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“Learning from the Masters” is a weekly series I started here recently with the goal of sharing useful lessons we can learn from others, regardless of their medium. The important thing for me is how we can apply these lessons to photography, and to our lives as creative individuals.

I heard the following story while listening to a talk given by spiritual teacher Jack Kornfield, and thought it was not only profoundly inspiring, but contained great lessons for us as photographers.

Itzhak Perlman, one of the greatest violinists in the world, was doing a concert in NY at Lincoln Center with the New York symphony. He has braces on his legs because he had polio when he was 4 years old, and so he can't walk really well and walks with braces…and he takes these braces off and pulls out his Stradivarius and makes this extraordinary music.

So there he was playing this violin concerto and he's part way through it, and striking the bow all of a sudden there was this loud crack and pop – a string broke. Everyone in the hall heard it, the orchestra stopped, and he sat there quietly for a moment, closed his eyes, paused.

“What will he do?” everyone was thinking.

“Will he limp off stage and get another violin? Will somebody come and restring his Stradivarius?”

“What's going to happen?”

After he paused for a few moments, he signaled for the conductor to begin again, and he re-entered the concerto playing with passion, and power, and purity. And those who really knew, who were close, could watch him modulate, and change, and reconfigure the piece, so that he could play it on three strings.

When he finished there was a silence in the hall, and then an outburst of applause. People rose and cheered. He smiled, wiped the sweat from his brow, raised his bow to get things quiet. And then he spoke not boastfully, but in a pensive, reverent tone.

“You know” he said, “sometimes it is the artists task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left.”


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This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Having two children who were musicians, I always wondered what they would do if their horn/oboe failed on stage. Obviously, keep playing.

    I forwarded the post too my children as I thought it was excellent. My daughter responded, “Interesting story but rotten etiquette for the concertmaster, who is supposed to hand off his own violin for the soloist to use! Perhaps this is also a lesson in how to make due when the people who are supposed to help you out drop the ball.”

    I like the series. Having set through many a music lesson, some with true masters, I have had a chance to observe how they teach. Master photographers teach like master musicians, they help you learn from your mistakes.


    1. Thanks for the feedback Gary…it’s hard to know exactly how the actual events unfolded that particular moment – it’s possible he was offered the violin, but chose not to accept it. But either way given the reputation of the soloist, it’s believable and illuminating which is why I thought sharing it would be helpful to others. Mistakes are the keys to growth and learning..this I know from extensive experience!


  2. Ditto to Jack Johnson’s comment.

    I’m no Itzhak Perlman for sure, but this story reminds me of a somewhat related aphorism that came out of my career as a professional photographer working with film: “Things go wrong so often on assignment that I now take it as a sign that things are going right.”

    It was on those rare occasions when everything went smoothly and without a hitch that I became really nervous about the results — perhaps because I was afraid I might have relaxed too much and not pushed myself enough.

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