age in the student biographies. “We don’t talk about it because everybody is different”, says Mrs. Perlman. “The public can be just wowed because somebody is twelve. It’s not really about how you play when you are 12, it’s how you play when you are 30 that counts.”


“I would say to people who dream: follow your dreams but the problem with following your dreams is money. If I had more money I could make it better”, says Mrs. Perlman. The Perlman Music Program is something the Perlmans are involved in because they truly love it. That’s something the children and the supporters sense. “It might sound very self-righteous there is a purity in all of that. Really it’s not about us. We are certainly not in it for anything other than what it looks like. And I think that is a big piece of the success”, concludes Toby Perlman. “I feel really lucky – it’s like what I was put on this earth to do is exactly what I am doing.”


Published on on September 2014: