Monday, February 15, 2010

Balancing Act

Balance is one of those terms that have a great number of meanings, from a Zodiac sign (Libra) to mental and emotional steadiness and even a part of a mechanical watch movement. Like so often, the origin of the word comes from Latin: bilancia, having two plates or pans for weighing. Today most quartz watches and old-fashioned scales are rarely used. We also have have quite a few pills to achieve emotional equilibrium; whether this is a good approach is up to interpretation.

Much of what ills today's society also has to do with balances. Our trade imbalance means America is little by little becoming property of China and oil-rich Middle Eastern countries. Those with large credit card balances are up at night worrying for a reason. The cold war existed only because of a balanced arsenal of nuclear warheads: in actual war and using those weapons of mass destruction there would have been no winners and the neutral nations would have suffered equally much in resulting nuclear winter and drifting radioactivity. Balancing racial and gender inequalities remains but a dream. The balance of supply and demand seems to have been forgotten entirely in the orchestra business.

In music, any performing artist will worry about the ideal acoustical balance for the listener. This naturally will vary greatly from place to place and is the reason for a sound check before a concert while touring. A conductor may foolishly trust that an audience will hear the same balance as he does which seldom is the case. It is not often that the egotistic maestro would actually bother to walk off the podium and go listen to his group from where the audience sits. Richard Strauss, who always conducted his own works, wrote many solos for his Konzertmeister down on the muddy G-string, believing that if he heard the notes, everyone in a hall would. Yes, they can be heard but only on recordings where the solo violin can be artificially amplified. Then there are conductors who really don't care about balances, even on recordings. I remember one who was yelling at poor string players until his face turned purple, complaining about fast notes in Wagner or Strauss not being perfect enough, yet in the recording nothing that these musicians worked so hard on could be heard, only the blaring brass and thunderous percussion. The rest of the musicians could have as well gone to a bar for a well-deserved drink.

Another meaning of the word balance refers to ability for humans and other animals on two feet to stand upright without falling over. Most of us take this for granted unless they have been stricken by labyrinthitis (an inflammation of the inner ear), Ménière's disease or benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV). The first will go away with or without medical help in a few days; the second is serious stuff. The last can linger on for quite a long time and reappear. My first experience with BPPV was scary: getting out of bed made me fall down onto the floor right away. People often use the word vertigo for dizziness, but the true form of this makes everything go rapidly around in a circle, either clockwise  or counterclockwise, depending on which ear is affected. Holding one's head steady stops this sensation in about 20 seconds, but vertigo restarts as soon as head is positioned differently. Nystagmus, jerky involuntary back-and-forth eye movement, is also present. Certain antihistamines such as meclizine (Antivert or Bonine), and diazepam (Valium) can reduce the symptoms by calming down the vestibular system. We presently believe the symptoms are caused by tiny crystals or other debris being loose in the semicircular canals, pressing against the tiny hairs present there. Two slightly different techniques (Semont and Epley maneuvers) exist by repeating certain head movements to reposition these unwanted particles to an area where they can hopefully cause no further symptoms.

It is possible to play an instrument with an active case of BPPV, just by making sure one's head remains steady and only the eyes move. Sitting down, while playing in the orchestra, this isn't particularly difficult; one just has to be careful when getting up. Not being able to look at the man on the podium is often only a plus. One time I was playing as soloist for Bruch's Scottish Fantasy and woke up on the morning of the dress rehearsal sitting on a roller coaster. In this location I couldn't find meclizine in the drugstores and diazepam would have meant a visit to the doctor. I had to be able to get through the concerts. I must have looked like a zombie, a walking stiff, not being able to move with the music at all. I remember thanking the audience by bowing and almost ending up with the people, literally. Interestingly, driving a car with this condition is not that unpleasant as everything moves constantly visually anyway.

There is another potentially dangerous condition for standing on a stage. The other day a diabetic conductor told us how he had lost sensation in one foot (and leg, I assume), falling down from the podium and crashing onto a cello, naturally causing damage. Peripheral neuralgia is common with people suffering from diabetes and the reason why law dictates that doctors have to check such a patient's feet during every visit. A nasty infection can be present but the person is totally unaware. This can lead to sepsis or gangrene. Sometimes the nervous system can act up in a similar way without an obvious cause, resulting in idiopathic form of said neuralgia. In my case bottom of the feet are in part hypersensitive, in part totally numb. Walking is always like having small pebbles inside the socks or shoes and quite painful. A Canadian-made plant-based product (Neuragen) is surprisingly helpful in changing the nature of the pain, but it has a rather strong although not unpleasant odor. When my eyes are closed or when moving in the dark, I cannot be sure of my balance. At first I took some nasty falls but have learned to take measures to prevent injuries. Using a rail is a given as is leaning against a wall while walking in dim light. Energy-efficient led lights are always on at night since one has to rely on visual information. I can only imagine how terrible this condition would be for a blind person. Unfortunately, peripheral neuralgia has a tendency of eventually affecting the upper limbs as well. Oh well, I can always teach.

While young, I used to get nervous about playing solos for the usual reasons: memorizing, playing technically faultlessly and producing a sound that carried over the orchestra or the Steinway grand. Little did I know that one day my main concern would be able to stand long enough during a long concerto or a particularly a two-hour recital. But there are others who suffer far worse and whose lives are threatened. My problems are more like a nuisance. At least other matters in my life are balanced, a claim which many today can't make.