A famous concert violinist enters the stage to perform a solo at a hall in New York City. Getting on stage is no small achievement for him. He was stricken with polio as a child, and has braces on both legs and walks with two crutches.

To see him walk across the stage, one step at a time, is an unforgettable sight. He walks painfully, yet majestically, until he reaches his chair. He sits down slowly, lays his crutches on the floor, undoes the clasps on his legs, tucks one foot back and extends the other foot forward. Then he bends down and picks up the violin, puts it under his chin, nods to the conductor and proceeds to play.

The audience sits reverently as he makes his way across the stage to his chair, undoes the clasps on his legs, and begins to play. But this time, something goes wrong. As he finishes the first few bars, one of the strings on his violin breaks. I can hear it snap – it resounds like gunfire across the room. There is no mistaking what that sound means. There is no mistaking what he must do.

Everyone thinks to himself: “He will have to get up, put on the clasps again, pick up the crutches and limp his way offstage – to find another string or another violin.” But he doesn’t. Instead, he pauses, shuts his eyes and signals the conductor to continue. The orchestra begins, and he plays from where he left off. And he plays with a passion, power and purity that the audience has never heard.

Of course, everyone knows that it is impossible to play a symphonic work with only three strings. I know that, and you know that, but tonight, this musician refuses to know that. You can see him modulating, changing, and recomposing the piece in his head. He seems to be re-tuning the strings to produce sounds that they have never made.

When he finishes, the room is filled with an awed silence. And suddenly, every corner of the auditorium bursts out in applause. They are on their feet, screaming and cheering, doing everything to show how much they appreciate his performance.

He smiles, wipes the sweat from this brow, raises his bow to quiet us, and then says, not boastfully, but in a quiet, pensive tone, “You know, sometimes it is the musician’s task to find out how much music he can make with what is left.”

What a powerful line that is. It has lingered in my mind ever since. Who knows? Perhaps this episode portrays an attitude about life – not just for musicians, but also for us all.

Perhaps our task in this unstable, fast-changing, bewildering world is to make music, at first with all that we have, and then, when that is no longer possible, with whatever we have left.

“Words are the pen of the heart; music is the pen of the soul.”
—Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi

“Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do – they will surprise you with their ingenuity.”