Cam Taylor

Be inspired. Be focused. Be tenacious.

Playing Music on a Broken Instrument

On November 18, 1995, the violinist Itzhak Perlman, came on stage to perform a concert at Lincoln Center in New York City. Getting to his chair is no small task for Itzhak. Struck by polio as a child, he walks with leg braces and a pair of crutches.

violinHis routine to reach his chair is quite a sight. He slowly and with difficulty walks across the stage and when he reaches his chair, he undoes his braces, lays them down along with his crutches and picks up his violin.

He is then ready to play. During this performance, the audience sat quietly while he prepared and finally began.

But on this particular day, something went wrong almost instantly after he began to play. After the first few bars, one of the strings broke on his violin. Everyone heard it and knew what it meant.

The music would have to stop! 

It was assumed by the audience that Perlman would have to stop playing and with serious effort, replace the broken string. But he didn’t. Instead, he waited a moment, closed his eyes and signaled for the conductor to begin once again.

Perlman played from where he had left off, but amazingly, with a level of passion and power unmatched by anything the audience had seen or heard before.

If you were of the belief that it was impossible to play a symphonic work on three strings, you would have been wrong. As Perlman played, he was seen modifying his instrument, re-composing in his head, and adjusting the three strings he had left, to create new and amazing sounds.

When he finished, silence filled the room. Then people rose to their feet and cheered because of what they had witnessed.

Perlman smiled, wiped the sweat from this forehead, quieted the crowd and said,

“Some times it is the artist’s task to find out
how much music you can still make with what you have left.”

Three Life Lessons for Making Music on a Broken Instrument

1.      Don’t allow one less string to stop your music.

Loss, disappointment and adversity are a part of life.  When we get hurt, sick, run over, we experience pain and suffering that can throw us off our plan. One less string represents the brokenness, painful events and losses in our lives.

Significant loss and adversity can result in a need to grieve your loss. But grieving does not mean stopping to live or play your music. Your song may change but even in grief, you can make beautiful music as you learn to grieve well.

What you see when you look in the mirror may be a broken body or soul but look deeper for a person who can make a difference in the lives of other people who need you right now. How you navigate your broken string can encourage others if you remain a person of hope and stay focused on what you have left, not what you’ve lost.

2.     Make adjustments while making music.

Perlman didn’t keep playing the same way he had been playing before his string broke. He acknowledged the loss, evaluated his options, then took action to use what he had to make music and inspire his audience.

Just like Perlman, as we acknowledge our loss, evaluate our options we can then make the music we still have left in us to play. Broken people can inspire others when they live with courage, creativity, and confidence and use what they have to help and support others.

3.     Making music is possible with what you have left.

A few weeks ago, I found out a much anticipated surgery was being bumped. I was so disappointed! But then I said to myself, “I’m going to play the music I can, with the three strings I have left. I’m not going to focus on what I can’t control but do RIGHT NOW what I can with what I have.”

What I discovered in doing that was greater freedom, focus, and a fuelling of my passion and purpose. I do have another surgery coming up shortly which I’m very ready for but I have come to realize – “You can make music just fine on a broken instrument!”

 What is broken in your life right now?
How can you continue to make music?

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About Cam Taylor

Life and leadership coach, transition & change specialist, husband, dad, leader, writer, life long learner.

5 Replies

  1. Shirlene Henning

    Excellent blog Cam. To overcome what I am left without, and adjust my focus, to use what I’m left with. After surgery, I only had use of one arms, (for a while) – amazing – like a broken string. Amazing recovery to do what I had to do, worked out well. Continuing to make music.

  2. mamajoy

    thanks Cam . . . great message here . . . and you are a courageous encouragement to us all.

  3. Greg

    Another excellent piece with timely encouragement for life’s journey. I’ve been playing with three strings and looking mostly at the broken string. The past month and into this new year brought unexpected health issues limiting what I can do. Surgery to remedy one of the issues scheduled to take place 3 months hence was disappointing news because of the long wait. Two days ago my surgery was rescheduled for the end of this month – what a pleasant surprise. I am thankful for a wife that constantly encourages me to look at what I can do with the three strings instead of mourning over the broken one. Again, very timely piece, Cam.
    Greg Mc

    1. Thanks Greg for giving us a window into your journey which sounds very challenging. I’m so glad my blog was both timely and helpful. The waiting & adjustments required when strings get broken can be very challenging but need not paralyze us indefinitely. As you press on, may you find creative ways to keep making music!

  4. Ron Unruh

    I loved the story Cam and I was going to use it in a sermon myself, but it is untrue. It’s been doing the rounds for years, and is classified as one of those Urban Legends now. When it was used in the Chicken Soup book series, due diligence learned revealed that one of Perlman’s representatives in New York who checked with the violinist, found it to be untrue. Perlman, in fact, did not perform anywhere on that date. Further, an archivist at the Lincoln Center in New York City said Perlman didn’t perform at Lincoln Center at all in November 1995.

    The Perlman story was accepted for “Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul.” As co-author of the book, Rabbi Dov Elkins of Princeton, N.J., collected the stories, including the one about Perlman, which was written by a fellow rabbi in South Florida. In its original form, the writer made it clear that the Perlman story was one that had made the rounds among rabbis over the years. Elkins made several efforts to find the source of the story, without luck, so he went with what he had.
    As he edited the story for the book, however, he removed all of the disclaimers, making it appear that the author actually had attended the concert.

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