His outsized gifts notwithstanding, Bell lived the life of a “normal” precocious kid on a farm that was always more Seinfeld than Little House on the Prairie. (“We were gentlemen farmers,” Shirley tells me with a brash laugh. “We came from New York!”) There were the usual diversions for a boy of his generation—sports, computers, video games. At 10, he placed first in a statewide tennis tournament and took fourth in the national competition that followed.
Young Bell managed to juggle these wide-ranging activities because he practiced violin only 30 to 40 minutes a day. “He was so brilliant, so efficient with his time,” Zweig explains, that she was always satisfied with his output, though Shirley, she adds, “was probably tearing her hair out.”
In a world where even marginally serious music students review two or more hours a day, Bell’s peers in the classical stratosphere are likely to spend an hour daily on scales alone. Dorothy DeLay, the late Juilliard teacher famous for instructing violin prodigies including Itzhak Perlman, Sarah Chang and Midori, boasted to Town & Country magazine in 1994 that her students “must practice a minimum of five hours a day, but of course they have the violins in their hands much longer because they must rehearse at least three hours on top of that.” By contrast, “If Josh had had to practice five, six hours a day,” Shirley avers, “he never would have done it.”
His comparatively lackadaisical habits notwithstanding, the 11-year-old Bell earned the respect of one of the leading lights of American violin pedagogy, Josef Gingold, a professor at Indiana University. A courtly, white-haired Russian-Jewish immigrant born in Brest-Litovsk, Gingold inspired his protégé to greater devotion and mastery through weekly lessons in which he listened to Bell and instructed him but also played for him. “In my ear,” Bell tells me wistfully, “I can still imagine exactly the way he would play certain things.”
As a teacher, the oft-smiling Gingold “didn’t get results by being a scary figure. He did it by being such a warm, wonderful person,” Bell recalls. Their bond was founded in a love for music and their common Jewish heritage. “It’s not something we talked about, but the fact that we shared that background definitely made him feel more like immediate family.”