Monday, December 19, 2005

Lessons in Water

Having come from a society which takes great pride in education, the American system continues to puzzle me. This country has free public schools, yet so many parents opt to send their children to costly private ones, although there is no proof that the education the students are getting is any better in the latter. My home country simply doesn't have the private option, or it is so limited that the total of those schools numbers just a few. The same is true with universities. Not only is the tuition (or rather registration fee) ridiculously low, students get a monthly stipend from the system to cover their living expenses.

Likewise, music education differs vastly. The country is full of government-supported music schools where teachers get paid a good salary, with all the usual perks such as long paid summer vacations and year-long maternity leaves. Yet students (who are chosen by auditions) pay only a small tuition, but have to play regularly for juries, to make sure they are working hard and making progress. Instrumental instuction has no place in universities; conservatories are there for that. Private teaching hardly exists as there is no need for it. The country's population is only slightly more than a half of New Jersey's, yet it produces an incredible number of world class musicians: conductors, instrumentalists, singers and composers, making the Garden State look like Afganistan in comparison. - Yale received a lot of publicity recently because of a gigantic anonymous donation to their Music School and news agencies were busy telling the country that there would be no more tuition for their music students. A new Curtis had been created, it was said. However, this was too good to be true: at least one student parent of mine was told the free tuition only applied to graduate students. Yes, it is free after the first $150,000.

I have never been able to figure out where a normal family with more than one child can come up with all the expenses of a college education, whether in 'ordinary' academics, sciences, medicine or the arts. Somehow I have managed to have done my share, only the youngest of my four daughters has college in front of her. None of them needed any guidance as to what to do: my 18-year-old found out on her own about this state's Running Start program and did her two first years of college for free while others were still wasting there time in regular high school. Her remaining tuition was paid in advance with the state's GET program, in fact she'll be using only have of the money during the two years at WWU in Bellingham. She instantly figured out that all schools are ripping students (or rather parents) off with enormously high room and board expenses and decided well in advance to rent a place with a girlfriend for much less money and far better privacy and space. The two older siblings both graduated a year early each and both have excelled in their fields: one has won numerous prestigious awards as a journalist and the other one has been hired as a staff doctor in geriatrics at UCLA.

Just the other day I was reading a Scientific American from a couple of years ago. In it was an article comparing bottled water with ordinary tap water. It is possible to spend 7,500 times more for a bottled product than what an equal amount of tap water costs. Yet in blind tests nobody preferred the expensive product. In a California restaurant with a hidden camera, bottles were filled from a hose in the back yard. They were labeled with foreign labels such as 'Faucet Water' in French and 'Water for an Ass' in Spanish; diners happily paid $7 per bottle and praised the product. In truth bottled water can be far worse than what you get from tap: a higher percentage has harmful bacteria and other residue in bottles. A municipal water system is carefully monitored; bottle the stuff and those restrictions disappear. It is all in the consumer's mind: if something costs more, it obviously has to be better than a cheaper or free product.

This brings me to the price of private music lessons. There are teachers who are charging an arm and a leg for their time, obviously claiming to be worth the money. Granted, there are better teachers and not-so-good ones. But is someone charging $120 per hour really twice as good as another with a $60 fee? Is your child making progress at twice the speed and becoming that much better a musician, or are you just being ripped off? What about someone in New York whose rates may exceed $300? Obviously, if the parent has money to burn, the price of a music lesson doesn't matter, but there are a lot of talented youngsters whose families are on a strict budget. Personally I feel that the more advanced the student is, the responsibility and demands on the teacher are higher and the fee should be adjusted accordingly, especially if the teacher has to be able to show how a passage or a phrase should sound. After all, an example is worth a thousand words. And obviously, the length of a lesson should vary based on the skill level: in what seems like an eternity to a beginner, the advanced young artist is just getting warmed up.

The Northern European system is perhaps like tap water: clean, tasty (especially if you use your Britta to filter out the chlorine) and inexpensive. We are obviously more attracted to Evian, but ought to once in a while read the label backwards.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Empty promises

It seems to me that there is no honor in truth and keeping promises these days. Lying is not only accepted; it has become our national pastime. When was the last time a politician was behind his words, promises and accusations? From invented WMDs to manufactured Al-Qaida-Iraq links everything had been forgiven and forgotten. It is not long ago when rebuilding New Orleans was supposedly made a priority in our country: is there anything concrete happening down there or have the people and the city just been erased from our memories?

In the same league are rich people who have made pledges to non-profits, whether for humanitarian aid or to keep an arts organization running, and then conveniently choose to ignore them, for reasons only clear to themselves. If someone's finances have taken a turn for the worse, such actions would be understandable, but not in a case where the would-be-donor is swimming in wealth. Are such pledges worth no more than marriage vows that few couples seem to take seriously any longer?

There have been times and places where a verbal agreement has been worth as much as a written contract. An example would be the diamond merchants in Manhattan. Unfortunately, our society is moving away from that tradition with an increasing speed. Even in families and close relationships promises are expected taken with a few grains of salt. Wouldn't it be nice if we all stuck to we had agreed on? Whom can we trust any more?

In a previous post I mentioned the Audubon Quartet. Quite a few people have since pointed out that in their opinion the faulty party isn't necessarily the one victorious in the courts. This may well be the case, but whatever the reasons behind this costly and ghastly breakup, it should have been taken care of in a civilized manner. Even a divorce can be almost painless and done without the expense of lawyers (oh, would they hate that!); so why couldn't the same be true with an unhappy chamber music group? This ought to be possible similarly with any breakup, personal or job related. It is sad that more often than not you have a party (or two) who just want to destroy each others lives, and fatten the bank accounts of their attorneys. There is so much evil amongst us, and an equal amount of parasitic people who love to benefit from the hate and destruction.

Happy holidays.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Leggo My Ego

Reading about the Audubon Quartet's legal battle is both unbelievable and frightening. Common sense would dictate that if four people don't enjoy playing together and don't get along, the group splits, or at least the person who seems to be the culprit, whether true or not, will leave on his own. But because of an inflated ego, the fact that a lawsuit dragged on until remaining musicians had to declare bankruptcy, lose their home and worse yet, their instruments, is beyond belief. Everyone is ending up a loser, other than the lawyers who have laughed all the way to the bank. The 'winner' of the legal battle will not have too many supporters and I doubt fellow musicians are lining up to play chamber music with him in the near future.

Classical music is such a limited field, that making it difficult or impossible for someone to work and earn a livelihood, because of hurt feelings or whatever, is a severe blow in most cases. In many other professions one just looks for other employment in town and life goes on. Yet there are enough narcissistic and psychopathic musicians who are more than willing to do anything to destroy a colleague's life. I have enough examples that have touched my life, and stories told by others are plentiful. For example, a couple tried to prevent a fellow musician from getting work, using their connections in the media to humiliate the individual. In this case the attempt backfired and the culprits had to pack up and leave town in a hurry. The harassed musician is still employed, and the case ended as it should have.

Of course this kind of behavior is not only happening in the arts. Just remember the McCarthy era: my extended family had members who lost their important and lucrative positions, just because they were labeled 'communists', often for refusing to turn in names of their friends and colleagues. Blacklisting is a terrible thing and should be outlawed, and those guilty of it punished by law. In this country one is supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, but in truth it doesn't take much to taint someone's reputation. The nation feared communism in the fifties and it was almost impossible to try to convince others that a suspected person wasn't member of the party or supporter of their ideals, especially if he or she believed in the society's role in helping the less fortunate.

This is gift giving season and I wish everyone would get what they deserve. In many European countries St. Nicholas came early December with his horse and took bad children with him away to Spain. Father Christmas would show up later and bring the good ones presents. Children were careful to behave well and stay out of mischief. We should have the same system for grown-ups. I personally would have no problems with St.
Osama taking the nasty people with him to the caves on the Afganistan-Pakistan border.

Wisdom of the week: '
Happy are those who have not perfect pitch, for the kingdom of music is theirs.' How true.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Mediocrity rules

Although history in its hindsight often glorifies individuals who were true geniuses in their field, be it sciences or arts, in their lifetime these people often receive little or no recognition. At least it can take a lot of time, like in case of Einstein; or people are credited for something else than what they will remembered for later on, like J.S. Bach or Mahler. People like to turn mediocre people with limited talents into their heroes and often ridicule those who can see things outside of the box, the truly gifted ones. In medicine, the first ones to suggest that an ulcer wasn't caused by stress but by an infection were laughed at. Another medical student came up with the theory that combination AIDS drugs would work better than any single agent; that idea didn't fly well at first either. Schubert was an unknown composer who couldn't get his works performed, Buxtehude and Telemann far more popular than Bach as composers.

A former doctor and friend of mine, now retired, was related to Edvard Munch, the great Norwegian painter of the 'Scream' fame. The artist was a true black sheep in the religious, fundamentalist family. After he passed away, none of the relatives wanted to have anything to do with his paintings. Had they only guessed what fame this ridiculed man would achieve after his death and how much his works of art would be worth later on! Another greatly misunderstood artist was Vincent van Gogh, who was equally unsuccessful during his lifetime in commercial sense.

It was van Gogh who wrote lots of now famous letters to his brother, also about mediocrity. His comment is included in this speech by the former Governor General of Canada Adrienne Clarkson, given in Siena, Italy in 2002:

Mediocrity is the greatest enemy of good and life. Vincent Van Gogh's letters to his brother, Theo, are among the most moving cries of understanding and humanity that we have. In one letter, he writes, "How does one become mediocre? By compromising, by making concessions, today in this matter, tomorrow in another, according to the dictates of the world, by never contradicting the world and by always following public opinion." I don't think anyone has ever summed it up more perfectly.

Mediocrity is safe, very easy – and therefore to be avoided at all costs! The purpose of life, it seems to me, is to leave no one and nothing indifferent. It means taking risks, going down paths that are not approved. It means the possibility of loneliness and isolation. It means, in sum, all that which is opposed to mediocrity.

I couldn't agree with Her Excellency, or the artist, more. Even when choosing our leaders we shy away from the most capable ones and put people in power whom we think are most like us regular folks. Foreign policy is decided by people who cannot even read a map. In Kansas schools are teaching intelligent design, creationism in a different clothing, a slap in the face of science. Yet according to polls most of us are comfortable with this. At the same time we criticize the Taliban and other fundamentalist Muslim movements, but refuse to see the same pattern in our own country. It is difficult to remember that Islam saved our civilization and was more advanced in the sciences than anything before them. What happened there since could be taking place here right now.

Just like in politics, people in the arts, and entertainment, depend heavily on PR. We rush to see and hear 'artists' who have really no place in the spotlight. We take the word of 'experts' for face value, although often these people are among the least competent. People seem to think all it takes is believing in themselves and instantly greatness is there. Take for example a string player in B-rate orchestra, who got his job because the organization was in desperate need and truly qualified applicants were few or none. Immediately he thinks of himself now being part of the musical elite, although just yesterday he was an unemployed nobody. There was a time when a musical entertainer needed to know how to sing: today lip syncing is sufficient, with good marketing. Mediocrity rules again.