Monday, February 22, 2010

Wrong Conditions?

These Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver haven’t been kind to my countrymen, the Finns. It feels like they in general have been in a wrong place and at a wrong time. The current winter has been the coldest in many decades back home, with a lot of fresh snow falling almost daily. It is a far cry from sub-zero (dropping to even less than 40 below this month)  temperatures to Whistler’s icy early spring conditions where the surface freezes at night and melts during the day. Add to that the high altitude (most of Finland is flat) and it is easy to see why the conditions are far from ideal. Of course others have to cope with the weather as well, so these excuses are just that, excuses. Then there are the inferiority complexes that complicate matters: the Finnish hockey team always has a tough time with Sweden, although their general level of playing is comparable. Now that the best ski jumper was injured (he still managed to come in fourth), I’m just going to give up following the games, at least from a Finnish perspective.

Dreaming of a medal of any color (well, there has been one silver) is almost like expecting everything in America to be all right, in general and in cultural life. Daydreaming can be fun but it seldom produces results. Just about every state has projected hard times ahead, regarding social programs and education. Medicaid is being cut as are other benefits designed for the less fortunate. Yet it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that people are going to get sick just as before and by not having money to buy food isn’t going to solve our problem of obesity. I was reading in the last issue of Scientific American about an ideological war in schools, regarding the way math should be taught. Of course this arguing has been going on for decades during which time our scores have plummeted when compared to other industrialized nations. Yes, most likely we would use a calculator or computer for the actual numerical processing, but would it hurt to know how it is done? Elsewhere schoolchildren have this skill and it hasn’t lowered their overall achievements. With larger class sizes and fewer teachers we can only expect matters to worsen. With the power unions we have, the old burnt-out teachers with seniority remain, the younger and more eager ones get pink-slipped.

One doesn’t need to be a genius to realize that the supply exceeds demand in the music field: there are far too many college graduates with degrees in music for the current scene. Someone calculated that jobs/graduates ratio any given year is about 1 in 10. Given the obvious fact that the 90% don’t give up trying, the odds for the following year are smaller. With this logic the ratio falls to 1/100 in ten years. Of course, many can start teaching privately or begin to work in a different field. On the other hand, one doesn’t need a degree to get an orchestra job or to play as a soloist or chamber musician. Does Joe the Plumber have a degree in fixing faucets, perhaps a D.D., doctorate in drainology? Scientific America’s website has an interesting link to a “rough draft” where the author makes the reader evaluate her theory that the U.S. might be producing too many scientists for the existing demand. An interesting situation: on one hand, we cry about Americans being underachievers, and on the other, too well educated. Can both be correct?

The same paradox exists in the orchestra world. Many groups gripe about salary cuts, yet their compensation in many cases exceeds all business models that would make sense. The same web sites that air these grievances then praise the rebirth of a local orchestra that has no secured funding and not even a place to perform. Clearly the musicians cannot expect to be paid at all or will be compensated at a minimum wage level, as is the case with another “professional” orchestra locally. Heck, how can financial problems exist if everyone agrees to play for pleasure! Perhaps that is the way music was meant to be performed. Even I have heard many times: “What, you play the fiddle and get paid for that?!” Common sense prevails, right?
illustration from

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.

Monday, February 08, 2010

My Wife the Socialist?

I was slightly amused to find my beloved wife Marjorie reading articles on World Socialist Web Site. Not that there is anything wrong with a socialist view of life. I grew up with it, taking universal health care and free schooling for granted. In Scandinavia, even the conservatives are further left than any of our liberals. Marjorie remarked how sensible most of the articles she read were. Of course they are. When the Greenback stops being your God and you care about your fellow humans, it all makes perfect sense. Wasn't Jesus a socialist, or some would even say, a religious communist? We had a strong socialist movement between the two wars, with powerful unions. Then WW II happened and it was followed by the Cold War almost immediately. Having anti-capitalistic thoughts or ideas meant that one was a traitor. Although socialism was never outlawed, the anti-Soviet sentiment was understandably high and it was easy to be labeled a communist and have one's career ruined for good. McCarthy's ideas survived a lot longer than his political career. Somehow I feel we would be better off today if In Money We Trust would never have become our motto. Applying for my visas to the US as a student and later to emigrate, one of the questions was Have you or any of your family members ever been a member of a Communist Party? I don't know if such questions still exist.

I found two articles my wife had printed out, both talking about the arts, but written a year apart. They make perfect sense and don't sound the least bit political to me, other than pointing out how American style capitalism has failed the arts. The newer one, Major symphony orchestras in US face funding crisis and the other from a year ago, Massive cutbacks in arts funding by US companies, governments both are well researched and written, strictly sticking to the facts. Most media coverage today, no different from yesterday, seems to have an agenda. Much of the coverage today exists only online and it is unlikely, that a person who is directly involved in a field such as music, would accidentally read these utterances. Printed word still seems to carry more weight, although less and less every day. Gone are the days when a newspaper could give something a stamp of approval or disapproval and it would actually sway the public opinion. On the contrary, praise in the media is viewed as something fishy and people rush to see movies and read books that have been banned by the critics. 

Often one wonders about music critics' intentions. Last year at some point a NY Times review was very negative about their local orchestra's principal horn's performance as if he should be replaced because of this bad write-up. Then other critics for the same publications rushed to praise the same fellow, as if to say Don't you dare touch him. Just recently the paper gave a glowing review to the Chicago Symphony and many of its individual principals but again picked on their solo horn. The French horn is a tricky instrument and even normally wonderful players can sound awful at times. Perhaps the paper should send its reviewers to the provinces to hear how hideously a has-been can sound. Age is not kind to brass players, either, and it shows quite easily with musicians tooting their horns and trumpets.

Newspapers have had to downsize and art coverage has been one of its first victims. This is not surprising as such a tiny percentage of Americans care about the arts. Critics have been fired or bought out. This often has been for the better as these deaf-and-dumb people knew next to nothing of what they were writing about. Sometimes a review would be written in advance: I particularly remember a flautist being praised in print to high heavens by his good friend the mighty critic. Too bad he had fallen ill and wasn't playing the concert. As these people are purposeless today and no one is going to hire them, they may start writing for a blog, churning out the same biased nonsense as before. But one has to go to a blog to find it. In a paper a reader might accidentally bump into an art review while looking for the business or sports pages. No such luck online. A blog or someone's home pages are only interesting if they are about a wide range of topics and have thought-provoking content. A pink-slipped critic's writing skills don't add up to much and any reader, perhaps at first a regular, will soon see through an agenda and quit visiting the pages, especially if donations are asked in order for the blog or similar venue to stay alive.

Usually local art blogs praise the event being "reviewed", to please the people involved, thinking that brown-nosing will work both ways, even long-term. A couple days ago I was sent a link to a different kind of a local blog. At least the writer was at some point a well-respected professional, so his opinions carry some weight. A local organization specializing in vocal cord activity may not be very pleased as the writer was not particularly happy about a high-school budget musical production of a Mr. Green whose works they are specializing in this year. Break your piggy-bank in the summer and there won't be much left for the winter. But controversy is good: niceties don't advance any cause. The organization in question prefers using very zaftig singers on stage, perhaps so that the old folks with poor eyesight can see them from a distance of a quarter mile. This at the time when the Met and European opera houses prefer eye candy, as with high definition cameras zooming in, looks do matter. No cameras locally and no weight limit either. May be this setup is a blessing as the oversized singers can find work here and Musical Models can stay in the big cities.

Another sad sign of the times: a landmark violin shop in Philadelphia has closed its doors. Moennig & Son was rightfully famous and will be sorely missed after serving us fiddlers for over a hundred years.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Freedom of Choice

As we in a general sense are not a very well educated society, it is relatively easy to manipulate the masses and in essence brainwash them. An example is our type of democracy which we endlessly try to push to nations which have never experienced life under such a principle and frankly, don't understand or care for it. But are we truly democratic? Politics is strictly divided into red and blue: independent people can exist only on a local level, if at all. And do we make sure everyone's opinion is heard? No, people will have to register to vote and there are numerous conditions. The millions who have served time behind bars usually aren't eligible, nor are any of the immigrants who hold onto their green cards instead of becoming citizens. I personally know many who want to stay out of the voting registration because it automatically places them into the pool of jurors in the legal system. Since unemployment is at record high levels, perhaps this wouldn't be such a big issue today, but should one have a job and be the sole bread winner for a family, a potential of being locked up in a court room for weeks or even months can be a scary thought. Surely, if one is smart, it is easy to be excused in a jury selection process, by making it known one has racist opinions or is opposed to the death penalty and so on. But many people in such situations feel they have to be honest and so they end up spending a lot of time in a courthouse, instead of job hunting for instance.

I wish such honesty would be present in the court system itself, which even at its highest level, votes strictly according to party lines. In civilized countries where judges are schooled by universities, they are taught that neutrality is a must without which a fair judgment is impossible. Someone wanting to become a judge can never practice law as an attorney, barrister, solicitor or any other type of jurist. In a true American way, a good attorney will get his client whatever this wants but often at a great cost. A great defense attorney will get his client free, no matter how guilty he is. Sooner or later this lawyer will end up on a bench as a judge. If early on he has had trouble telling the difference between right and wrong, fair and unfair, is a nomination enough to change his moral value system in a blink of an eye? I think not. Surely we have the above mentioned jury system, but that is overburdened and often consists of true simpletons, not the brightest minds it should. Both the defense attorney and the prosecutor will do their best to brainwash these people to see matter their way and one of them usually prevails, unless there happen to be strong individuals among the jury members who fail to bend and a mistrial is declared. At the top level, in the nation's highest court, the system should not tolerate a judge's biased view, usually based on the President and his political party that got him elected. The constitution and laws should be carefully examined and interpreted, but much of the time partisan politics overrule such documents and we calmly accept the usual 5-4 split as a fact of life.

When the people of Massachusetts elected a Republican to replace the late giant Ted Kennedy in the Senate, it was a slap on the face of everything the grand old man had represented during his many decades in public service. How quickly we forget! A person dies, there is a funeral and/or a memorial, touching words are spoken, tears flow and then everything is forgotten in no time at all. A death is not even necessary: a departing head of a business or organization leaves and the next day he/she is but a distant memory. In my field, a conductor who might have a fancy American title of Music Director, leaves or is made to quit, and people can hardly wait for him to be gone. A few orchestra musicians might miss him but only because they were his favorites and the new person in charge sees them differently. An orchestra in a pit continues to saw away the same music. Do they miss the man on the podium? You must be kidding. They have other things in their minds such as the survival of their workplace, certainly not taken for granted these days.

Senator Kennedy of course championed universal health care, a given in any other Western country. We have, according to some studies, 52 million uninsured people. Nobody is willing to say if this scary figure includes people in the country illegally, the unwanted but yet needed people who also get sick like you and me. We pride ourselves with claims that the elderly are taken care of by Medicare. Although by law it becomes one's primary health insurance at a certain age, good luck finding a doctor or a hospital willing to accept that coverage as the only one. A family member works as a doctor for a medical department of a major public teaching institution, specializing in geriatrics. They are not allowed to see patients who don't carry secondary insurance.

We like to find fault in "socialized" medicine systems, such as the Scandinavian countries provide, saying that we must be able to choose our own doctors. Yet any affordable insurance plan works on a Preferred Provider principle which strictly limits one's choice or otherwise covers only a fraction of high billed amounts. There are plenty of private doctors and hospitals in the Scandinavian countries, for people who insist on seeing a certain doctor or have the non-emergency surgery performed immediately. The cost for this is naturally high, but nowhere near the expense here, and the national health insurance will reimburse the patient for part of it. So, in essence we already have a socialized system, one with limits. An insurance company must give its preapproval for any planned surgical operation. The yearly deductible seldom is absolute. Unless one has money to burn, our options are actually far more limited than in those countries whose system we deplore. The government is already deeply involved in health care when you take into account the people on Medicare, Medicaid or who are treated via the Veterans Health Care system. And who do you think is paying for the ER visits to public hospitals? What about the health care for the millions who actually work for our government? People, don't kid yourselves with the idea of free choice as it is an illusion. Read an article in the NY Times about a messy situation between an insurer and a hospital chain and patients not knowing if they can continue to see their doctors.

Some of us are either blessed, or cursed, to see patterns everywhere. Part of an IQ test which we had to take during the last grade of middle school, we were given a logic test with letters and numbers. The nice lady said not to worry as nobody had ever finished it in the given 20 minutes. By eight minutes was I not only done with it but had also checked everything over, and asked to be excused. She seemed to be annoyed and demanded to see my paper. Then her face turned white and she quietly said everything was correct. Recognizing patterns in everyday life gives a person a window into the future of things. This is where I presently become pessimistic as it isn't a pretty sight. I'm old already and have no reason to worry about the rest of my life, but I have children who are just starting theirs and I just hope they'll be able to adjust to a new world. They will have to be like the most successful of wild animals, whose natural habitat is being destroyed either by the constantly expanding number of humans or the changing climatic conditions, in order to survive and thrive. Parts of this continent and Europe may have had an old-fashioned cold winter but the Arctic polar cap is still shrinking and the frozen tundra melting, releasing large amounts of very dangerous methane, a truly nasty greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. And all along we thought carbon dioxide was the real danger, but now it might turn out to be just an appetizer before the real meal.

I wish this country would wake up before something catastrophic makes us do so.

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