One of Adrian Anantawan’s earliest memories of wanting to play the violin is watching a segment on Sesame Street.
In that clip, world-renowned musician Itzhak Perlman enters the scene in crutches and approaches a character named Telly as he is playing the tuba. Perlman sits, puts his crutches down and takes out his violin. The two then perform a rendition of Beethoven’s Minuet in G.
That moment captivated a young Anantawan. In part because it was the first time he saw a person who somewhat resembled him on TV.
I think after music and after playing the violin, that really did open up many social avenues just because it wasn’t about how I looked when I played the violin. It was very much about how I sounded.
“Perlman, who is probably the reigning violin virtuoso of our time, suffered from polio, and he was a huge inspiration,” Anantawan, who was born without fingers on his right hand, said.
“One of the things that struck me was that he had to walk up on the concert stage with crutches,” he added. “And while that was a struggle for him, when he actually did play and sat down, it was just the most phenomenal, beautiful, expressive playing on the instrument ever.”
Perlman would later become a mentor for Anantawan in his music career. But as a young boy growing up in Toronto, Canada, Anantawan faced challenges most kids did not.
He struggled with certain tasks, like tying his shoes, cutting his nails or using a knife to eat. He said school often made him feel isolated as a result.
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One of those moments was during a music class when he was 9 years old. All the students were to learn how to play the recorder, Anantawan recalled. But as the instrument had too many holes for the amount of fingers he had, Anantawan didn’t know what to do.
It was then that he and his parents started looking at different options. They tried the trumpet, but it was too loud. Anantawan also wasn’t much of a singer. And so, his mother decided to let him try the violin.
After buying the instrument, his parents hired a teacher and took the violin to a local rehabilitation center. The center developed a customized handle that could be attached to the bow of a violin. The device seemed to work for Anantawan, and he soon took his new hobby of playing his instrument seriously.
Anantawan would go on to win competitions, play for the National Youth Orchestra of Canada and get accepted into the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Music allowed Anantawan to perform at the same level of his able-bodied peers, he said.
“I think after music and after playing the violin, that really did open up many social avenues just because it wasn’t about how I looked when I played the violin. It was very much about how I sounded,” he said.
“I realize that there are certain things in music that informed who I was as an interpreter and as an artist, not necessarily what was a disability,” he added. “This was something unique that I had to say to the world, as compared to someone else.”
At 34, Anantawan has become one of the world’s most accomplished violinists. He has performed at the White House, for Pope John Paul II, the Dalai Lama and at the Vancouver Winter Olympics. He’s even worked with his idols, including Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman and Anne-Sophie Mutter.
Anantawan, who is of Chinese and Thai descent, said he owes much of his upbringing to his success.
“I think that my parents certainly instilled in me the idea that challenges weren’t necessarily things to run away from, but just opportunities to grow,” he said. “They probably instilled this idea of working hard for everything because I had to. In order to survive and do daily routine stuff, I really had to work twice as hard.”
One of the things that struck me was that he had to walk up on the concert stage with crutches. And while that was a struggle for him, when he actually did play and sat down, it was just the most phenomenal, beautiful, expressive playing on the instrument ever.
But while Anantawan has performed with some of the most elite musicians, he admits wondering whether he was being offered opportunities because of his disability.
“I think that it took me a while to sort that out within my mind in terms of being called upon because I was unique in some way,” he said. “Like, am I really good enough in order to play in this world? If I was completely able-bodied, do I still have something to say?”
“It was much later that it came with a sense of peace that art is all about celebrating what is unique within our experiences,” he added.
These days, Anantawan continues to perform around the world, but has also found a passion in teaching. After earning a master’s degree in education at Harvard, he recently became chair of the music department at Massachusetts’ Milton Academy. In addition to that, he works with adaptive technology to help people with disabilities get into the arts.
One of the projects he’s worked on is an instrument called the Virtual Music Instrument, which translates physical motions into sound. His goal is to implement tools like that into his teaching.
For Anantawan, seeing the increasing presence of technology in the classroom has been encouraging because he didn’t have that growing up. He says his dream is to help create ways for able-bodied and disabled people to play in an orchestra together.
“It’s going to be interesting now that the tools are there to use them in a way that promotes social connection and inclusivity, rather than isolation,” he said. “I’d like to be able to start something that gives opportunities to children with disabilities to make music, and to have a way to express themselves that goes beyond whatever disability they’re labeled as because music has that power.”