Friday, February 29, 2008

A Truly Wonderful Man

Early this morning I was sitting by the computer, reading a Finnish website. I didn't have my glasses on (I'm nearsighted with astigmatism) and I had to squint my eyes to see the large LCD screen more clearly. On the front page was this picture with no name, just a link. I looked at it and instantly felt warm and comfortable, as if this was a man who had done something great for humanity. The big head spoke of intelligence but there was also peace written on his face. After reading the morning's news, which was depressing as usual, I clicked on the link and almost fell of the chair. A reconstructed face of Johann Sebastian Bach! A German Bach museum had asked a Scottish forensic anthropologist, Caroline Wilkinson, to recreate the great composer's face, with the help of the best three-dimensional x-rays and every other available detail. There he was, staring at me as if he were alive and well. The picture bears uncanny resemblance to the only available painting of the master, although there are some other questionable ones and black-and-white drawings.

I made a print on 4x6 photo paper and my wife and I asked various students, young and old, who this gentleman might be. We did provide a hint: they all knew of him. Only the youngest of the crowd, a ten-year-old that had never studied any Bach, knew the answer instantly. I am going to find a high-resolution copy of the picture, use my 7-ink Epson to print it and frame it to hang on the wall of one of our two studios. If it made me feel good, certainly it would have the same effect on others as well. His music has been ringing in my ears since morning and I was especially enthusiastic teaching the first Partita to a gifted young lady.

Although he was forced to recycle some of his music due to shortage of time and insane composition requirements, in my book Johann Sebastian is a musical genius par excellence. Every time I listen to his music and especially when I play or teach it, I make new discoveries. His music is food for the brain, soothing yet challenging, and above all without a fault. It is hard to imagine that people long ago didn't recognize the genius in him as a composer and preferred the works of Buxtehude and the likes. True, listeners respected him as an organist, but clearly his greatest talent was in writing music. Although he was said to have admired Händel, at least to these ears music of the latter sounds often pompous and hollow. Yes, the German Anglophile wrote some great works and catchy tunes, and his sonatas for violin and keyboard are more accessible to the listener than Bach's similar works. But the Chaconne, most of the Cantatas, the Passions and other vocal/instrumental masterpieces! He truly was far ahead of his time. He is also the only composer I can think of whose music can be performed with an accordion or by a rock band and it still sounds majestic. What would cellists play if they didn't have the Suites?

Now we at least have a picture of him, true to detail and without the wig. Someone asked me why he wore one. I tried to explain that bathing in a cold climate was not an easy thing to do and thus not often done. Even Louis XIV built the magnificent palace of Versailles with only one room for bathing and that was soon sealed off as unnecessary. The short hair on Bach's head is likely a guess but probably very common at the time when everyone had lice and other parasites. After a month or two longer hair would have been a paradise for those bugs. I can only imagine how the fancy-looking clothing of the time smelled as it couldn't be washed during the winter months; drying would have taken forever. I remember my brother telling me of his trip to China for the Finnish Broadcasting Company, soon after the Cultural Revolution. It happened during the cold season and people simply never took off their clothes until the warmer season arrived. The stench in a packed hall was intolerable. At least the French tried to cover their odor with perfume.

Another wonderful man, my spiritual guide, sent me email which prompted me to read all the different interpretations of the Book of Job I could find: Christian, Jewish, and even Muslim. I also got reacquainted with the Testament of Job which is not in the "official" Bible but nevertheless considered a sacred text. Although not necessarily upbeat reading, the Book itself is beautifully written and offers many lessons for all of us. It is interesting how differently it can be interpreted. There are not many other instances in the Hebrew Bible where Satan works for God, although in his nasty ways, and the word is not a synonym for evil. Bulgakov must have been greatly influenced by the story, as in his famed "Master and Margarita" Satan is described in similar manner and Behemoth appears as one of the characters.

Yes, we learn that bad people can enjoy success and the good ones are not necessarily rewarded for their deeds. However, at the end Job gets everything back tenfold, after he stands firm in his faith and doesn't accept his friends' arguments that his terrible misery was caused by something awful he had done. None of the successful evil people will ever know true happiness and love; a Buddhist would perhaps argue that they will return to earth as cockroaches and worms, if they are even worthy of that.

Image Bachhaus Eisenech, Corbis

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Controlling the Brain

The brain is a fascinating organ. It seems like the more we study it, the less we understand. In other words, the brain confuses us! Just yesterday the BBC had a news article on their health pages regarding depression. The doctors and hospitals participating in a large study rather convincingly claim that our modern pharmaceutical cash cows, Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors or SSRIs don't work in a majority of people. A dummy pill or placebo was found almost equally effective. The drug manufacturers have made us believe that feeling sad or having the blues is an illness whereas in fact it is a very normal part of what and who we are. A century ago a woman's menstrual period was considered an illness, as was a wakeup time erection for younger males. I don't offhand remember what the suggested treatment was for the ladies but for the gentlemen a bagful of ice was recommended. This time we are made to believe that feeling good and happy at all times is normal. The people who were given sugar-coated dummy pills in the large study in the United Kingdom noticed often an immediate improvement in their moods simply because they felt their "problem" was being addressed. The ministry of health in that country now wants to invest in thousands of new talk therapists and get people to exercise, an almost guaranteed mood lifter. SSRIs cost the system billions, the therapy would be a fraction of it and a brisk walk outdoors is totally free. Knowing how powerful the drug companies are, I don't expect much coverage on this topic here.

As I have seen it in my family, major depression does exist and is a very serious disease, as is a true bipolar condition. However, the latter term is used too freely, like ADD in active children, and people are made to think that having ups and downs is abnormal. Our souls are like the weather: one day it is sunny, the other it rains (unless you live in a desert). People who have too much sunshine in the summertime welcome the beginning of the rainy season. We are like plants; we need both the light and the water to grow and to survive. We don't quite understand what causes the various form mental illness although through trial and error we have discovered ways to lessen the symptoms. Some older drugs such as tricyclics (amitriptyline, nortriptyline) and tetracyclics (mirtazapine, maprotiline) seem to work often for true depression, although they rather toxic and make one drowsy. Lithium, another toxic substance, is very valuable for manic-depressive illness. And what we used to think as a cruel treatment, electric shock therapy, can make a deeply depressed person feel better instantly. We have learned to administer the amount of electricity needed to short out the brain's own electrical connections and one no longer is in a danger of biting through his/her tongue. Usually this treatment is done under light anesthesia so the patient has no unpleasant association or memory.

The word "memory" brings me to one of the first topics on my blog which will have its third birthday next month, about two hundred entries later, most of them essays. Some early ones I had to remove because of a settlement, but I will probably repost them once I officially retire. I wrote about memorization in March of 2005 and have since observed and learned more on the topic. I also watched the New York Philharmonic play in North Korea and was somewhat disappointed that the conductor, Lorin Maazel, had to use a score for the rather simple but beautiful Korean folk tune "Arirang", beloved by both the North and South Koreans. Out of respect and as a sign of courtesy I would have expected the maestro to memorize the short piece. Well, he is up there in years and perhaps the music is remote to his heart, so I'll let go of that. The fact that he and the management of the NY Philharmonic were able and willing to go to Pyongyang was brave. It probably brought our two nations back to the time of Bill Clinton's second presidency when Madeline Albright was able to charm the North Korean leader with her wit and sincerity in 2000. Anyway, this reading in North Korea reminded me of an American conductor who for years needed a score to conduct our National Anthem.

Since my rather nasty concussion I still continue to have short term memory problems with names, words and, worst of all, music. I have had to think about how memorization works. I also have students who really fear playing from memory to the point it becomes next to impossible. Interestingly, many of these young adults were at ease with memorization when they were younger. My explanation is that back then they didn't analyze their skills or doubt their ability. A lot happens when a young person grows up. Most of the child prodigies disappear or come back as a shadow of their former self, such as was the case with Yehudi Menuhin, or some present ones whom I decline to name. The more sensitive, and thus artistic, a young musician is, the more likely he/she is to have self-doubts.

I have tried different methods with students. Usually fast virtuoso pieces are the least problematic as one doesn't have the time to think about the notes and one uses an automatic muscle memory. Slower works are another story, especially ones where a motive returns many times and is always slightly different. Some of the most difficult music for a violinist to memorize is certain solo Bach. The Fugues are tricky as is the Chaconne, but even the Allemande of the d minor Partita presents a challenge to many. As logical as Bach is, patterns could go many different ways. Even Pablo Casals, after spending decades of the cello suites, got stuck in a movement and managed to end up at the half way point repeatedly. According to my violin-maker-teacher who was present, the great cellist had to leave the stage and come back with the music, apologizing to the audience. Some violinists are aided by watching their fingers as they know what note each digit represents, similar to a pianist looking at the keyboard, yet others find this method confusing. Recently I noticed that a rather new student, who had to play a concerto movement from memory for a college audition, was staring at the wall and constantly getting lost. I asked if she had ever tried looking at her fingers or her bow. She replied that she used to do that, but then at some "master class" the know-it-all person had told her it was all wrong and that she ought to stare into nothingness! We have to be careful what we tell the young ones as often their mind is like a sponge and they remember things they shouldn't and forget others that are of value. This student's playing improved immediately and then I asked her to completely close her eyes and concentrate. What a difference that made! Not only did the memory issue disappear but also her sound and intonation improved like by magic. Others have also done well with their eyes closed. Performing this way they can inhabit their own private world while playing. As they cannot see the audience they are less likely to be frightened and ideally nothing should distract them.

Of course playing blind doesn't work for everyone. One needs to see the conductor or the pianist's fingers in a tricky piece. I have to visualize the music in my mind and read it, especially now after my head injury. This of course can be done in the "blind mode" and I would do so except that the neurological damage to the nerves of my feet make me very uncertain about my balance and I need a visual input to tell myself I'm properly upright. Although I do it differently from before, performing from memory is no longer an issue for me, but I need to know every note of the concerto or other composition intimately. I advise students to learn the music, not just memorize the markings. If they have a piano and are able to play it with enough ease, I encourage them to play the piece on the keyboard. Experimenting with completely different fingerings, reversing bowings, all that is helpful.

Now I have to remember to quit writing as this story is becoming too brainy. Do I need a pill to do that?

Image from Science and Consciousness

Tuesday, February 26, 2008


There seems to be a frog stuck in my throat, thus the illustration. The problem I want to write about is not unique to the arts and is surely present in every work environment. However, my personal experience relates to fellow musicians and violinists in particular.

Although I still believe that many if not most people are rather good people, all it takes is one rotten individual to make a work situation intolerable. Of course, two make it even worse. Cats are famous for being clean and completely odorless (other than occasional halitosis as is the case with my Seymour in the morning). Yet we wouldn't notice a thousand good-smelling cats if a skunk is present and decides to spray or is hit by a car. In the case of the skunk the smell is a defense mechanism. A fox, on the other hand, urinates its awful-smelling liquid on a little hedgehog, making the poor animal stick its head out gasping for air and ending up as a meal.

This story is not about Sir Fox as much as Thomas Poison-Toad, a fictional but all too true character sitting in any string section of an orchestra. He is an expert in back-stabbing, spending much of his free time looking for something, real or imagined, to complain to others about. A true psychopath, he doesn't have a conscience and nothing prevents him from advancing his own work career by the dirtiest means he can come up with. Perhaps he is "friends" with a music critic, a board member, the conductor, or most likely all of the above. In front of your face he pretends to be nice and complimentary, but at the earliest opportunity he rushes to show his toxicity to others. Usually a poor player himself, in his mind this behavior makes him delusional about his own greatness. Why wouldn't he be the best of them all as he never has to prove his musical skills? In my long life in music I have known a rather large number of these poison toads. Most often they have sat right behind me, or a few stands back, but also next to me. Typically they have come and congratulated me on my solo work when my playing hasn't been its best. When everything has gone perfectly, they naturally have been completely quiet.

There is an old story in Finland about a king who has promised his daughter and half of his kingdom to the man who has the whitest face. Quite a few hopeful candidates show up, all with soap and a bucket of warm water. Present is also a gipsy (a "black" in Finnish, nowadays a non-pc expression). People laugh and make fun of him. How could he, with his darker complexion, be whiter than the Nordic Finns? He also has a bucket and a brush but he doesn't use them on his face. When the others are finished cleaning up, the gipsy quickly dips the brush into the tar in his bucket and paints everyone's faces black. The king has no other choice but declare him the winner. There are different endings to the story: in none does the sneaky gipsy get the princess, sometimes the king awards him money but usually lands a big kick on his rear end ordering him to get lost.

Likewise, a Thomas Poison-Toad seldom fares as well as he had hoped. At some point others have realized that they could well be the next in the line of his victims. It is the same reason why men don't usually tie the knot with their married mistresses after divorce: if the woman was ready and willing to cheat on her previous husband, what would prevent her from doing the same to him? As usually is the case, at the end people get what they deserve. Life comes around in a full circle. Sometimes it can take decades, at other times much less. Take the Chilean dictator General Pinochet for example. He was filthy rich and had plenty of friends in high places, however the end of his life was most humiliating. Had he not been in such poor health, the grim reaper would have come for him behind bars where he should have been.

This frog will find himself croaking ever so loudly on his toad-stool without anybody paying the slightest attention. No beautiful princess will attempt to kiss him and turn him into a prince. That happens only in fairy-tales and even then there was a nice prince to start with, not an ogre.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Toad You So

On the great island of Madagascar, fossils of a gigantic amphibian were recently discovered. This was no ordinary cute froggy but a heavily armored, bowling ball sized toad with sharp teeth. Living at the age of the dinosaurs, it needed the protection from big predators, but probably was a mighty beast of its own, able to dine on young hatchlings of its big distant cousins. Scientists have given it a suitable name: Beelzebufo or ‘Devil’s Toad’. It the middle picture is an artist’s rendition of the creature, compared to its largest present day relative, the Malagazy Frog. The lack of any such specimen on the African continent questions some accepted theories about when the island separated from the mainland. So far it also seems that this monster toad is related to South American horned frogs.

On the right is a picture of a Giant or Cane Toad, recently caught in Australia and weighing over two pounds. The biggest known specimen reached 5.8 lbs! This very toxic ‘toadzilla’ was introduced to that continent in an experiment that didn’t end nicely. In 1935 the hundred and one Bufo Marinus toads took a liking to Queensland and in six months had multiplied to over 60,000. Initially they were supposed to help the local sugar industry get rid of two pests, both beetles. Soon the cure became the illness, however, and today the country’s wildlife officials have their hands full trying to control this outright dangerous amphibian from spreading any further. Even its tadpoles are highly poisonous and most of the species that dine on the harmless variety, end up dead after consuming these. Interestingly, one of the toxins the toad excretes, bufotenin, is classified as Schedule I drug in Australia, together with heroin and cocaine. Most of the other toxins don’t give a potential toad licker a desired high; instead the person might well end up in the morgue.

When I first looked at the pictures, I could have sworn there was something familiar about them and decided to complete the picture. Another type of ‘Cane Toad’, pictured on a postcard a friend and colleague sent me, is a fitting addition to the group. I call it the ‘conductor toad trinity’, a three-in-one. One frog-leg taps in one tempo, the cane or baton goes in another and the Beelzebufo’s tooth-filled mouth counts out loud the beats yet in another, none of those ever synchronized. What is the poor musician to do? Some try to lick the toad you-know-where. Perhaps it will give them a temporary high but sooner or later they all end up dead.

I toad you so.

"Beelzebufo" illustration by Luci Betti-Nash
AP Photo/ Dan Klores Communications

Sunday, February 24, 2008


A few weeks back I was taking my bright, beautiful and sweet 15-year-old to her small high school at the Seattle Center. Barack Obama was going to speak later that day in the nearby Key Arena and already early in the morning there were long lines in front of all the numerous entrances. Clearly something out-of-the-ordinary was taking place. It seemed to me that most of the people were young, an age group that has shown apathy in recent elections. The Center School decided to let as many students as possible to take part witnessing a democratic process in action and although they had to wait for hours to actually see and hear the candidate, it didn't in any way lessen the excitement. My little one was beaming after the day.

Mr. Obama handily won the Democratic primary here, and has since won state after state. Something is happening: people clearly want to see someone new and young offered a chance. The nightmare of the past seven years has taught people to mistrust people who have been corrupted by politics of our capital. Hillary Clinton is a very smart lady who would no doubt work hard to make the miracle of a national health insurance a reality, and I am by no means endorsing one Democratic candidate over the other. She unfortunately has a lot of baggage with her, at least in many people's eyes, mainly because she occupied the White House for eight years already. Elsewhere in the world where former presidents' wives have successfully run for the same office, results have been often disappointing. However, part of me would love to see a woman win the election, but if the winner ends up being a minority member, something unthinkable just a few years ago, I won't have a problem either.

As it was with John F Kennedy, youth creates excitement, especially among people who are close to that age group. Any person in a leadership position should not overstay his or her welcome, whether in politics, sports, arts, you name it. Thank goodness a president is only able to run twice for the office. The congress, however, is filled with old-timers who have made politics their profession. Some are doing a very good job, some others stink. Everybody is more or less predictable and therein lays the problem. There is little new to offer as the thinking goes its set ways, and all members of the Congress are all too eager to listen to special interests groups, as the financing for the next election depends on them to a great degree. Wouldn't it feel different if we set similar term limits to the Senators and House Representatives as to the Executive Branch? Perhaps we could give them an extra four-year term making it a total of three.

We all know how terrible it is when someone in a leadership position holds onto power too long. Our world is full of dictators who get 'elected' time after time. Constitutions are changed so that term limits are no longer an issue. Even in my native Finland which gives the President a maximum of twelve years, an exception was made for the Kremlin's favorite Urho Kekkonen. After his two terms were up, a new law was passed to make it possible for him to be elected a third time. What remains a mystery to me forever, after the third time the country's parliament decided that now he was a "new candidate" and thus successfully ran for a fourth term. All this happened in a country that prides itself as the least corrupt on the globe, twenty years later. Finally senility and dementia set it and as Kekkonen didn't have his Nancy Reagan to run the country, he had to resign. In Reagan's case (who many think was a great president), astrologists were contacted by Mrs. Reagan for advice while the old man hardly knew what was happening around him. After the Soviet Union collapsed and the archives were made public, people were shocked (or were they really?) to find out that Kekkonen had in fact been a high-ranking informant to the KGB.

The one area where a person's influence can remain productive is in teaching. Our neighborhood elementary school had a legendary teacher, Richard Kearns, who left incredibly lasting memories in students' minds. Our Anna was in his third grade class and that is when she opened up and decided to become something important herself. I have met Seattleites on international flights and, more than once, I have been asked if I knew Mr. Kearns. Of the school's teachers, he was the only one to stay in people's minds; a wonderful person who managed to turn many young lives around and make the kids become serious students. My daughter and her several classmates used to visit him at the school often, until he finally retired after many decades of making a difference in young people. Even in a university setting, the most a student will have to deal with a professor is a few years. A conductor of a youth orchestra will have new faces every year and the older ones graduate and move on. Of my many students who have chosen music as their field, I always insist that they leave the nest and move on. To my college students I am a fresh new face, with a different approach and after the four years they will be going elsewhere. That is how it should be. A podium or a position as a coach for a sports team should not be for retirement, unless it is in a university or other school were nobody will have to suffer past four years or so.

It will be an interesting and important year for Americans. Any change will be good as things cannot get much worse. An in-law, a retired professor of Economics from Rutgers University, says he has never seen things as bad as they are now. Although Seattle housing market isn't suffering like many others, there are properties in my very own neighborhood that have remained on the market for a long time. Of course, the uneducated masses don't really care about the war, exploding prison population, and in many cases about the lack of health insurance, as long as they are covered. It is the price of gasoline and food that will grab their attention, and I bet you anything these people are finally waking up and fast.