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

September 30, 2013

Quarterback or Concertmaster? A 'no-brainer!'

"...[football's] real advantage is that it’s louder, faster and more violent [than baseball] — which is to say, better in tune with our cultural moment. 'We are a shouting culture now….'" 
--"Is the Game Over?" Jonathan Mahler, New York Times, Sept 29

If we are we indeed experiencing a cultural change (a "moment?"), it starts in childhood. 

Football encourages, they say, team spirit, character, and self-confidence, but also starts a process that can lead to chronic traumatic encephalopathy ("CTE" will soon become a household acronym) and joint replacements.*

An orchestra or band can also foster those same qualities while respecting the brain and developing all its capabilities when it is most receptive (and at the same time most vulnerable to trauma).

*Stern, RA, et al, NEUROLOGY, Aug 21, 2013: "Consistent with earlier reports of boxers, our findings suggest that there may be 2 different clinical presentations of CTE, with one initially exhibiting behavioral or mood changes, and the other initially exhibiting cognitive impairment. The behavior/mood group demonstrated symptoms at a significantly younger age than the cognition group.... almost all subjects in the behavior/mood group demonstrated cognitive impairments at some point…." 

It's more than just occasional concussions. See here.

Addendum: New research suggests a relationship between head impact exposure, white matter integrity, and cognition over the course of a single football season, even in the absence of concussion, in a cohort of college athletes. Neurology 2014;82: 63-69.

Addendum: In a preliminary study comparing the brains of 50 college football players and 25 matched controls, researchers found that playing football was associated with reduced hippocampal volume on magnetic resonance imaging. (The hippocampus is where memory lives.--ed) Singh R, Meier TB, Kuplicki R, et al. Relationship of collegiate football experience and concussion with hippocampal volume and cognitive outcomes. JAMA. 2014; 311:(18):1883–1888.

September 17, 2013

Steinway v. Baldwin

It happens often. At the reception after a concert the pianist, quietly, confidentially, and as if the words were about to come as a revelation, says to me, "You ought to get a Steinway."

Yeah. Right!

Our Baldwin concert grand is at least 30 years old and has been the butt of harsh comments from dozens of pianists, especially when we get behind in maintenance. And that can be a challenge out here in the Gretna jungle. But we never fail to tune and tweak it right before a concert, even if there is only one short piano work on the program.

One problem is illustrated by what happens to a harpsichord, an all-wooden instrument lacking the iron frame of the modern piano. A few years ago we tried to keep it stable in a climate-controlled room until just minutes before a concert, then swiftly rushed it to the outdoor hall (in Dave's pickup), tuning it minutes before curtain time. To our horror, as it soaked up the humidity during the 2-hour performance, its pitch went up almost a half step and several keys refused to budge. (We were lucky that singers can transpose!) Now we move it into the Playhouse days ahead and allow it to soak all the dampness it can hold. Then we tune.

I can think of better ways that $125,000 could improve our music than by replacing a Baldwin with a Steinway, but that's a non-issue anyway because we will never face that luxurious choice. And we do have a brand new Steinway in Leffler Hall at Elizabethtown College that we use for our Monsters of the Steinway" series, resuming with Gilles Vonsattel on March 15.

In early years we rented pianos from a local piano dealer. Inexplicably on the second floor of a 19th C. building and overseen by an ancient and irascible proprietor, I thought the place must have branched off from the Wieck Piano Fabrik in Leipzig, but the pianos had mostly Japanese names. Legs punctured the rotting floors of the old Playhouse and felt came unglued from hammers at the most inopportune times. Then in 1982 we rented a majestic Baldwin from York because our schedule included Dave Brubeck at the beginning, Marian McPartland in the middle, and George Shearing at the end. I, and they, were quite happy with the instrument and the cost to buy it was only slightly more than a small BMW.

That was when the late great gastroenterologist Bob Dye served on our board. I can't even begin to imagine the conversation he had with one of his musically-inclined patients lying supine on his examining table, but the piano became ours. The Big Baldwin has served with distinction and has proud scars to prove it.

You may have noticed that pianos (now we must call them 'acoustic pianos') have lost more value than a 1959 Plymouth (or books and records). Most without a Steinway decal (OK, and maybe a few others like Bösendorfer and Fazioli) are worth roughly their weight in cement. Everyone is holding their breath to await the fate of Steinway, recently purchased by Steve Case, founder of Amazon. Well they should, in view of the story of how Baldwin left the stage. I read a version of the story by Richard Conniff in the current (Sept/Oct) Yale Alumni Magazine.
"Baldwin was a piano company that had transformed itself, by a series of acquisitions, into an insurance giant and Wall Street darling. When it announced its latest acquisition in the summer of 1982, Jim Chanos [Yale professor and investment analyst, subject of the article] got the job of figuring out if the proposed deal would be good [for his clients, i.e., investment titans]. 'And I started looking at this mess of a company and couldn't figure out how they were making money and what their disclosure forms were saying….'" 
 "Then one night…his phone rang…. [An anonymous caller] proceeded to point Chanos to public files of correspondence between Baldwin and state insurance regulators in Arkansas. Those files turned out to be a beginner's guide to financial shenanigans. The regulators had belatedly discovered, among other things, that Baldwin was improperly using insurance reserves to finance its acquisitions."

Four months later Arkansas seized the assets of Baldwin-United and Chanos became a financial detective (notorious or celebrated, depending on your viewpoint) who later uncovered scores of other financial shenanigans including those of Enron, Tyco, Worldcom, and the subprime mortgage mess.

See Wikipedia for a more comprehensive version of the Baldwin story, but the company, now a subsidiary of the Gibson Guitar Company, makes pianos, mostly uprights I suppose, in China (a country, according to Chanos, "on an economic treadmill to hell.")

I think I appreciate our old Baldwin even more. Now it's in hibernation until next summer. It's old but has low mileage. 

September 4, 2013

Summer 2013 Ends with Enescu

We still have the Elliott Carter Figment for Cello to look forward to, next Sunday evening. 

Oh yes! And the Enescu String Octet in C Major, Op. 7 played by the combined Momenta and Daedalus Quartets. Beethoven's "Harp" Quartet (my favorite) separates Carter and Enescu.

George Enescu, 1881 - 1955
You may never again in your lifetime have a chance to hear either the Carter or the Enescu, so please put this 'postscript' concert of our season prominently on your refrigerator door. Yes, I know, Gretna usually settles into wintry slumber after Labor Day. I guarantee that you will not have difficulty parking this Sunday evening before the 6:30 pre-concert opening performance by students Sean Brown, violinist, and Audrey Rutt, pianist. (N.B.: the Jigger Shop is closed for the season.) 

[Sunday, September 8, 7:30, Mt. Gretna Playhouse]

Looking down this page I see I have a little more space for a few mementos from our summer.

A happy Momenta and Charles Abramovic acknowledging a standing ovation after their stunning and thundering Elgar Piano Quintet.

Rehearsing the Boccherini Guitar Quintet, Allen Krantz and Momenta. Allen's re-premiered Piano Quartet (this time without Hurricane Irene in the background) commissioned by Paul and Irena Merluzzi, received a marvelous performance by Momenta and Abramovic.

The house behind the Playhouse built by John Cilley who also built the original Playhouse in 1894. The circular porch serves as box seat. (Inquire at the box office. If you pay enough, we'll cut down the rhododendrons.)

Postscript to Mar 5: "What (if anything) Ails Classical Music?"

My Mar 5 post has become the most popular post since I began this blog. 

The following is a more passionate answer to that question by James Brinton. It appeared recently on Norman Lebrecht's Slipped Disc* in response to a remark by Deborah Borda (LA Phil) about the decline of orchestra subscriptions.
'Within 20 years, the subscription rate will be down to 15 or 20 percent. It makes it a real challenge financially and artistically. This is an on-demand society now.’
Perhaps more blunt than I, Brinton responds: 

"Many assume, wrongly, that there is some defect in classical music causing this. It’s unpopular, old-fashioned, elitist, etc. None of that is true; classical music is timeless and accessible to anyone willing to give it a chance. In reality, classical is the victim of:

"1. A multi-billion dollar marketing effort on behalf of high ROI (return on investment) rock, pop, and hip-hop (most of which isn’t worth burning); capitalism at the expense of culture. If the same amounts were spent marketing classical, the problem would disappear." 

(I don't view this mainly as a marketing problem -- see Mar 5 -- but certainly more marketing could help immensely. But read on…. -ed.)

"2. More than half a century of declining educational standards and penny pinching which have gutted music education, music appreciation, and classical exposure–even as the pop marketers were capturing ever greater share of young minds." (Yes!)

"3. Self-absorbed, entitled, orchestra board members who feel that, because they contribute, they somehow own an orchestra (See Minnesota). This is coupled with a spreadsheet approach to culture; many of these people and the administrators they hire are chained to the idea of profit when, in fact, cultural institutions are non-profit organizations and demand a different managerial approach." 

(Those dangers emerge during some periods in some organizations. And 'profit' may be necessary when you are digging out of hole dug in previous years. -ed.)

"3a. These people also carry a CEO mindset into the fray in which employees are costs to be minimized, either in numbers or salary. They fail to understand that orchestral musicians ARE the art they think they are supporting, instead they consider them mere overhead. And because they know almost nothing about what it takes to become an orchestral musician, they undervalue their greatest resource." 

(But some orchestra musicians may not understand that it takes far more than good playing to get people in the seats and pay the bills. Like it isn't: "You play. They come." -ed.)

"4. A generation of culturally illiterate managers (See M. Henson) who have attempted to solve financial problems over the bodies of musicians rather than approaching them sanely. This is the managerial equivalent of saying, 'Kill the baby, then you won’t have to worry about day care.'” 

(Hmmm!? Maybe sometimes.  -ed.)

"5. A headlong charge, especially in the US, toward the lowest common denominator in terms of public art, culture, and education. Never an intellectual country, the US has become blatantly anti-intellectual in everything from its politics to its thinking about education (See Texas’ rejection of instruction in “critical thinking”)." 

(And 46% of Americans reject the science of evolution!)

"6. A generation of bureaucrats so drenched in pop that they lack almost all familiarity with, and respect for, classical music. Some of these people are so ill-informed that they can’t differentiate between hip-hop and classical music (See Germany’s Theresa Bauer versus the University of Music and Performing Arts, Mannheim*). Bureaucrats unable to appreciate culture should not administer state culture programs."

"All these things have to be addressed, and we have little time left to address them." 

(With Charles Rosen, I remain optimistic because so many children and young people still want to play classical music, despite all these obstacles. After the smoke clears, maybe not in my lifetime, 'classical music' will continue on, probably in many different ways. -ed.)

--James Brinton (my editorial comments in italics)

*Now see Mar 5: "What (if anything) Ails Classical Music? A Neurologic Diagnosis."

*Slipped Disc post on Deborah Borda

*The Minister for Science, Research and Art, Theresia Bauer (member of Parliament from the German Green Party) has proposed closing down the courses of study in orchestral music and the music education programs in Mannheim and Trossingen. (here)