About neuroscience and music (mainly classical). Exploring the relationship of music and the brain based on experience of two careers.

May 7, 2013

Mentors, Embezzlers, Musician's Dystonia

by Carl Ellenberger, MD

Every musician can thank at least one mentor who inspired him or her to become a musician. Mine was John Stavash. He played many instruments, the flute, piccolo, clarinet, oboe, saxophone, violin, and probably others around greater Cleveland as a freelancer in orchestras, shows, community bands, weddings, and by financial necessity, wherever and whenever he was asked. 

"Mr. Stavash," as we called him, was the guy who walked into school classrooms all over town lugging a pile of band instruments to perhaps catch the interest of some of the students, and eventually maybe to rent or sell to their parents so their kids could join the band. He was usually late, in a rumpled brown suit and tie, stocky, almost bear-like, but humble and soft spoken. Although of recent middle-European descent he spoke perfect unaccented English. 

John was also the go-to guy for many of the Cleveland Orchestra players when their instruments needed repair, probably often on an urgent basis because George Szell had no mercy for a wind player with a leaking key (as one painfully learned--and then threw all three parts of his disassembled oboe at Szell, much as an Iraqi reporter more recently threw both shoes at another George. That's also the musical equivalent of a browbeaten junior surgeon zapping the forehead of the senior surgeon with a Bovie electrocautery knife.)

Once a week at 4:30-5:00 Mr. Stavash would arrive at my house for the 4 pm 'half-hour' lesson, leaving only a few minutes before dinner. That was for several years before he established his studio. By then I could drive myself to lessons and they would be kept closer to a schedule. Educator's Music in Lakewood is still run by John's son, "Little John," a clarinetist, and Carol, his daughter, a flutist. One memory that stands out from the repair shop in the back (where I learned how to repair a flute) is of a huge barrel of cyanide (or so I was told). That served as a very efficient way to rid silver flutes of all traces of tarnish, which seemed to infect mine with regularity. I'm willing to bet that barrel no longer exists.

I never knew how John learned about music or how to play all those instruments--I don't think he attended a conservatory. But to my good fortune, unrecognized by me of course at the time, John possessed all the right instincts about wind playing, especially the production of tone and breathing, but also about how to make printed notes into music. (My deficiencies in the latter category probably frustrated him, and indeed, took more decades to develop.) 

Also unrecognized by me at the time, one reason he was such a good flute teacher was that his daughter, Carol, a year ahead of me in school, was also a flutist, a better one than I. He handed both of us off to orchestra players during our last years of high school. Before Carol left for the University of Michigan we served as a flute section for several orchestras around town.

Years later John walked into my office in the Neurology Department at Cleveland's University Hospitals. He thought he might have Parkinson's Disease. He had developed difficulty controlling the 3rd and 4th fingers of his left hand, only when playing the piccolo, as he still did in the Lakewood Community Band in the park each summer. I found no signs of Parkinson's Disease and reassured him of that. In 1981 the diagnosis of 'musician's dystonia' was not often recognized, much as it wasn't in the era of Robert Schumann or even a century later in the time of Leon Fleischer and Gary Graffman. (more about that in a future post) So I wasn't much help to John. 

Nevertheless, as he was leaving, he slipped a flute to me in the waiting room, a conventional Haynes plateau model and asked me to try it. The instrument turned out to be astonishingly good, far better for me than the Powell French model I had been using, so I 'borrowed' it for several years until John needed it back for his granddaughter.

Then, bereft of such a wonderful instrument I searched in the usual places for a replacement. In an astonishing coincidence, I found an almost identical Haynes flute for private sale only several blocks away from where I lived. As I tried it and offered to buy it in the living room of the seller's apartment, I asked him if he knew John Stavash. Yes, he said--and then abruptly announced that the flute was no longer for sale.

Perplexed, I mentioned this event to John. The seller, it turned out, was his former employee at Educator's Music. It had taken the FBI years to determine that he was part of an international embezzlement ring that had diverted dozens of instruments in shipment before they reached the store. John had not pressed charges so the employee, a student, was still at large. The flute I wanted had not been among the stolen instruments.

I sent my wife back to his house and, using her name, she bought the flute, the one that I have now played for 30 years. My mother at age 86 dragged John, age 82, from Cleveland to Gretna to hear me play a Quantz concerto on it to open our inaugural season at Elizabethtown College.

In a future post I will summarize what we now know, and don't, about musician's dystonia, a surprisingly common problem among classical players.

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