JULY 2020: Recovery Edition, Part 7

JULY 2020: Recovery Edition, Part 7
July 5, 2020 leonard slatkin

“The best doctors and medicine in the world can’t save you if you don’t do what you’re supposed to do.”
—Magic Johnson

There is a lot of information. At the same time, too little information is available. We don’t know what to do with the information when we get it. Who is this information person anyway?

During the continuing pandemic, I have found myself in very strange lands, navigating the etiquette of virtual meetings, chat rooms, and even phone conferences in which I sense this odd disconnect between those I am speaking with and me. The more of these events I do, familiarity breeds acquiescence to this new set of communication tools.

Most of the time, my role is that of teacher. On other occasions, I have been in dialogue with colleagues in the conducting profession. I have also attended a couple of virtual board meetings during which I mostly sit and listen. One thing is clear in almost every case. If you cannot see the body language, the transition from one person to another is always awkward. No one knows when to speak, for fear of interrupting. This is exacerbated by intermittent distortions and delays, which lead to deadly silences with everyone waiting to see what happens next.

The role of leader falls to me when I am invited to speak to a group of people, sometimes not musicians. This is more like a lecture I might have given, which I always adjusted to the type of gathering and the audience. Many years ago, I spoke to a conference of lawyers. It was at the end of what was apparently a long day for them. My discovery was that the legal profession must have very little humor in it, as all my jokes and anecdotes fell flat. Perhaps they weren’t funny in the first place.

Recently, I had the pleasure of being with a group of doctors. Most likely you do not know that in several cities, there are orchestras comprised of people who are in the medical profession. My father led one such ensemble called the Los Angeles Doctors Symphony Orchestra. My good friend Ivan Shulman is now their conductor, and he invited me to a “rehearsal.” Instead of being able to play on their instruments, the members chat about music and perhaps the works they were supposed to be playing. Also included in the Zoom meeting were similarly minded folks from Boston.

It should come as no surprise to learn that a lot of medical practitioners were interested in becoming musicians when they were young before fate took them in other directions. After all, there are some correlations between medicine and music, the most obvious being that both deal with pulse. I take it one step further. A doctor is supposed to sustain the living. Musicians are able to bring the dead to life.

For this session, I primarily talked about my own life, especially those early days in LA. But one theme that I find important to stress is the wonderful world of the amateur. Many people think of this word in a negative way. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is precisely the amateur musicians who express themselves with a passion that many professionals should emulate.

My dad used to come home from rehearsals amazed that his orchestra only spoke about Brahms, Stradivarius, or Horowitz. There was never any shop talk. I am not sure that I ever saw my father so energized by any other musicians. When I was going through my record library, I discovered a concert from 1961 with the Doctors Symphony Orchestra that my dad led at the old Philharmonic Auditorium. What incredible energy and commitment on the part of everyone involved.

Toward the end of my presentation, it was question time. All the queries were about music, but then I had an opportunity to ask a couple as well. The next day, I was supposed to venture out to the hospital, where my annual physical was going to occur. What precautions should I take? Most of the answers were what I expected, but one thing I learned was a slight variation on when and how to remove surgical gloves. Do it from the area above the wrist with your hand palm down to decrease the likelihood of coming in contact with your fingers as you pull the glove off.

But more instructive, as well as scary, was the medical pros’ opinions on when we might get back to how it used to be. No one ever used the word normal. They all agreed that a vaccine might appear by the new year, but they also said that it has to be completely approved by the FDA, then manufactured and distributed, which might take a couple months. Then at least ninety percent of the population needs to be inoculated, and that could take up to three months. None of these doctors believes that we can be a fully functional society until April or May. And that projection assumes the best-case scenario.

What does this mean for musicians? As optimistic as we would like to be, we must be realistic. And in the real world, all of us must continue to practice patience. What did Randy Newman write? Oh yeah. “Baltimore. Man, it’s hard just to live.” And it got a whole lot more difficult for some.

As of this writing, Europe is banning Americans from travelling to most of its countries. We cannot even go from Florida to New York, and three states are prohibiting entry from the other forty-seven. I am still not sure how the virus knows to stay out.

So we all do what we can. Teaching singers and instrumentalists virtually is very difficult. Without the ability to see every aspect of the student, the capacity for correction is limited. More troubling is that no matter how sophisticated the devices being used, the sound is still being conveyed electronically. At a board meeting with the Manhattan School of Music, I proposed that a fund be set up to provide decent equipment for each student.

Every young musician already has a computer, phone, or tablet. What students also need are a good microphone and a couple of speakers. The mic on most devices is just not satisfactory. My estimate was that this should cost anywhere from $200 to $450, depending on what the student already has. And partnering with an electronics store could be a cost-saving measure.

You cannot do this with conducting. Even the baton technique looks vague over video. In the sessions I have been doing with musicians of varying ages from around the world, we mostly focus on score study. What was supposed to be a one-hour discussion of Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations lasted more than twice the allotted time. One participant was in Australia and stayed up past 4:00 in the morning. Everyone had scores in hand, and for a piece that I think I know very well, there were a couple of wrinkles I was made aware of.

It seems that we can learn about music without the actual sounds. Putting it into practice is another matter entirely. No amount of preparation can adequately get any of us back into the swing of things, whenever that time comes. Keeping our minds occupied at least gives us hope. Now it is time to get back on the information highway and see if we can find that person who is guiding us through this era.