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A Visit in Sag Harbor with Toby and Itzhak

By Dr. Joan Baum

Can it be that twenty years have gone by since Toby Perlman, mother of five, grandmother of nine, wife of Itzhak Perlman, formerly a violin student herself, at Juilliard, founded the Perlman Music Program (PMP), realizing a dream to create a "haven for gifted pre-college age string players" that would not only provide superb musical training but would also allow "kids to be kids"? Indeed it is, she smiles broadly, almost in disbelief, still, at the risky venture that blossomed into a premier music camp-school for children and young adults. Originally housed in a rented space for a little over two weeks in summer on the old Boy's Harbor grounds in East Hampton, and modestly not even including "Perlman" in its name, the program, open to the public, quickly attracted a devoted audience and outgrew its tent.

Fast forward to Shelter Island where for the last several years, PMP has been running a stunning array of workshops, chamber music sessions and instrumental and choral performances for kids 12-18 (the locals have become "groupies"), and, with the newly built handsome Clark Arts Center, also putting on recitals for advanced students and alums all year round. But it's The Littles" who claim her heart the most, "my favorite group," the talented children who made it through the highly competitive admissions process (100 fiddle applications, for example, for only a few places, but a winnowing task Itzhak attends to with "shocking" time-consuming "thoroughness and fairness." Of an afternoon, kids can be found practicing in small white cottages dotting the 28-acre shoreline Shelter Island campus, or at The Clark, or swimming, running, playing ping pong or just hanging out. A peak into rooms at Clark confirms the truth of Toby's dream to have both school and camp. Rooms are tell-tale littered with instruments, laptops, scores, electronic gadgets, socks, shirts, water bottles.

With Muttek and Boychik, her two Portuguese water dogs, looking on, Toby sits on the deck of one of the cabins and muses on what PMP has become and will continue to be. "The philosophy and the design" will remain, but quantity will be able to keep up better with quality. The Clark allows for a winter alumni series of concerts, and prestigious venues in the city and around the world now play host to performances by PMP former students. Maybe, down the line she'll introduce a "fiddle" seminar for professionals 25 and older, and maybe make a few tweaks to the curriculum. But, again, "The Littles!"  They're young enough to have time to change or evolve. Despite parental pressure (and is it there)!, The Littles "don't (yet?) think they know everything."

This year there are about 38-39 Littles ("we never go over 40, that's the idea, keep it small") from different countries, many coming back year after year until they age out (this year PMP had room to take in eleven new kids). Early July was the start of the 2014 group. It's important, she says, to build a sense of community, to nurture the children and provide "a safe environment" free of the sometimes "prison-like" or "pressure cooker" atmosphere they face at home.  But that doesn't mean PMP students can disregard rules and regulations. Shortly after The Littles' arrival, Toby gave them a "big lecture" on observing PMP policies and Suffolk County Health Department laws -- signing out and in when going for a walk or run, swimming only with a buddy, eschewing drugs and alcohol, etc. She feels she develops close relationships with the kids who trust her to be compassionate but not betray their confidences. They know she means it when she says she listens and looks hard at what they write on exit polls, taking into account what they like and don't like. She takes pride in eliciting their truthfulness.

Other observances are designed to encourage community. Although all students attend each other's performances, standing ovations are not permitted. And though their expertise may be classical rep, contemporary music is on the schedule. "They don't have to like it, but they all have to play and open their ears to it." They also don't have to play every week or even perform. "PMP is not a performance-oriented program," it's all about "work and learning."  If there's time and they're interested, they can practice quartets, or team up with colleagues. The 12-year-old violinist will have companions in 13 and 14-year olds, and, for sure, friendships will be formed (even marriages start here!). And everyone, no matter what his or her major instrument, sings in the chorus, run by the beloved Patrick Romano. This year, he's leading PMP to sing out Rossini, Hummel, Elgar (the little heard but haunting "The Snow"), Scarlatti, et al  Incredibly, most of this joy is free. See Perlmanmusicprogram.org for full schedule, or call 212-877-5045 to make reservations. Seating is limited and reservations are suggested.

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