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

December 24, 2014

An die Musik

Not much to do this Christmas Eve, laid up with a cold watching the rain fall from gray skies outside. So I thought of sending this message from Franz Schubert for the holidays:


O blessed art, how often in dark hours,
when the savage ring of life tightens around me,
have you kindled warm love in my heart,
and borne me to a better world!

Often a sigh, escaping from your harp,
a sweet, celestial chord
has revealed to me a heaven of happier times,
O blessed art, I thank you for that!

Bryn Terfel and Malcolm Martineau...




By Miles Hoffman...


Schubert’s song may well be the most beautiful thank-you note anyone has ever written, but it’s also something else. It’s a credo, a statement of faith in the wondrous powers of music, and by its very nature an affirmation of those powers. We may view it as a statement of expectations as well. The poet thanks Music for what it has done for him, but there is nothing in his words that would make us think that Music’s powers are exhausted, and indeed the noble, exalted character of Schubert’s music would lead us to believe that Music’s powers are, if anything, eternal, and eternally dependable.

But just how does our gracious Art exercise these powers? How does it comfort us, charm us, kindle our hearts? We might start our search for answers by positing two fundamentals: a fundamental pain and a fundamental quest. A fundamental pain of our human condition is loneliness. No surprise here: We’re born alone, we’re alone in our consciousness, we die alone, and, when loved ones die, we’re left alone. And pain itself, including physical pain, isolates us and makes us feel still more alone, completing a vicious circle. Our fundamental quest—by no means unrelated to our aloneness and our loneliness—is the quest for meaning, the quest to make sense of our time on earth, to make sense of time itself.







November 25, 2014

Watch Your Back

by Carl Ellenberger, MD

Although this post has little to do with music, the odds are good that some musical readers will find it useful. 

Chronic low back pain is the most common cause of disability and the largest category of medical expenditure in the US healthcare system. The system's response to it is a good example of what is wrong with the system. 

Treatment consumes about $100 billion a year in the US, 9% of total health care costs, not counting the cost of lost work. The fact that more than 200 cures are currently promoted amply shows that only a few can be proven slightly better than no treatment at all -- and only in selected cases.

Most back pain (80-90%) in otherwise healthy people occurs in episodes naturally limited to less than a few weeks that don't need medical attention regardless of severity. When pain remains for more than 3 months, it is called "chronic." That's what we are talking about here. 

If you have had cancer, tuberculosis, HIV, or certain other chronic diseases this doesn't necessarily apply to you. 

In an earlier post I wrote, "...more health problems than you might think can be solved by better understanding than by pills, injections, or surgery." Back pain is one.

So if your back pain is chronic, before having another injection or operation read Watch Your Back by Richard A. Deyo, MD, Professor of Evidence-Based Medicine at Oregon Health and Sciences University who writes with the authority of broad clinical and research experience. Importantly, Deyo does not promote any particular procedure. He writes in a lively style for the general public. 

You may need to revise your thinking about this problem; doing so may change your thinking about other medical problems. Some conventional rules don't apply. For example, when you have pain, you should continue, without fear of harm, the activity that makes it happen, not try to avoid pain by resting. 

A cause in the spine may not be found even by MRI, though if you are an adult, MRI may show more than one abnormality related to normal wear, such as a bulging disk. Know that if you submit to an MRI, you are twice as likely to submit to surgery. If you submit to surgery you are ten times more likely to have more surgery within ten years. Eighty percent of post-operative patients continue to need pain killers, including opioids (aka narcotics), indefinitely.

Deyo argues persuasively that the responsibility for treating low back pain is yours, done by you, not to you, guided by 'providers' who are not invested in what they provide. A typical spinal fusion operation, a current fad done for pain with increasing frequency, distributes its reimbursement of >$100,000 to many "providers" and manufacturers (think $500 screws) but cannot be proved more effective for pain than no treatment at all. Fusion may be necessary to stabilize your spine after an injury. 

Effective treatment involves a long and difficult life-style change but is your best chance of avoiding a lifetime of disability, depression, and reliance on opioids. This treatment changes the "pain module" of the brain, not anatomy of the spine, by means of cognitive-behavioral and exercise therapy. The concept is consistent with new thinking about the brain and its plasticity--the same plasticity that enables learning of a Beethoven sonata and causes dystonia in rare instances.

I hear you saying, "That's easy for you to say, but you haven't experienced the terrible pain that I have every day. It can't be "all in my head." There must be something terribly wrong where it hurts." You're the doctor. Do something! Deyo reminds us that acute pain is a protective sensation to call attention to the location of an injury. When pain becomes chronic, that simple relationship dissolves, the brain continues to falsely signal pain even after the original injury has healed, and the treatment becomes different. It becomes useless to keep trying to repair the original stimulus that created the pain. (That's like changing golf clubs after you have hit a bad shot.) Therapeutic efforts must turn to ways to change networks in the brain, as they must to treat chronic headache or chronic pain anywhere.

So it is not unreasonable to suspect that the epidemic of low back pain in the US has in one sense been created, at least in part, by the health care system. After all, $100,000+ for a back operation provides work and profits for many people, usually excepting the victim of the pain.


Deyo writes:

"...every system is perfectly designed to get the results that it gets. If our health care system generates high costs, promotes ineffective care, and creates avoidable complications, it's because we've inadvertently designed the system to get exactly those results.

In care for back pain, we do this by performing tests when they're unlikely to help and responding to alarming but meaningless results. We do it by prescribing medications and procedures with proven risks but unproven benefits. We do it by by expecting a quick fix from a probe, a pill, or a procedure when real benefits require harder lifestyle changes. We do it with unrealistic expectations of a pain-free life. We do it by responding to financial incentives for more rather than better care. And we do it by ignoring and underfunding the treatments that appear to be most helpful.

For back pain, here are the results: steadily increasing use of imaging tests, opioids, injections, and surgery. Costs that are rising faster than the rest of medical care. And at a population level, worsening patient function and work disability. We've perfectly designed our health care system to produce these results.

It's easier to understand this situation if you remember that the back business is indeed a business. This is the story of too much medical care today. In a for-profit health care system, the first concern is the bottom line rather than the patient's welfare. And too often it follows a business ethos: caveat emptor -- buyer beware."

Full disclosure: I wrote the guideline for use of MRI in low back pain for the American Academy of Neurology in 1994. It recommends limiting MRI to patients who have had pain for over 7 weeks. By then pain has gone in almost 90% of cases. But for some of them knowing for the rest of their lives they have a degenerated, bulging, or herniated disk may not make their lives better. A herniated ("slipped") disk is not like an inguinal hernia. You don't have to repair it.

Addendum, November, 2016: Expert advice from Neurology Today:
After 10 years or more, 44 percent of fusion patients are terribly disabled and are moving onto the Social Security rolls,” he told Neurology Today. “I believe the highest priorities today in back pain are to halt or significantly curtail the use of opioids, stop invasive procedures, and develop protocols for cognitive behavioral therapy and graded exercise.” 
An emerging body of evidence points to coordinated, multidisciplinary rehabilitation focused on teaching patients how to better cope with their pain through cognitive-behavioral therapy, meditation, and other mindfulness techniques, Dr. Franklin said. Programs that combine active physical therapy with cognitive-behavioral therapy have the potential to change how back pain is treated, he said.

November 2, 2014

ReJoyce! Singers in the back row stopped texting.

Memorable experience last Sunday afternoon in Carnegie Hall: Alcina. A breathtaking performance of Handel's last (of dozens) opera by The English Concert conducted by Harry Bicket. (Do you remember? That's the same group who attracted an audience of ~200 in Elizabethtown when we had to paper the house a few years ago.) 

Sunday was one of the series Joyce DiDonato curated for this season in Carnegie. Joyce as Alcina and a small cast of others whose names you might not recognize (see Tony Tommasini's review) delivered some of the best singing I have ever heard. 

Alas, most human beings have the misfortune to live entire lives without hearing a Handel opera. 

Alex Ross wrote a wonderful profile of Joyce last year. 

She sang the National Anthem at the last World Series game. More Kansans were familiar with the singer from "Staind" who forgot the words (maybe his first waltz?) before game 5. 

Do Joyce and Stained represent the bipolar state of music in America?

Did I mention DiDonato's Juilliard commencement address?






October 6, 2014

Flute Flamingo and Gretna Semiotics

You have heard stories about patients in hard times paying doctors with a chicken or a head of cabbage. In my view that's a better system than the Byzantine one in the US under which we spend part of our fee to justify it to the insurance company and the insurer tries to find reasons not to pay.

In Gretna, however, we bring humor and sophistication to the exchange, not just farm produce, and cut the insurers out of the transaction. Here, for example, is payment for a comprehensive neurologic "Evaluation and Management Service," E & M 99206.xxxxx. (Don't bother with 12 pages detailing what the service entails. If any of its required parts, say "one fact each about past, family and social history," are not properly documented, the hapless doctor can go to jail.)


Flute (piccolo) Flamingo, parts contributed by other instruments

The artist is my neighbor, Max Hunsicker, a drummer and musician who has has introduced generations of school children to the joys of music and Broadway plays and shows. One of Max's many talents is fashioning a flamingo for any occasion: to advertise the annual homeowners meeting, the beginning of the school year, or to mock the "Shitauqua," a sewage pumping station that sprouted last Spring to greet drivers as they emerge in our Shangri-La out of the long tunnel of trees on route 117. 

Any resident may awaken to find a pink flamingo nailed to a tree in his yard. Ours is a pair, one playing a piano, the other a flute. When I broke my leg, a flamingo appeared on a pair of crutches. The practice has gone on for over 20 years, but the flamingos have only recently achieved three-dimensional form.

We presented another member of the musical flamingo family to Susan, another neighbor, to reward her for her fine service as our board president.








September 9, 2014

Bassoons, again

The Wedding-Guest here beat his breast,
For he heard the loud bassoon.

. . . from Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner
"Coleridge didn’t know much about the bassoon . . . or he wouldn’t have said it was loud. The bassoon’s liability as an orchestral instrument is that it is quite soft, much softer in volume than its size would suggest. . . . But bassoonists the world over are grateful to Coleridge for including them in his stanza."

I have known many bassoonists. This one, the fictitious Paul Chowder in Nicholson Baker's Traveling Sprinkler, is a hoot:

"My bassoon was a Heckel bassoon, made of maplewood, stained very dark, almost black, with a nickel-plated ring on top. I loved it because it looked like a strange undersea plant, something that would live in the darkness of the Marianas Trench, near a toxic fumarole. My wonderful grandparents bought it for me, and I performed Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade on it, and Ravel’s Bolero, and Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, and Vivaldi’s A minor bassoon concerto.

People often confuse the words “bassoon” and “oboe….” I think it’s because the word “oboe” sounds sort of like a sound emanating from a bassoon: oboe. But the two instruments look very different. The oboe is small and black and your eyes pop out staringly when you play it, and it’s used all the time in movie soundtracks during plaintive moments, whereas the bassoon is a brown snorkel that pokes up at an angle above the orchestra. You almost feel you could play it underwater while the violists and oboists gasp and splutter.

Hindemith, a composer, outraged me when he wrote that the bassoon, “with its clattering long levers and other obsolete features left in a somewhat fossil condition,” was due for a major overhaul. I had to admit, though, that the keys did make a lot of noise. There’s no way to play a fast passage without some extraneous clacking. Listen to Scheherazade—you’ll hear all kinds of precise metallic noises coming from the bassoonist.

I put in thousands of hours of practice, shredding my lips, permanently pushing my two front teeth apart. And then I decided I wasn’t going to be a musician, because I wasn’t that good, and my jaw was hurting badly and I had headaches from too much blowing. I was going to be a poet instead. I sold my beloved Heckel to Bill, my bassoon teacher, for ten thousand dollars. Suddenly I felt free and very rich. I quit music school and flew to Berkeley, California, and took a poetry class with Robert Hass, who was a good teacher.

Selling my bassoon was one of the biggest mistakes I’ve ever made. I’ve regretted it a thousand times since. And here’s the strange thing. I’ve written three books of poems, and I’ve never once written a bassoon poem. I have never used the word “bassoon” in a single poem. Not once. I guess I was saving it up, which is not always a good idea.

August 28, 2014

Rachmaninov: All-Night Vigil (Vespers)

There may be a reason you never heard--or heard of--Rachmaninov's Vespers, and for the unusual difficulty I had finding out about it to prepare for my pre-concert talk on Sept 7, when Choral Arts Philadelphia will sing Vespers in the Playhouse by candlelight. Inna Lobanova-Heasley, a native Russian and singer with Choral Arts explains:
During my first 24 years of life in the Soviet Russia, having studied classical music and its history at a full-time music school for eight years, I had no idea about the existence of the Vespers or any other sacred music by any other composer whatsoever! This is how well this information was locked away from public eye in the Soviet Union.  
(Link to blog post with musical clip below)
We talked about how Christianity was brought to Russia almost two millennia ago, its liturgy, primarily by St. John Chrysostom, entirely in song (June 29). Though Rachmaninov avoided affiliation with the established church, he was not an irreligious man and church music and ritual were powerful influences on his life. "Vespers" is an English translation of the original Vsenoshchnoye bdeniye, literally "All-Night Vigil," music for a night-long service celebrated in Russian monasteries and, on the eves of holy days, in Russian Orthodox churches.

The text contains Russian Orthodox versions of Latin hymns familiar to Westerners, including the Gloria in excelsis, Ave Maria, the Magnificat and the Nunc dimittis. As in the Latin Vespers service, the source of most of the text is the Book of Psalms and the Gospels. Several sections come from age-old Znamenny chants, traditional monophonic songs known from the first consistently identifiable znamenniy (signs) by which Russian sacred music was notated, the chants dating back at least to the fifteenth century and probably earlier. Others are based on what the Russian church calls Greek chant, a seventeenth-century refinement involving the use of one-note recitatives and simple melismas. Two are traditional Kiev chants, with music alternating, in the style of Ukrainian folk music, between recitative and melodic parts. Finally, two songs are designated as troparia, examples of an ancient type of poetic invocation used in Eastern and Russian Orthodox services. (Nick Jones)

Rachmaninov wrote the Vespers in 1915 when at the height of his powers at age 42 according to the church tradition of unaccompanied voices. After his escape from the revolution in 1917 with his family on an open sled to Helsinki, he felt that he had lost some of his creativity. He became a touring virtuoso pianist playing is own compositions (like "Rach 1, 2, and 3" concertos), and living in Hollywood, probably experiencing new kinds of All-Night Vigils.

Notes: This concert will NOT last all night! Inna Lobanova-Heasley's lovely blog post is here.

August 11, 2014

"My Music"

One time I started listing what Leonard Bernstein meant by "hardening of the categories": rock, classical, pop, country-western, jazz…. A long list, maybe an artifact of recording-era catalogs. 

Some of our patrons come for only one concert each summer, the one in their category.

One determinant of your category is when you grew up. We can predict the age of the audience at Gretna Theater's "retrospectives: music of the '40's, '50's," etc. (disregard the roaring '20's background at intermissions), and maybe those attending our August 30 Tierney Sutton sings Joni Mitchell (music of the '70's, '80's; category: "pop/rock/jazz"). That's because, according to psychologist Dan Levitin, 
Fourteen is a sort of magic age for the development of musical tastes. You’re in the ninth grade, confronting the tyrannies of sex and adulthood, struggling to figure out what kind of adult you’d like to be, and you turn to the cultural products most important in your day as sources of cool — the capital of young life. Musical tastes become a badge of identity in social contexts framed by pop culture.
I don't know the science of that assertion but it held true for me. As a child I raced through categories. Home sick from first grade I called in a request to local AM radio for a gospel song, Up Above My Head. Next I marched to the Cities Service Band of America every Monday night after we finally got FM. I liked broadcasts of Marian McPartland and the Oklahoma City Symphony and the Boston Pops and Leroy Anderson. I wish my parents had listened to the Met Opera on Saturday afternoons.

At about age thirteen, after hearing my father play them since I learned to walk, I invaded his collection of "78's." Schubert, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Sibelius were his badges of identity, and thus became mine. An identity like his was my goal.

Millennials speak of "my music." If it fits into a category ("genre" on iTunes), they may not know which, but they can easily find the most popular songs, the sources of cool. Many avoid the classical genre ("your music," they say), as some parents, schools, and even churches have. What will they will listen to when they mature?

Like arteries, categories start hardening early in life. I try to keep mine open. 

"Music, Mr. Gershwin," said Alban Berg, "is music."





July 27, 2014

Music vs. Alzheimer

by Carl Ellenberger, MD

"I hope (with no evidence) that playing the flute (actually practicing hard and thoughtfully) every day improves my physical and mental health and may delay (for how long?) Alzheimer's or vascular disasters." (CAN MUSIC HEAL? July 6)

That hope made sense to me in several ways partly because music is a language and multilingualism has been found in studies to delay Alzheimer's Disease.

My hope is also supported by a study I just stumbled upon by psychologists at the University of Toronto. After testing middle to older-age adults, they concluded:
Musicians outperformed non-musicians on [several transfer tasks] and on a composite measure of cognitive control. The results suggest that sustained music training or involvement is associated with improved . . . cognitive functioning in older adults.
("Transfer" means the transfer of skills learned in one task, like playing the flute, to others like, say, building a birdhouse, though they didn't test those particular tasks.)  

The article is understandable by anyone without specialized training. It reviews evidence supporting other benefits of playing music at all ages. It is a good example of what I said (July 6) about the difference between hopes, aims, claims, programs, unequivocal beliefs, ultimate goals, and evidence-based science--when you talk about the reasons for playing and listening to music. 

It isn't, however, the 'final answer' to any question, just one small piece that needs to be confirmed in the mosaic of understanding music in the brain, which is one only aspect of brain function. It points in the direction of more experiments.

Even more accessible to the general reader is Secrets of the Creative Brain by Nancy Andreasen in The Atlantic (July/August). In a wonderful article she mentions a 2007 study that found that orchestral musicians have a more active Broca's area of neocortex, one of the areas associated with language. Creative people more likely have mood disorders and families with schizophrenia.

July 14, 2014

Welcome to our 2014 Festival of Russian Music, Pt. II

(to Follow Pt. I, June 29)


The first great Russian composer to import native Russian music traditions into the realm of secular classical music was Mikhail Glinka (1804–1857), who composed the early Russian language operas A Life for the Tsar and Ruslan and Ludmila (listen to Anna Netrebko’s 1995 recording of that opera.) They were neither the first operas in the Russian language nor the first by a Russian, but they gained fame for relying on distinctively Russian tunes and themes and the vernacular.


Russian folk music became the primary source for the next generation composers. A group that was inadvertently named by a journalist and called itself "The Mighty Little Band" (moguchaya kuchka) of talented musical mavericks and autodidacts, headed by Balakirev and including Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky (July 6), Borodin and César Cui, proclaimed its purpose to compose and popularize Russian national traditions in classical music. Glinka and the kuchka (A.K.A. "Mighty Five") based their works on Russian history, folk tales and literature and they are now regarded as masterpieces of romantic nationalism in music. Tchaikovsky (July 6 and 20 Aug 9,) was the first Russian composer to rise beyond nationalism and gain international fame, benefitting from the French ballet industry seeking patronage in Russia as its support dwindled in France. He participated in the inaugural concert of Carnegie Hall in 1891.

The lives and works of twentieth-century Russian composers, in particular Stravinsky (Aug 9 and 31), Rachmaninov (Aug 3, Sept 7), Prokofiev (July 6 and 20), and Shostakovich (Aug 9), all intersected the World Wars, the 1917 Russian Revolution and the rise of the Soviet Union. They and others were strongly influenced by these collisions.

Stravinsky found refuge in Paris early enough escape persecution and to benefit from collaboration with the celebrated (Russian émigré) dance impresario Serge Diaghilev. He burst onto the world stage at age 28 with three ballets between 1910 in 1913 including Le Sacre du Printemps that caused a riot. He later emigrated to New York.

Emigrating on an open sled with his family to Helsinki in 1917 at age 44 Rachmaninoff also escaped persecution and wars and embarked on a busy career in the US managed by a concert agent as pianist and conductor. His burden was the feeling, shared by others, that he left his inspiration behind, in Russia and also in the 19th century. He wrote Vespers (All-night Vigil) in Petrograd in 1915 (to be performed Sept 7).

Prokofiev and Shostakovich became literally prisoners of Joseph Stalin. Lured back from the US to Russia in 1936 (the year he wrote Peter and the Wolf) hoping to rescue a faltering career, Prokofiev was largely disappointed—and then the exit doors closed. Unhappy, he left his wife Lina for a student, and shortly afterwards Lina was imprisoned for 8 years in the gulag. Prokofiev died in 1953, literally unnoticed because Stalin also died that day and Russians flocked into the streets for days of ceremonies and parades. After her release Lina spent the rest of her life, 33 years, as her former husband’s cultural ambassador.

In 1936 after walking out of a command performance Stalin threatened Shostakovich’s life in a ‘review’ in Pravda. The opera, Lady MacBeth of the Mtsensk District, like the musical plays of the skomorokhi, threatened the dictator (a “formalistic” work that justifies murder of a tyrant: “a muddle instead of music”). The threat could not escape notice of all Soviet composers and some sided with the regime. Shostakovich withdrew his Fourth Symphony--a musical prediction of the horrors to come -- and offered the (apparently) less ‘formalistic’ Fifth Symphony, “a composer’s response to justified criticism.” Oblivious to the irony in the subtitle and the ‘forced rejoicing’ in the music, a cheering audience gave a 30-minute standing ovation at the premiere. The Fifth may have saved the composer’s life (but not the lives of some of his family and friends). Thereafter arose the tendency to look for hidden messages in Soviet art and especially in Shostakovich’s music.

After WW II The Soviet Ministry of Culture convened in 1946-8 an extraordinary series of conferences at which charges were brought against deviant artists in literature, film and music. All were charged with “formalism,” writing works that were “against the people,” a code for elite modernism, something that the doctrine of socialist realism expressly forbade (as Aaron Copland was persuaded to tone down the end of his ‘modernistic’ Third Symphony on the US side of the cold war). Shostakovich’s works were banned, he was fired from the Moscow Conservatory, and that is when he wrote the “antiformalistic rayok,” to the tune of Stalin’s favorite song, Suliko, satirizing the regime and echoing the medieval skomorkhi. Conscripted to write music for Stalin’s self-congratulatory films Shostakovich felt that assignment may have actually prolonged his life, at least until Stalin died. After the dictator’s death the Fourth Symphony premiered in 1961.

On a rare visit to the West in 1958, according to Isaiah Berlin, “Shostakovich looked like a man who had passed most of his life in some dark forbidding place under supervision of jailers…his face would assume a haunted, even persecuted expression and he would fall into a terrified silence.” The humor of the student concerto we will hear on August 9 eventually turned more dark and sarcastic. He was clearly affected by the horror of repression during the war and the Soviet era and most compositions reflect that. Shortly after he was diagnosed with ALS he dedicated his String Quartet No 8 in 1960 "to the victims of fascism and war." His son, Maxim, interprets this as a reference to the victims of all totalitarianism, while his daughter Galina says that he dedicated it to himself and that the published dedication was imposed by the Russian authorities. Shostakovich's friend, Lev Lebedinsky, said that Shostakovich thought of the work as his epitaph and that he planned to commit suicide around this time. We remember the bird in the rafters of the Playhouse that, contrary to the score, continued singing after the final quiet cello solo ended.

The death of Stalin brought a liberalizing trend--freedom from the “accessibility,” “transparency,” and affirmative public statements demanded by the Soviets. Students were no longer expelled from the Moscow Conservatory for possessing scores of Stravinsky and Schoenberg, and Soviet musicians came into previously risky and forbidden contact with the music of the European avant-garde, Pierre Boulez, for example. Twelve-tone music began to flourish.

But in the 1970’s Alfred Schnittke abandoned serial technique in favor of eclecticism that he called “polystylistics.” His works, clearly those of a resentful marginalized artist, were still prohibited by the regime until the glasnost’ of Mikhail Gorbachev. Then all hell broke loose with 22 concertos, many for an outstanding generation of late-Soviet soloists, abandoning any limits. (Schnittke “undressd in public,” one critic said). His music contains “plush romantic lyricism, chants and chorales and hymns (real or made up), actual or invented ‘historical’ flotsam (neoclassic, neobaroque, even neomedieval), and every make and model of jazz and pop” and “tackled life-against-death, love-against-hate, good-against-evil, freedom-against-tyranny, and I-against-the-world” (Taruskin) much as Shostakovich had tackled evil-against-good.

Schnittke began to command Shostakovich’s immense following. By the time the cold war ended in Europe (with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, followed by the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991) not only Schnittke, but practically his whole generation of Soviet composers--including Sofia Gubaidulina (Aug 31)-- were living abroad...the result of a mass migration or “brain drain” that paralleled the one that attended the beginning of Soviet power in 1917. Of actual “Tatar” or Mongolian descent Gubaidulina’s predilection for religious subject matter has been considered a mark of political dissidence in the waning years of Soviet authority that deemed her music “irresponsible.” Shostakovich encouraged her to continue down her “mistaken path.”

It is always fascinating for me to ponder how the lives of artists affected their work. That is an easier, but frequently a very sad task, when it is about Russians. 

Our Russian Festival continues next Sunday, July 20, at Ware Center in Lancaster at 7:30. Pianist Claire Huangci will play ballet scenes from Prokofiev's Cinderella and Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty. You can use all the same tickets there you usually bring to the Playhouse. Buy more here.
Спасибо за прибытие,
Карл Элленберджер

July 6, 2014

CAN MUSIC HEAL?

Byron Janis is a magnificent pianist. I admire his recordings and treasure my old vinyl disk of his Strauss Burleske with Reiner and the Chicago Symphony. So I was intrigued when a board member asked me as Gretna Music's "resident" (not "renowned") neurologist to comment on Janis' "A Healing Art" in the WSJ (May 8). 

Almost immediately popping into the cloud above my head was an image of a pot of chicken soup, still considered ‘therapeutic’ for just about any ailment. Indeed, sometimes it is -- when you need hydration, nutrients, electrolytes, warmth, loving care from friends and relatives. 

Janis’ pot contains a variety of good stuff: broad generalizations, aims, and assertions like, “the ancients’ drums, rattles and digeridoos--had huge diagnostic and healing properties,” or music “enhances the brain’s ability to facilitate healing,” or “music is believed to recruit uninjured parts of the brain to compensate for parts that have been injured, and help those parts that are injured recover.” 

And Janis throws into his pot anecdotes like “music brought back all the joys the house had known,” or “slowly brought back her ability to speak,” and “many told me how much music had helped their recovery,” or “patients went from being catatonic to fully functional.”

Janis describes a program at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center where, according to the hospital, "working with actual instruments, patients learn, play, compose and record music." The program "aims to enhance the healing process . . . enrich the lives of patients, visitors and staff and help relieve the stress often associated with a hospital setting." Novel idea. Good aims. Maybe we could (hoho) try it in schools?

'All of the above' are good intentions and maybe some will take off. I have no doubt that music can help some people sometimes feel better. Music can soothe or boost emotions. For many people it provides instant comforting familiarity. It can trigger memories and bring to mind forgotten words or verses. Like William Styron (Darkness Visible) I turn to music sometimes when I feel sad. And I hope (with no evidence) that playing (actually practicing hard and thoughtfully) my flute every day improves my physical and mental health and may delay (for how long?) Alzheimer's or vascular disasters. 

Some Parkinson patients can move or walk better to music. And we think that teaching music in early education is more effective for developing young brains than trying to teach statistics or philosophy to pre-kindergartners. And it seems self-evident that teaching children to play the violin in a small group is better education in the long term for some of them than busing the class to a symphony concert. I am all for having a piano, Yamaha or Steinway, in every home, all children learning music, and hope that we can eventually prove that music heals in many ways.

As he disclosed in the WSJ, Janis serves as Presidential Advisor for the Yamaha Music and Wellness Institute (YMWI). Associated, I presume, with Yamaha Corp, manufacturer of musical instruments, YMWI states its "ultimate goal is to enable individuals of all ages, regardless of prior experience, to discover the joy and personal benefits of playing a musical instrument" (for sale by Yamaha). YMWI president, the actual "renowned" neurologist referenced by Janis, Dr. Barry Bittman, has been among a group of authors who published a small amount of "peer-reviewed scientific research focusing on stress reduction from psychosocial to genomic levels utilizing novel creative music expression strategies."

But whether, and how, music may be therapeutic is a huge, complex, daunting challenge. What modes of therapy in what conditions? There are far more hopes, aims, claims, programs, "unequivocal" beliefs, "ultimate goals," articles like this--and apparently conflicting interests--than science bearing on the issue. 

Most medical and "alternative" therapies are used for decades before anyone thinks to test their effectiveness, many enriching the therapists more than the patients, at least after their hope wears off. In previous centuries people fervently believed in the efficacy of leeches, phlebotomy, tonsillectomy. These therapies are still used--but only in specific circumstances, not as universal cures, of everything for everyone. We need to learn the specifics of music therapy too. That's the "challenge" Julene Johnson refers to in a recent PBS Special Report. 

The field or Discipline of "Music Therapy," taught in universities, is "the evidence-based use of music in clinical situations that help people reach desired health outcomes." What actually happens too often is application of the term "music therapy" to any attempts, rarely "evidence-based" to improve lives using music. (Warning: What qualifies me with an ancient board certification in Neurology to pronounce judgment on the entire new discipline of Music Therapy that I know little about? Answer: Not much! But I know what "evidence-based" means.)

The questions must be specific, far more so than "Can Music Heal?" Scientists are working, each with a very narrow piece of the puzzle. Among dozens or hundreds of variables, you must isolate one (say starting piano lessons at age 5 vs. age 8), level all other variables, study large enough groups for valid statistics, and carefully measure the outcome. (Doing so they have found that the earlier age group developed larger corpus callosums in their brains. Note that is not evidence that proves a larger corpus callosum is a good thing or therapeutic, just that early experience can influence the structure of a developing brain.) 

Despite the fact we all think music is good -- err, what kind of music?  Schubert? Phil Dirt and the Dozers? Pit Bull? digeridoos?  -- its therapeutic potential is not self-evident and must be studied and proved in each instance. 

We don’t even know the relative contributions, to musicianship or appreciation, of nature vs. nurture. Are three generations of the Preucil family outstanding musicians because it is in their genes or because all were expected to start practicing at the age of 3 years? (Ans: It's likely that both are necessary, neither alone is sufficient. See * below.)

Yes, we need cheerleaders, like PBS reports, to engage more people and stimulate more research, programs, efforts, etc. All that should come---if the planet survives. 

I do think an easier armchair argument can be made that music (of most kinds) and early music education promote a better (and healthier) humanity than do some sports, especially American football, or the gratuitous violence in films.

* Wonderful example of good brain science anyone can understand.

June 29, 2014

Welcome to our 2014 Festival of Russian Music, pt 1

Добро пожаловать на наш фестиваль русской музыки! 

My first Russian experience came in college when I helped my roommate, Bob Horick, put on a “Russian Arts Festival” a few years after the launch of the world’s first satellite the Russians called Sputnik (спутник). Among other effects, that caused a spike in enrollment in Russian courses. Our music headliners were The Yale Russian Chorus, a group that imitated the Red Army Choir, undoubtedly penned up in Russia at that time (1960). We also screened Serge Eisenstein’s classic 1938 film, Alexander Nevsky, to which Prokofiev contributed his brilliant first film score that was part of the drama, not background accompaniment. A bassoonist then, Bob went on to earn a Ph. D. in Russian and study at Moscow University.

As our Russian theme began to materialize for this summer, curiosity led me to ask Bob, “Why is Russian Orthodox church music a cappella?” (without instrumental accompaniment, as you will hear in the performance of the Rachmaninov Vespers, Sept 7) Another Russian scholar, the great Richard Taruskin who wrote the entire five-volume Oxford History of Western Music, asserts that the last verse of Psalm 150 forbids using musical instruments in worship: Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!  That seemed to me ambiguous because the preceding verses (promptly recited to me by Emi) call for praise with trumpets, harps, flutes and every other instrument you can think of. 

Bob’s answer: “A single word, “Tradition,” as Tevye sings in Fiddler on the Roof. Orthodox writers on music in the church trace back to ancient times the fact that "singing" was how Christians worshipped from the very beginning. In particular the Orthodox Liturgy (primarily the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom) probably travelled from Byzantium via Bulgaria to Russia as singing. In fact, there is nothing spoken in it: everything is chant or penie (pesnopenie): ie, "singing" (song-singing).” In the words of Joseph Kerman: Throughout human history, “heightening by singing has provided words with special emphasis, force, mystery, even magic.” (I think Schubert; others think Billy Joel.)

Bob continues: “When the subject of what we would call music comes up in the Orthodox world, it is "singing." The word "music" (музыки) is a foreign word in Russian (like the French word “ballet” in English). Instrumental music did exist in eastern Slavic lands since ancient times, of course, but it is associated with dissolute behavior, especially dancing, drunkenness, sex, etc.  After old Rus' was Christianized in 988 the priests engaged in relentless purges of all native religious beliefs and especially of the wandering bands of musicians called skomorokhi.  

Skomorokhi were medieval East Slavic harlequins, actors, who could also sing, dance, play musical instruments and compose for their oral/musical and dramatic performances. They appeared in Kievan Rus before the mid-11th century, appealing to the common people and usually opposing the ruling groups, the feudalists, and the clergy, and reached their peak in the 15th–17th centuries. They sang mocking songs, dramatic and satirical sketches called glumy (глумы), performed in masks and skomorokhi dresses to the sounds of domra, balalaika, gudok, bagpipes or buben (a kind of tambourine). Usually the main character was a fun-loving saucy muzhik (мужик = peasant) of comic simplicity. Skomorokhi performed in the streets and city squares engaging with the spectators to draw them into their play. They would sometimes combine their efforts and perform in a vataga (big crowd) numbering 70 to 100 people. 

Skomorokhi were persecuted in the years of the Mongol yoke when the church strenuously propagated ascetic living. A monk chronicler denounced the skomorokhi as devil servants. The Orthodox Church railed against the skomorokhi and other elements of popular culture as being irreverent, detracting from the worship of God, or even downright diabolical. 

In the 18th century the skomorokh art gradually died away; passing on some of its traditions to the balagan (a scene of chaos or fiasco, as in the opening scene of Stravinsky’s Petrushka) and rayok (“small paradise,” a fairground peep show accompanied by lewd rhymed jokes viewed through a magnifying glass.) Shostakovich wrote an “Antiformalistic Rayok” mocking Stalin (see below).


“So,” continues Bob, “you can see that instrumental music had a very bad reputation among the dominant classes, who were obliged to support the Church's policies.” Because of the resistance by the Orthodox church against secular music Russia was a late starter in developing a native tradition of secular 'classical music.' The country, says Taruskin, “emerged as a musical power at about the same point in its history as its emergence as a political and diplomatic power.” Beginning in the reign of Ivan IV, the Imperial Court invited Western composers and musicians to fill this void and by the time of Peter I, these artists were a regular fixture at Court. While not personally inclined toward music, Peter saw European music as a mark of civilization and a way of Westernizing the country; his establishment of the Western-style city of Saint Petersburg helped foster its spread to the rest of the upper classes. A craze for Italian opera at Court during the reigns of Empresses Elisabeth and Catherine also helped spread interest in Western music among the aristocracy. Giovanni Paisiello (Aug 3) was among the many long-term musical visitors to Catherine’s court. His opera, The Barber of Seville (based on the play by Beaumarchais), premiered in St. Petersburg in 1782, 34 years before Rossini’s opera based on the same play, is one of Paisiello’s more than 80(!) operas.

Stay tuned for pt. II.

June 13, 2014

Eye Music

On Sunday July 20 at Ware Center in Lancaster we will hear two great classical ballets, but without the dancers. You might wonder if maybe that's like listening to the Met Opera on a kitchen-table radio, or MTV without the picture. No "visuals," the kids would say. But I assure you that Claire Huangci, the pianist, though a small person, will more than make up for a full orchestra in a pit. And the music is so good you could enjoy it on a bandoneon.

Rough estimates hold that at least 40% of the neural machinery of our brain participates in the processing of visual images focused on the retinas of the eyes. Evolution has adapted these vision-related regions, many of them in the posterior parts (back half) of the cerebrum, to receive the visual information and integrate it with other sensory information (touch, hearing, etc) and other functions of the brain--language, emotions, a wide range of spatial functions, memory, and "theory of mind" (look it up on Wikipedia). Years of normal seeing during an average human life enhance these abilities and connections because of the brain's "plasticity." 
But sight is not necessary for many of our abilities. Take for example language or music. Congenitally blind persons can speak languages and also play and sing music, substituting their ability to reproduce what they hear for their inability to read words or notes. Blind pianists substitute non-visual sensory cues to depress the right keys for their inability to actually see the keys. “Substitute” is a key word.

You might wonder whether a blind person's previously idle visual machinery is especially receptive to getting a job and 'welcomed' the input. Just as you might wonder whether Ray Charles called upon parts of his idle brain visual mechanism to enhance his music.
A group of researchers* has used a “sensory substitution device” (SSD) to help people blind from birth, or blinded later in life. They call it “EyeMusic.” Their work is based on the principle that when information is delivered to the visual machinery of the brain, that mechanism may utilize it as if it were visual information. But instead of visual images they delivered musical sounds, produced by natural instruments. It is astonishing how quickly blind people could begin to describe a visual scene or object or movement and even color, after they have learned that certain musical sounds have been designated as codes for certain visual characteristics. A translation, if you will.

This ‘translation’ could prove in some ways like learning a second language. At first we translate word by word from English to French, for example, but eventually (say, if we move to France) the English recedes and the French prevails and we not only speak but think in French. Music, a very complex language with many variables -- rhythm, tempo, pitch, harmony, timbre, intensity, volume, etc -- is the type of sensory stimulus that comes close to the complexity of a visual image, even closer perhaps than spoken language (at least as used by an average non-poet or novelist). While these changes, examples of brain "plasticity," take place, modern imaging techniques (like fMRI) can show them in progress by displaying the changes in the regions of the brain that are active.

You may think of this when you listen to Claire Huangci play 'scenes' from two famous ballets d'action, Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty and Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, on the piano at Ware Center, July 20. A fuller experience of  the ballets may depend on your imagination residing at least in part in your extrastriate and other nearby areas of visual cortex. Or you might contend that the music, some of the best by both composers, 'speaks' for itself.

*Amir Amedi

June 3, 2014

LIBERAL THIS, LIBERAL THAT

When commenting on the Senate's confirmation of Theodore Mitchell as Under Secretary, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said: 
“He will lead us through this important time in higher education as we continue to work toward the President’s goal to produce the best-educated, most competitive workforce in the world by 2020.” 
So, education is for producing a "competitive workforce?" 

How sad.

Though others might, I'm sure neither President Obama nor Secretary Duncan believe that education is only for getting a job. That attitude could herald another "Great Leap Forward" or a surge in enrollment in classes on diesel mechanics at community colleges! 

Many current college grads don't find jobs, anyway.

I (now an old fossil) would start again by heading for a modern version of a medieval university to study the trivium: logic, rhetoric, and grammar (how to think, speak, and write) then the Quadrivium outlined by Plato in The Republic: arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy, the four "sciences" comprising the liberal arts. 

That "Liberal" has nothing to do
 "with those designer labels 'liberal' and 'conservative' that some so lovingly stitch on to every idea they pull off, or put on, the rack."
And, as Bart Giamatti also noted, "liberal" modifying arts, is not necessarily the same "liberal" that can modify education,
"unless one studies . . . in a spirit which. . . seeks no immediate sequel, which is independent of a profession's advantage. If you pursue the study of anything not for the intrinsic rewards of exercising and develop the power of the mind but because you press toward a professional goal, then you are not pursuing a liberal education but rather something else." 
Burdened by heavy reality in American life -- to have any value at all anything must have a price tag -- Secretary Duncan spoke almost three decades after Bart's extraordinary Presidential address to incoming students at Yale College. 
"A liberal education is defined by the attitude of the mind toward the knowledge the mind explores and creates. Such education occurs when you pursue knowledge because you are motivated to experience and absorb what comes of thinking."
When I offered this view of college at a meeting of the Pennsylvania Medical Society to evaluate the "pre-med" curriculum, I was quickly marked as wacko: "there's too much information to stuff doctors' heads with, you dummy." (That was before Google. Medical education may be changing.) 

But you too may ponder Bart's rhetorical question:
"That is very touching . . . but how does someone make a living with this joy of learning and the pleasure in the pursuit of learning? What is the earthly use of all this kind of education later on, in the practical real world?" 
A recent answer inspired these thoughts: last week's 2014 Commencement address by Fareed Zakaria at Sarah Lawrence. I have collected earlier answers, by Bart Giamatti, William Cronon, and Stanley Fish (pdf's in my Dropbox). And just for completeness: liberalism as a political philosophy has two chief ideals, liberty and equality. In a liberal democracy, all citizens have equal power because all are possessed of reason and have the liberty to employ it in expression.

See also the exquisite Joyce DiDonato's Juilliard commencement address, an extraordinary artistic variation on Bart's passion.

Meanwhile, I'll be reading Bart's The Earthly Paradise and the Renaissance Epic. So far as I know, Bart was the only Commissioner of Baseball (he finally got a job) to write about the Renaissance.

May 21, 2014

Sex

A typical discussion about how 'classical music' can regain the interest of the American public usually goes on about making concerts 'relevant,' casual, non-threatening, accessible, blah, blah, adding gimmicks, and marketing strategies to drag the dusty old classics into the 21st century and dusty octogenarians into the halls.

But apart from young pianists in short skirts one element I don't hear so much about is sex. What most Americans call 'concerts' are loaded with sexual energy. Go to livenation.com, think Beyonce, Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars, Pit Bull, or any bare-chested guitarist using his instrument like a [blank]. Bruce Springsteen says to his fans: 
"I want an extreme experience! Leave the arena (sic) with your hands hurting, your feet hurting, your back hurting, your voice sore and your sexual organs stimulated!" (from an interview by Listen Magazine)
From the very beginning, wasn't music about sex, and courting, and procreating??

Hardly measuring up to this raw carnal behavior is the subtle eroticism of La Flûte Enchantée or the Song to the Moon in Rusalka, or l'apres midi d'un faune. Those can put to sleep any youngster, even the most hormonally besotted.

Maybe a comment by the pop/rock singer Ben Folds can help. In an interview with Allison Babka about his orchestra concerts he said: 
“It’s the best place to take anyone on a date. It’s perfect,” Folds insists. “It’s not loud as shit, you’re not talking over each other, you’re seated and you can make a move under the program sheet,… People. This will get you laid!"

Whoa! The interviewer quickly explained: "Ben Folds was ... very passionate about the orchestra’s ongoing role in society…. He’ll tell you things in a very colorful manner ... he’s inspired by the symphony, he’s passionate about quality music and he’s honored to perform with so many gifted musicians.... I think Folds has proven … that the right combination of pop and classical can appeal to many demographics and entice newer, younger audiences to give the orchestra a try .... And *that* is sexier than anything Katy Perry or Beyonce might wear to get tongues wagging."

Hmmmm...

March 16, 2014

Random Thoughts on a Cold Sunday

If you didn't hear Gilles Vonsattel's spectacular Ives Concord Sonata at Leffler Performance Center last night, I am sorry for you. Gilles' father is a neuropathologist.

If you didn't attend the Met HD Live Werther yesterday I am sorry again for you. We thought it was one of the best HD Live productions this year. Maybe I'll read Goethe's novel. Gilles' wife, Sarah, expecting their first child, played in the orchestra's violin section. (They have au pairs lined up.) 

I was also sorry to learn of the passing of Iola Brubeck. Here are some things you might not have known about a wonderful woman.

Catching up on my reading. I found some fascinating items:

 "No part of the brain is not connected to some other part of the brain, either directly or indirectly." --Dr. Damien Fair, Oregon Health and Science University. The current map of connections, still very rudimentary, reminds me of the airline map in the seat pocket on my last flight. If this fascinates you, check out the Connectome Project.

  • "We come into the world knowing almost nothing. You can trace almost all of your behaviors to learning as opposed to genes. Language, riding a bicycle, how you button your shirt -- basically everything is learned, which means once that information gets into the brain it has to be turned into a stable form." --Dr. Jeffrey Lichtman, Harvard University (Note that he said "behaviors")


  • Among all schools at Yale, the School of Music has the most international students: 87 of 215 (40%). Yale College (undergrads) has 11%.

  • In deciding how of face the near-inevitability of sharing their last decades with prostate cancer, men may first need to examine their philosophy of life and then earn a Ph.d. in Statistics. N Engl J Med 2014; 370:932-942. Don't expect much help from your doctor; s/he probably doesn't have time: Diagnose This; How to be your own best doctor. Harper's Magazine, April 2014. Or: When Doctors Don't Listen, Leana Wen and Joshua Kosowsky, 2012.

  • Lured back to Russia in 1936 and hoping to rescue a faltering career, the composer, Serge Prokofiev was largely disappointed--and then the exit doors closed. He walked out in his wife, Lina, to move in with a much younger student, "thinking well enough of his wife to summon a physician to ensure that she was well cared for," according to Simon Morrsion, who wrote the recent Serge and Lina: The Love and Wars of Lina Prokofiev. Seven years later Lina was arrested and spent 8 years in the gulag. When she was released Prokofiev had died (obscurely in 1953 on the same day as Stalin). Lina spent her remaining 33 years as his cultural ambassador, attending concerts, donating papers to archives, and giving interviews to journalists. The Soviets, surprisingly, eventually recognized both marriages. --from a review by Orlando Figes, New York Review of Books., Mar 6

March 11, 2014

Hearing with our Eyes

A researcher at the University College of London, Chia-Jung Tsay, studies how we evaluate a performance of music. What makes us think a performance great, or not? 

The results are stunning: we use our eyes!

To make a long story short (as my mother used to say, but I recommend reading it*) Tsay selected two groups of subjects, each numbered in the hundreds: one group were professional musicians and the other just plain folks (musical novices). She presented them performances from two different categories: 1) a highly ranked ("world class") orchestra, say the Chicago Symphony, and 2) an average regional orchestra, say a fictitious Fargo Philharmonic. Each 'performance' was six seconds long by: 1) sound recording, 2) a silent video recording, and 3) recordings with audio and video, all of the same passage in the music. Subjects viewed similar performances of chamber ensembles, prize-winning v. just average ones.

Tsay described in great detail her experimental methods and statistical evaluation of the results of dozens of separate tests. They seem rigorous and complete to me. She had to make sure that none of the subjects got clues to the right answers to the single question: which of two performances in each test was by the supposedly higher-rated ensemble? 

Again, to oversimplify the results for clarity: the only times significant numbers of either group of subjects identified the prestigious ensembles correctly (more frequently than by chance) were when they viewed the silent video performances! Even the musicians couldn't distinguish the Fargo Phil from the Chicago Symphony by sound recordings!

One additional subtest also showed similar results when the video narrowly focused on the one member of an ensemble who appeared to be the de facto 'leader' of the group. When the camera focused on the 'followers,' the subjects' responses were no better than chance.

There is more detail in the report, but all followed this same pattern supported by robust statistics. As in all research, insightful critics can often discover hidden bias that could change the results and conclusions. And, as in all research, someone else needs to repeat the experiments and confirm or deny these results.

My criticism would be that I need longer than six seconds of music to make any judgement about it. 

Like all good research, the results of this one raise additional questions. Will 'rankings' of recordings change as more people experience them on YouTube than on audio recordings? What are the implications for those of us who champion "live music?" Should we re-evaluate the recent policy of auditioning candidates for orchestras behind screens? (Tsay doesn't mention that it began when 'old white men' conductors had certain biases.) Should music schools change their teaching? Are the 'best' orchestra conductors ranked that way by their appearance? Have the people who make 'music videos' known this for years? At least now I understand Kenny G!

Of course, it stands to reason that, as all the musicians said to the experimenter: "it's the sound that counts." We all know that ranking orchestras and ensembles is no more accurate than ranking college football teams, though no money rides on the former. (Or does it?)

*The vision heuristic: Judging music ensembles by sight alone


February 25, 2014

What's 'charitable' about making music?

I am not a regular reader of Forbes but when my investment guy, Phil DeMuth, sends me a link to his column, I read it.

Phil's Forbes article, "The Death of Big Charity," opened my eyes. It was inspired by a book released this month by Ken Stern, former CEO of National Public Radio, With Charity for All. Reading it will, at the very least, make you think twice before donating to a non-profit, tax-exempt 'charitable' organization. 

Such as Gretna Music. 

In the US charities of all kinds (tax-exempt under section 501(c)(3) of the US tax code) number 1.1 million and collect $1.5 TRillion a year: educational, health, shelter for the homeless and animals, preservation of land, athletics (you knew that the NRA, NFL and hundreds of college Bowl Games are tax-exempt charitable institutions?), arts and culture, religious, and scientific research--to name a few categories.

If your organization achieves charitable status from the state and federal IRS, as has almost every applicant (at a rate of 50,000 per year) for decades, you have a 99.5% chance of keeping it forever, regardless of how (or whether) you carry out your charitable mission. No one ever checks.

One view of the main problem holds that charities focus more on getting donations and their own aggrandizement and continuation; less on their mission. They neglect "infrastructure," such as a system for rigorous financial checks and balances, or (horror) an effective plan for executing their mission. As accountability for their outcome, many offer only glossy promotional materials boasting of selected individual successes, not statistical results of careful studies proving they succeed in doing what they claim. Non-profit hospitals, for example, are no more charitable in any sense than for-profit hospitals. The main beneficiaries of many charities are the people who work for them and their executives, among them parish priests, many of whom can rake in compensation as huge as hedge-fund managers.

Regarding the performing arts we must adopt a very broad view of 'charity.' What's 'charitable' about an organization like the Metropolitan Opera? I mean, charitable enough to justify their handouts from federal and state taxpayers, most of whom haven't heard of Nessun Dorma. Stern: "With most tickets running into the hundreds of dollars, the opera is not just the playground of the wealthy; it is their gated community."

Before you close your checkbook let me make a brief case for giving us ("Small Charity") a tax-deductible(!) contribution in addition to buying a ticket for one of our concerts. 


Why can't we exist only on ticket revenue?


The kind of music we play, ever since the time of its origin, has required patrons because it was valued (understood, appreciated) mainly by a small segment of the population. Initially the patrons were royalty (some still are). Contemporary patrons are governments, individuals, universities, foundations, or corporations, each having their motivation, altruistic or not. Entertainment with broad popular appeal (like rock music or football) can bring more ticket revenue and even profits. Nevertheless, Bach, Beethoven and Brahms have survived for centuries! Their music is good and timeless.


What do we deliver in return for support (beyond 'enrichment' of lives)?


Employment for hundreds.
Gretna as a better place. (I know because I live here.)
Inspiration for residents and businesses to locate in Gretna.
Inspiration for young people to enter several fields of music.
Introduction of thousands to music and musicians they would never have heard.
Introduction of hundreds of people to hundreds of other people with similar interests.


What is our best (in hard numbers) measure of outcome?


We have survived 39 years through frugality, sound financial management and uncompromising quality of our 'product.'
"During the 2007-2009 recession the nationwide ranks of arts organizations swelled by more than three thousand--at a time when public participation in the arts was dropping and existing arts organizations had to fight for their piece of declining public support." 
--(Ken Stern)
We are now stronger than ever.

The moral of this story is that "Big Charity" may not survive our generation, but great art and music, and flowers, will.

The Death of Big Charity by Phil DeMuth

Music at Gretna, Inc., is a Pennsylvania non-profit corporation. A copy of the official registration and financial information may be obtained from the Pennsylvania Department of State by calling toll-free within Pennsylvania, 1-800-732-09999. Regsitration does not imply endorsement.