Violinist Itzhak Perlman celebrates his 70th birthday on August 31st. Violinist Itzhak Perlman celebrates his 70th birthday on August 31st. Violinist Itzhak Perlman celebrates his 70th birthday on August 31. (Photo: Theo Wargo/Getty Images)

How Itzhak Perlman has kept the violin cool

As he receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom, we look at how the classical musician has inspired generations.

Itzhak Perlman, the Israel-born, New York-based violinist is receiving one of America's highest honors. Perlman has been in the public eye since the 1950s, when he was recognized as a prodigy by a discerning American public. In the ensuing years he's been the instrument's ambassador to generations of kids, showing that the violin is a hip instrument worth picking up and playing. Here are just a few of the ways in which he's done that:

He rocks out ... with rock stars

Perlman has come as close to pop-culture celebrity as a classical musician can these days. And with that celebrity he's gained famous friends, none more famous perhaps than Billy Joel. Such a friendship has naturally led to collaborations between the two. During one of Joel's concerts at New York's Madison Square Garden earlier this year, concertgoers got to witness one such collaboration up close.

He's been killin' it since he was a kid

Perlman first came to the attention of America when he appeared on the Ed Sullivan show – at the age of 13! By 18 he was already appearing at Carnegie Hall. His cool cred would increase in 1964 when he again appeared on the Ed Sullivan show, this time in a lineup that included a young band called The Rolling Stones. Not bad for someone who was initially self-taught.

He has a sense of humor

Perlman has helped dispel the notion that classical musicians are uptight and humorless. The above commercial is a good case in point, but in his many public appearances through the years he has never shied away from irony or self-deprecation, essential to his reputation for being an everyman.

He's not afraid to share

Perlman would have every right to closely guard his secrets to success. He's having none of it. He's taught at several schools and has mentored some of the brightest young violinists in the world. He's also involved himself in community programs, helping to spread classical music beyond the elite halls it's historically been confined to.

He's appeared on Sesame Street

Something of a regular throughout the years, Perlman has appeared on the children's show several times. His first guest role was a moving appearance in 1980 in which he courageously put his disability (Perlman contracted polio as a child and has had to use crutches to walk ever since) front and center. In the above clip he duets with Telly.


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