Friday, August 31, 2007

Music and Medicine

Performing can be taxing on the nerves, even if one is part of a huge group on a stage. As I wrote in a much earlier blog, the use of beta blockers is very common among performers, as is anti-anxiety drugs. Many still stick to the old standby, alcohol, which can do the trick to many and remove anxiety and fears. It, however, has the unfortunate tattle tale odor attached to it. Ivan Galamian, of Juilliard and Curtis fame, fought the boredom of having far too many students by starting with vodka early in the morning. Of alcoholic drinks, that smells the least in one's breath. "Dopamine" is another drug that one thinks would be used by many musicians, conductors, critics and audience members alike.

Boredom is the other aspect that afflicts orchestra musicians. I had a wonderful longtime stand partner in 1980s and 90s, Walter Schwede, now a professor at Western Washington University in Bellingham. We tried to cope with the monotonous and at the same time often unpleasant work environment by being creative. We would come up with silly comments and other markings to write in our parts, in multiple languages. Computers were still relatively new, but I always had the latest technology available. Windows still had plenty of problems and would crash all the time. I had a different operating system, GEOS, in one computer and its GeoWorks, starting in 1990. It offered a surprisingly stable environment with advanced graphic and words processing capabilities, with good layout control. To my stand partner's delight, I scanned the title page of Elgar's rather awful "The Dream of Gerontius" and, using the same font type and size, changed it to "The Scream of Geraldius". The baton wielder looked at it in a state of shock, not knowing what to do or say, and even tried an eraser to no avail. We laughed at our successful prank and I peeled off the printout which had been attached with removable glue.

My most creative work came with labels for medicine containers, some the kind used for prescriptions, some others for pill boxes. Of course, some were named appropriately, but we got laughs with "Russium hydrochloride", "Egozac" and "Moozine". They were all inspired by personalities of our colleagues, and all came with detailed instructions relating to conditions they were intended to treat, with proper dosages. I don't remember what we put inside; the "pills" might have been Altoids or Tic-Tacs. It felt good to be able to offer a "Moozine" when a particularly offending sound of that nature was heard. Mr. Schwede still has a few of these creations; mine have been lost or look worn after all the years as the picture indicates.

Those were the good old days. My stand partner got smart and left the orchestral scene for teaching. I should have been equally clever and done the same much sooner. His parting advice to me was a warning: "Watch out for certain people. They have their eyes on your chair and will stop at nothing to get there." Well, we all learn from mistakes, and at least now I'm happy working with wonderful youngsters and also equally nice grown-ups. People search for satisfaction and happiness in all the wrong places: often it can be found right under their noses.

A couple nights ago I had a strange but pleasant dream. I was watching happy orchestra musicians with smiles on their faces. And what was the reason for this? They had just been given no less than four young and enthusiastic music directors, all looking similar to and conducting with the inspiration of a Gustavo Dudamel. Look at this amazing video and you'll understand how to excite an audience and musicians, the latter still being youngsters. Even my heart rate goes up watching it. Music can be fun and smiles, after all. What a difference!

Illustration by Talvi 1990