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

May 25, 2013

Travel Insanity

"You drove? That's insane!" Exclaimed the checkout guy at Trader Joe's in an ancient Pittsburgh suburb as he clanged the bell to request a second cart. We were stocking up for summer in Mt. Gretna after a cross-country journey from our winter residence in Palm Springs -- 48 hours ahead of the tornado in Oklahoma City, where we stopped for a "Truffle-Shuffle" at The Wedge Pizzeria, dining outdoors as the sky darkened and the winds churned.

The Trader Joe's guy proved to be prescient; the only insanity came as we, laden with frozen fish, chia, black bean quinoa chips, and pomegranate green tea, tried to return to an (any!) interstate through a warren of winding 19th century streets in South Side, too many of them under repair. The GPS lady was confounded by our detours and finally disappeared into the cloud. We ultimately stumbled onto the PA Turnpike heading East. The vista of the city emerging from the Liberty Tunnel onto the bridge over the Monongahela--I think that was where we were--is spectacular, though we were more relieved than impressed at that point to see signs directing us to I-376.

What (among a lot) we learned on our trip:

SiriusXM radio (channels 74-76, Met opera, "Pops" classical, Symphony) broadcasts a wide variety of rarely interrupted music played by good performers and announced by knowledgeable but succinct hosts, including Martin Goldsmith (his book about his parents, The Inextinguishable Symphony; A true story of music and love in Nazi Germany, is moving). The Public Radio channels (121-123) are good too. We laughed at Garrison Keillor's phone call to his mother, and learned from Ira Glass that it is useless to offer facts, observations, or any kind of science to a climate-change denier. That just makes them angry. 

You must pay a small subscription fee for SiriusXM (thank you Hertz). When I get around to it I will attach an inexpensive SiriusXM tuner to the cassette player in my very old car.

Despite reviews that sometimes seem juvenile or amateurish, reading between the lines on Yelp* proved a good way to find great restaurants that you might overlook, like Harvest in St. Louis where we enjoyed our best dinner in months. Along a busy street near Washington University (an alma mater), Harvest looked plain and uninviting, like a place where you would order meatloaf. I had delicious pork cheeks. The retired Architecture Professor at a neighboring table thought it the best restaurant in St. Louis. That city, by the way, has enjoyed an amazing renaissance since I was last there as a medical resident 40 years ago. It blows Cleveland (my home town) out of the water. We ultimately sampled Indian (east), Mexican, "American (New)," Italian, Japanese, and Spanish food, each in different places along our route.

The 3G wireless network in the US needs to catch up with other developed countries. There are voids where you can't connect and other places where connections are excruciatingly slow. We did, however, reserve rooms ahead each day from the road on my iPad, after deciding how much further we could drive.

Roads in the West are better maintained, smoother, and less congested. The landscape in the East is greener. Trucks rule all the roads. If you plan to drive 2546 miles, it is better to do it in a large comfortable car. The rented Hyundai Genesis was perfect, >32 mpg every day. Old Route 66 ("Get your kicks") parallels interstates for most of its extent, and you can see--or actually drive on--that 2-lane winding road in many places. We left it in St. Louis as it turned north to its origin in Chicago. We'll investigate some of the old attractions, listed abundantly on signs, on a future trip.

Wheeling WV has an amazingly good Hampton Inn, owned privately by the same family for 40 years. I had to drag Emi away from the large salt-water fish tank in the lobby, and the breakfast buffet did not serve the tasteless pale-yellow silver-dollar-like patties called "eggs" that satisfy most "hot breakfast" claims on billboards.

Santa Fe is as picturesque and interesting as they say: great museums, great restaurants, galleries, jewelry stores, quaint architecture, scenery, Indian culture, etc. Native American art is second to none, as is the Georgia O'Keefe Museum. Neither the Opera in its lofty Crosby Theater nor the Chamber Music Festival had begun their seasons. At the Coyote Grill we nursed martinis at the bar three feet from the cooks at work, and then ordered what looked most appetizing. The mesquite-grilled salmon was the best I have ever had. Be careful; more than 50% of the "Native American" jewelry and art for sale is actually "international." (Look for the made in Malaysia label on the tag.)

But Santa Fe is also a city where ordinary people live as well as a destination for 1.7 million annual visitors. Golden arches and all the familiar chain retailers line streets and strip malls, as in all the cities we passed. The graduation rate of Santa Fe Public schools is a miserable 55%. The Santa Fe Indian School may be the place to send your kid--if s/he is native American and a good student. Their impressive website shows they offer "Band, Chorus, Guitar, and Music Appreciation" among many opportunities.

There is vast "undeveloped" territory in the western US, mainly (and fortunately) because it lacks water, I suppose. The country is spectacularly beautiful--most memorable were the brightly colorful mountains in northern New Mexico loved by Georgia O'Keefe--but burgeoning civilization is doing its best to change that. Some man-made objects are just outright ugly, and many, when no longer useful, appear to be simply abandoned. There seem to be no limits to bad taste or the ruining of Nature's beauty for human sustenance. Wireless towers and windmills are the least of the offenders.

When I travel again, the place where I would choose to spend more time--or even live for awhile--is northern New Mexico. It's easy to see how Georgia O'Keefe fell in love with the place.

May 12, 2013

Charitable Libertarians

by Carl Ellenberger, MD

Like music, “philanthropy” distinguishes humans from other species. Aeschylus coined the word in Prometheus Bound (460 BC). Known for his intelligence, Prometheus “loved” (phil) “humanity" (anthropy). He gave fire (civilization) to the earliest humans who had no culture (and he paid dearly for giving it). With this gift humans became distinguished from other animals by their power to complete their own creation through education and culture. “Philanthropy” is thus, “love of what it is to be human.” 
By the first century BC philanthrôpía was translated into Latin as humanitas, and was understood to be the core of liberal education: the study of humanity, or simply "the humanities," in which the study of music was a part (one of the four sciences of the quadrivium). During the Middle Ages philanthrôpía was superseded by caritas (charity), selfless love, necessary to achieve personal salvation. The Renaissance revived the classical humanitas and it flourished through the 18th century as a central value of the Enlightenment.
In our time “philanthropy” and “charity” tend be used interchangeably, though not everyone would agree. A discussion of the differences -- too long for this post -- might include a definition of “philanthropy” as “good deeds, usually brought about by a monetary gift” or (Wikipedia): "private initiatives, for public good, focusing on quality of life." One definition of “charity” might be, “help for those in need” or (Wikipedia): "relieving the pains of social problems." Such a discussion might necessarily cite the Internal Revenue codes, especially 501(c)3 & 4.

The discussion might also take a wild (right) turn as well. Jane Mayer wrote about the philanthropic Koch brothers, Charles and David (Covert Operations, New Yorker, 2010):
The Kochs are longtime libertarians who believe in drastically lower personal and corporate taxes, minimal social services for the needy, and much less oversight of industry—especially environmental regulation. These views dovetail with the brothers’ corporate interests. In a study released this spring, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst’s Political Economy Research Institute named Koch Industries one of the top ten air polluters in the United States. And Greenpeace issued a report identifying the company as a “kingpin of climate science denial.” The report showed that, from 2005 to 2008, the Kochs vastly outdid ExxonMobil in giving money to organizations fighting legislation related to climate change, underwriting a huge network of foundations, think tanks, and political front groups. Indeed, the brothers have funded opposition campaigns against...Obama Administration policies—from health-care reform to the economic-stimulus program....“
But wait! The Koch family foundations, among them the Charles G. Koch Charitable (sic) Foundation and the David H. Koch Charitable Foundation, have also generously (albeit on a smaller scale) supported arts, education, and medical research, including the New York State Theater in the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts (now called the David H. Koch Theater), American Ballet Theater, PBS, the Smithsonian Institution, Deerfield Academy, and the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. At their annual strategy meeting last week at an undisclosed hotel near my winter home in Palm Springs I doubt they discussed arts, education or medical research. I don't know for sure because the hotel was heavily guarded.

I have no idea of the reasons for all the Koch's 'philanthropic' impulses. But the reason I started all this in the first place was to examine what my thoughts might be if a Koch-like opportunity should present to us. I haven't reached a conclusion so I am glad it almost certainly won’t.

We do, of course, appeal to foundations and corporations to help us bridge “the gap” between ticket revenues and expenses. Most arts organizations, including those above, have that gap too, at least since the Esterhazy family disappeared. 

We like to think that bringing people together with musicians and music in rural Pennsylvania is philanthropic, humanitas. Like education and culture, music is indeed a gift to humanity. But it is only a matter of time until we will need a climate-controlled new indoor hall now that CO2 levels have reached 400 parts per million. Glue in violins will soften and pads fall out of oboes in the humid summer heat. Try playing the flute with sweat dripping off your face! 

Maybe our new hall should be Koch Hall.

Our 38th Summer Season opens on July 3 with violinist Sarah Chang.

Flex Tickets are available: 717.361.1508; gretnamusic.org

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. That performance brought both of them to tears.

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.