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Music did a number on me

Experts say that musical training can have a profound effect on young minds. But 50 years after violin lessons and a disaster with the Chicago Symphony, the writer is singing a different tune.

August 23, 2009|Mark Steinberg | Mark Steinberg is a retired attorney and served in the State and Justice departments during the Clinton administration.

In a recent interview in Harper's Magazine, Dr. Oliver Sacks, the respected Columbia University neurologist, argued that intensive musical training had a profound effect on young brains. He noted a study that showed children with a single year of violin training demonstrated striking positive change in their left hemispheres.

Although it's been ages since I last had someone look at either of my hemispheres, I believe I'm a walking exception to Sacks' generalization. Music did, in fact, have a profound impact on me in my formative years, but I've spent the succeeding 50 years digging out of the impact crater. It is not a pretty story.

My adventures with the violin grew out of my father's weakness for booze and maudlin music. He sated both cravings at a bar in Chicago named the Blue Danube, where Bela Babai and His Fiery Gypsies held forth nightly.

Bela's principal claim to fame was his rendering of "Hot Canary," a piece that lent itself to a style of violin playing that involved locating the right note by sliding the finger up and down the string to find it, rather than placing the finger exactly where it belonged. The beauty of Bela's approach was that to the musically clueless, his slides imparted emotion rather than uncertainty. In short, Bela could cheat and get away with it.

According to family legend, when I was 4 years old, my father brought me to the Blue Danube, presumably as the designated driver. There, I was reportedly so transfixed by Bela's playing and passion that it was clear to all I should immediately start violin lessons.

And so began my 15-year exile from pretty much everything I wanted to do.

I don't remember much about my violin teachers before my teens. What I do remember is the mantra that bound all of them into a snarling pack: "Practice."

My practice area was a knotty-pined, linoleumed basement, and I did not go gently into that dark place. Typically, after failing to convince my mother that I'd practiced while she was at the store or in the bathroom, I'd stomp down the 18 stairs, turn on and mute the TV, tune the violin for about 15 minutes, then play a piece I'd learned three years earlier.

It goes without saying that I made little progress, a fact that none of my cash-poor violin teachers saw fit to mention to my parents. And notwithstanding the four good ears my mother and father shared between them, they decided I was ready for the next step on my path to virtuosity, a summer at the National Music Camp in Interlochen, Mich.

Interlochen was a prison camp for brilliant nerds, kids who flawlessly played 15 instruments, sometimes simultaneously. And then there was me.

I was not a happy camper. After spending two more summers at Interlochen, I argued to my parents that I needed a greater challenge. They bought it. Unfortunately, they also went out looking for a greater challenge, which is how a humorless Chicago Symphony string player became my new teacher.

One day my teacher announced that I was to begin preparing for an audition to play with the Chicago Symphony. I waited for the punch line, but he just looked at me. Only then did my synapses flash the message that this nut job was going to subject me to the greatest humiliation of my life, a privilege theretofore reserved to my parents.

I began work on the Vivaldi concerto in A minor, a piece you'd know if you ever traveled more than four floors in an elevator. Motivated by hysteria, I began to practice. I practiced all the time, and even stopped watching TV with the sound off when I practiced.

The day of the audition came too soon. The orchestra hall stage was empty, and there were only two people in the auditorium, my teacher and the assistant conductor of the symphony. I had barely walked on the stage when I was instructed to begin playing. In the middle of the 12th bar I was told to stop playing.

My teacher came backstage and told me I'd get a letter telling me if I'd made the team. I didn't have much doubt about the outcome but hoped the envelope wouldn't be addressed to "Occupant."

Two weeks later the letter arrived. I was informed that I was to be one of a group of four young violinists who would perform a Vivaldi concerto (B minor, for you aficionados) with the orchestra.

Our rehearsals went pretty well. The conductor, occasionally fortified by something that looked but didn't smell like cream soda, was gentle.

When the day of reckoning came, I was pumped. I marched our group onto the stage, acknowledged the applause and signaled that we were ready to roll.

About 10 bars into the performance, the conductor stared briefly at me. Ten bars later, he did it again. By the end of the first movement, I'd developed a twitch. By the end of the concerto, I'd sweated through my clip-on tie. I could only conclude that a conductor's job included looking regularly at a soloist to make sure he was breathing or not peeing down his leg.

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