When talented string players come to Stowe next week, that synapse-firing talent will have a chance to find its way into the brains of local students.
For the first time, the Perlman Music Program is going into Stowe Middle School to play for the students.
The Perlman Music Program holds its fourth annual residency Nov. 6-9 at the Spruce Peak Performing Arts Center in Stowe, an autumn tradition in which alumni and faculty from the world-famous music program get together to study and practice in preparation for a concert Saturday evening.
“I don’t even remember when I started playing, because that’s when I was just starting to form memories,” said Nico Olarte-Hayes, a Perlman Music Program alumnus who has been playing cello since the ripe age of 6, when he was already a three-year veteran of the violin. Now, at 23 years old, he has a degree in physics from Harvard to go along with his master’s degree in music from the New England Conservatory, and is the music director at a small Brooklyn company called Iconoclassic Opera.
Olarte-Hayes said he believes music has made him a better thinker.
“I’d imagine that if you really start working on learning an instrument, it’ll get the blood flowing, get the brain thinking spatially, thinking temporally,” he said. “But I have no idea what I’d be like if hadn’t been playing music all my life.”
Jane Lambert is the Stowe Middle and High School band director. She said the Perlman folks are sending four string quartets into the middle school Nov. 8, the start of a beautiful friendship she’d like to see expand into the high school next year.
“I think the beauty of music is it engages the whole brain. You’ve got the logic and the math, and you’ve got the expressive parts,” Lambert said. “It’s one of the only, if not the only, course that develops the whole brain.”
Indeed, research backs that up, according to Gottfried Schlaug, associate professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School. In a 2013 Psychology Today article, Schlaug says that playing a musical instrument is a “multisensory and motor experience that creates emotions and motions” that the brain taps into. And when done over many years — and especially when started young — playing music can actually change the brain.
“As today’s findings show, intense musical training generates new processes within the brain, at different stages of life, and with a range of impacts on creativity, cognition and learning,” Schlaug said.
Jameel Martin, 19, a violist and Perlman Music Program graduate, equates music-making to speaking a foreign language. He’s been playing the viola since he was 5 years old and, like Olarte-Hayes, doesn’t remember a time when he wasn’t playing the instrument. Now a second-year student at Juilliard, Martin will also be in Stowe next week for the residency.
“The more I learn it, the more I realize it really is its own language, one that’s unlike any other,” Martin said. Since all Juilliard graduates need to show proficiency in piano as well as their chosen instrument, Martin is essentially learning a third language.
“When I practice, it goes well,” he chuckled when asked about his piano lessons.
Learning from the maestro
The Perlman Music Program was founded 20 years ago by Toby Perlman, the wife of Itzhak Perlman, perhaps the most talented man ever to hold a violin.
Toby wanted to start a program that could help some of the best violists, violists, cellists, bassists and pianists in the world to become even better.
In 1994, the program started as a two-week residency on Long Island, with Itzhak as head faculty. Over the past two decades, the program has held residencies in Israel, Florida, and now Vermont.
Olarte-Hayes said the upper level of the classical music community is a small group, and the Perlman Program is a distillation of that. The membership — generally high school students — is capped at 30, and members are allowed to keep coming back until they graduate from high school.
“We’re all good friends who just happen to be world-class musicians,” Olarte-Hayes said.
He and Martin both attended the program for multiple years, but both had to show major prowess to even be considered. Perlman applicants have to submit an audition tape, not exactly a low-pressure scenario for a teenager, even a wunderkind on the strings. Olarte-Hayes sent his tape when he was 12, and thus was able to spend six years with Maestro and Mrs. Perlman.
For Martin, then a 14-year-old from Indianapolis who went to sleep listening to Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman, there wasn’t any real expectation of getting selected.
“I did it in one take and sent it in,” Martin said of his audition tape. He played “Romanze for Viola” by Max Bruch. “I auditioned without any expectation of winning, I was really relaxed, and it was the best tape I’d ever done.”
Shaped by music
Lambert said she hopes the visits by Perlman’s talented alumni become a Stowe tradition. She said a maestro in the making might be walking the Stowe school hallways right now, one who just needs a little inspiration from seeing and hearing a world-class musician play in front of her.
“To see this caliber of ability played right in front of them, and having it played by students who aren’t much older than them, the exposure is key,” Lambert said. “This is direct, personal interaction.”
Martin said he had a similar opportunity when he was in fifth grade, when a violinist from the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra came to his school. He was already a big fish in a small pond with his viola playing, and he was both inspired and intimidated to hear a pro.
“Everyone in school knew I played, and they were all, like, you can play like that,” he said.
Martin also became a frequent “guest” backstage at the orchestra, sneaking behind the scenes to meet the players, including cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
Olarte-Hayes said he and his colleagues’ ability to create beautiful music may grab headlines and create playbills, but he also understands they might just wow a kid into picking up an instrument, or inspire a musician to get even better.
“I listen to just about all music. I think it’s all beautiful,” he said. “I’m moved by a children’s beginner kazoo class.”
Perlman Music Program Celebration Concert • Nov. 8, at 7:30 p.m. • Spruce Peak Performing Arts Center, 122 Hourglass Drive, Stowe • Tickets are $20, $38 and $45 at sprucepeakarts.org.
Ticket holders will also have free access to a rehearsal at 4 p.m., where Vermont string students will prepare a piece and practice it with the Perlman orchestra and Maestro Itzhak Perlman.