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.