Posted on December 18, 2015 at 08:54 AM | Permalink
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So it's Leonard Bernstein's birthday. Maybe you know him as the composer of West Side Story. Maybe you know him as a former NY Philharmonic conductor. But as many of you also know Bernstein was a great composer outside of the theater, and his concert music is very moving . One of my favorite violin concertos is a piece he wrote called the Serenade, After Plato's Symposium. It's a piece about love, and each part or movement is focused on a great speaker in the Plato work (for example, there's a Socrates section). It's a really cool and engaging way to put philosophy to music, or rather, to show how music can be inspired by a specific collection of ideas and talks. It's also rich with emotion and sometimes a lot of good fun. Here's a great recording of one of the more expressive portions with Bernstein conducting. I hope you have a chance to listen to it soon, and then if you like it, to seek out the whole work.--Adam Baer
Posted on August 25, 2015 at 02:22 PM | Permalink
I wrote a piece for today's Sunday LA Times about violinist Itzhak Perlman. It's an honest appreciation, but it also talks about trends in violin-playing, and notes how not only is the Household-name Violinist Ideal sadly no longer a reality in 2015, but that we should appreciate Perlman specifically for all that he has done and continues to do as a musician, violin ambassador, teacher, and inspiration. There is some criticism of a new collection of previously released CDs -- but the critique is light and mostly aimed at a dollar-conscious record label -- not so much Perlman, whose playing on those discs is strong and of a piece with violin performance style in America at the time. (For a recommendation from my piece, try this recording of Perlman playing a movement from Leonard Bernstein's Serenade after Plato's Symposium.)
Now, I've had some conversations with my colleagues about the piece, and it has led us to discuss what needs to be said in appreciation essays about figures like Perlman. My feeling is that to characterize Perlman's playing as "schmaltzy" in the way that it reads in the subheadline in the print version is somewhat mean-spirited and unnecessary. I write in the article that some "on-trend" listeners may feel that it's schmaltzy (even Perlman would admit that he doesn't approach music coldly), but I don't use the word in an aggressive way, and I didn't write the subheadline, or the headline, for that matter.
It's always hip to be vicious and unyielding, and it gets eyeballs -- but I went through that phase as a very young critic already, and I didn't like what it brought out in me, what my work may have done to others, or the kinds of people it introduced me to. I write honestly, and I always choose the truth, but that's not a problem in this case. Good critical thinking will always win, but that's important to me, and I write about trends and performance styles specifically for this reason. Context.
The fact is the subheadline in the print version of this essay--and I recognize that some people only saw the print version, that's why I'm writing this post--was written by someone else and communicates an unkind spirit, especially in the way it uses the word "schmaltzy." I'm the child of Jewish musicians, and I like me some occasional schmaltz (both culinary and sonic) even if I also like a more contemporary style of playing as well as various genres, including the most un-schmaltzy matter. I also wrote in the piece that I am a fan of Jascha Heifetz's recordings, which have their own quality.
What's more, as I say in the essay, Perlman has contributed fine interpretations and recordings to our music world. Tastes change as generations turn over. But I still feel a great warmth when I listen to Itzhak Perlman's playing, and I'm very thankful for him. He will always be someone to admire.
I hope that he knows that, and more important, that the readers of my piece know that. Remember: writers for big newspapers rarely if ever write the headlines for their pieces, or the sub-headlines (or get to see either of them before the piece is printed).
Itzhak Perlman means a lot to me: That's why I went out on a limb and wrote this piece. That's The message from the writer. Hope it comes across in the text. And if I sound a little schmaltzy, that's Ok with me.
Posted on July 12, 2015 at 05:08 PM | Permalink
One of the most important musical experiences of my life was participating in a young orchestra at Tanglewood that would learn and then perform Gustav Mahler's First Symphony, also known as the "Titan." It has one of the most life-affirming evocations of "good morning" baked into its first movement (just allow it to bloom), and it has been a sort of personal anthem for me. Today is Mahler's birthday, and the best thing that I can do to share this experience with you is to recommend listening to this recording below. (And if you can't handle something so long, try the first movement, and then make your decision.) I owe a lot to this piece -- and to this composer. I hope that you may come to feel the same way, too.
A few days ago, an op-ed columnist in the New York Times wrote that he didn't think his kid should transfer into a music school. Today, Fred Bronstein, dean of the Peabody Conservatory of Music, responded in the Times. It's a strong, smart statement that takes the piece's headline literally, emphasizing "training" musicians "attuned to their communities" who should be "effective communicators, educators, entrepreneurs, audience development experts and citizen-artists." But there's more to be said on that issue.
I'm a former Peabody student, and I say that if you have the talent and determination, you should go to music school. It's one of the best things that I ever did with my life. It filled my soul and trained my brain to accomplish many other things, including serious writing projects. I'm a big believer in the humanities, and as a musician from a family of musicians, I wanted the immersion in music that they had enjoyed beyond the pre-college music conservatory. But I simultaneously attended Johns Hopkins' separate Arts & Sciences undergraduate program, and I graduated in 2000, a bad time to go to music school. Back then, the older classically oriented ones like mine (Peabody is the country's first conservatory), weren't designed yet to teach students what they really needed to know as the Internet was growing. They were experimenting. But schools that emphasized popular genres like the Berklee College of Music were leaps and bounds ahead, especially with respect to getting students fluent with digital and business.
The issue now isn't really whether or not you should go to music school. It's how strong is the school you want to attend? How well will it train you to be a musician-plus today? Sure, you can go to music school, study an instrument, composing, history, and theory--and you can learn the practical stuff on your own. But you really ought to ensure that you have your sights set on the realities of our time and that the music school you choose really does teach all of its students (maybe even as a "core") the following: business (especially entrepreneurship but also management, marketing, arts administration, contract negotiation, and financial skills); technology (app development, coding, UX, digital production for all genres [hip-hop, pop, songwriting, etc.], recording, video, engineering, music and sound editing for media/entertainment); music education; writing; arts advocacy; film/media composing; and IP/copyright law, as well as perhaps public health (!).
I have long appreciated Columbia University's "core curriculum." Music schools have always had a version of their own, consisting of theory, ear-training, lessons, etc. But now they need new ones full of required courses and skills assessments--it's not just about supplementing music classes with languages and the humanities or intros to the good things that Bronstein mentions (Peabody is lucky to have him). Courses in these subjects need to be authoritative and leave students with strong skills. They need to be practical and effective. I'm asking for a lot, but that's what the world asks of you as a musician, or as any kind of creative professional. So, schools: Please partner with media companies, music publishers, tech startups, small businesses, independent artists, more community schools. Add incentives. Stress the requirements beyond music skills. Stress that these are music skills.
I studied the violin at Peabody while attending Hopkins, but I live in Hollywood now, consult on music and work as a writer, journalist, and editorial content strategist. My first job out of college was at NPR; they hired me to be a cultural producer with a specialty in digital, but getting that gig was a bit of blind luck (although I knew how to code), based mostly on the fact that I'd published music criticism in the Washington Post. I would have benefitted so much from even a few of the aforementioned extra classes. Recording was available at my school, but it was a highly specialized degree program track. So, too, music education. These things were not stressed as necessary for everyone. But they were, and they are critically necessary now. A student at a great music school shouldn't have to learn Logic in an Apple Store.
What's great, though, is that Peabody is now poised to do this as an entity owned by Johns Hopkins University, and Bronstein says he's devoted to the cause. But it should be reiterated that I graduated from college 15 years ago, and Peabody was not moving on these things nearly quickly enough, even though it had been owned by Hopkins for a while. I have great hope for future music students, but also some words of advice: Double-degree program with a university. Or, even better, something new and singular that blends two types of schools like Hopkins and Peabody more seamlessly. That's what I tried to do with my program, and eventually I only took one degree (my Arts & Sciences B.A.). The Music School as a template for higher education needs to evolve more quickly and comprehensively for the sake of all musicians as well as those who will move into other fields while using their music skills. The great music that we love will be thankful.-- Adam Baer
When I first heard that the New York Times was running a series of Opinionator essays about psychology and psychotherapy called "Couch," I was pretty sure I'd have something to submit. I've not only a seen a few professionals in this field over the years, but the woman I married eventually became a stellar clinical psychologist and neuropsychologist in Los Angeles. I like to kid that she's never had the good fortune to be my doctor, but that's of course true: I was never her patient, and she wasn't in this line of work when we met. She first started as a scientist, a researcher. At any rate, I decided that I'd write a piece about the key psychologists in my life, especially because two of them had massively differing approaches, and in fact, one passed away while seeing me with the same disease as me -- and never told me she was sick (such are boundaries). If you've made it this far, here's the link to the story that ran in the New York Times Couch series. Have a read and tell me if you still don't approve of strict boundaries like those which the selfless cancer therapists live by. I hope this honors them in some way. -- Adam Baer
p.s. Some people upon reading this piece don't get the sense that I had tried to honor these people in my life while still being truthful about my experiences with them. The very act that I have told these stories is an act of honoring them, and one can't change a couple of intriguing non-fiction stories into pure praise when one is composing this sort of journalism piece. I also did leave out a lot of info about my experience and both characters (as well as my wife). I don't want to have to say this -- I hope that some people get it -- but the piece itself is in a way a commentary on what we should share and what we shouldn't. And that every case is different, so hard and fast rules may exist but must like music be interpreted with good taste (for example, I could have shared my wife's name and advertised for her, but I didn't; nor did I want to intrude on the life of someone else's family). Thanks to all who read and corresponded with me about this essay. It wasn't easy to write but I felt that it could do some good to share it, and I hope it brings attention to the clinical psychologists (Ph.D.s) who work with cancer patients and their families while continuing to contribute to important research. If you want to donate to a cause look up the good people in your area who do this, and help them.
Celebrate Aaron Copland's birthday w/this lesser-known piece of music, dedicated to a lieutenant who had died in the South Pacific. I played, among other things, this piece in my first jury at Peabody Conservatory of Music, and the looks I received from the uber-traditional violin teachers (my judges) made me shake. It was an untraditional choice -- a "cop-out," one of them said. But the more annoyed she looked, the better I played. For a Tanglewood kid there was no greater honor than playing Copland, especially in a room that was full of people craving Paganini.
*If you want to learn more about Copland have a look at an old-school microsite that I created, edited, and produced for NPR in 2000 when we celebrated the Copland Centennial. -- Adam Baer
Posted on November 14, 2014 at 08:30 AM | Permalink
A lot of you know I've had cancer(s). That it's been tough, that I've been given the chance to write about it. And that I have great health insurance, a huge impact on my family's financial and emotional life. However, what many readers may not know, even if you've read my work, is that buried in a piece for Harper's Magazine that I published I talk about having a malignant tumor in the base of my skull (not my brain) called Chordoma. The piece makes it clear that I continue to live with it. But to make it more clear, this is one of the rarest diseases in America, and very few people, save for the generous experts who have to date saved my life with surgery and radiation and management, know what to do with chordomas, including a lot of doctors and researchers (certainly in LA).
Of course, we're living at a time when a researcher might figure out an ever-better treatment.ut a tiny portion of the population may not realize that this silent, fatal disease and its treatments force us to perpetually fight terrible side-effects (among them, the very serious condition of social isolation), and that if this is just one of the cancers you have/have had, life is never "OK," even if you do your best to make everyone around you feel like it is, lest you seem stranger, weirder, more of a reminder of everyone's mortality, a guilt-inducer. Rarer.
At any rate, the guy linked to in a few sentences is pretty much the only one of our generation, without an MD or PhD, working really hard to lead research and other programs that may help people with this specific rare disease. He and his foundation deserve serious support. His name is Josh Sommer, and his non-profit is called Chordoma Foundation. I'm ashamed that I haven't been more vocal about him and his work, and that most times I don't want to read about this one of my diagnoses. But on a day like today, when I have questions about a certain drug that I need for one late effect of a previous cancer treatment, something that might make my chordoma worse, a question that cannot be answered, I feel lucky that Josh is doing what he does. This call for support is long overdue.
I hope that you read about Josh, and back his group. I learned that I have (a) chordoma because of an incidental MRI taken because of headaches. That means that many other people can have it, and that it can be less rare than we think, because who gets head MRIs for no good reason, and who looks into the heads of the deceased? I'd hate to learn of one more person suffering from this deadly problem, but it's highly possible, and that -- not any sympathy for my situation -- is why I posted this. People with chordoma are often told they may only live seven or ten years.
Some of us who've had the advanced treatments and surgeries are optimistic about living a lot longer, but we could be wrong. Josh, and the people he's working with, are not living in the vagaries; they are living and working for change in the now, and they don't feel their job is done with just one magazine article that appears to be a book review. I hope that I can help them more. -- Adam Baer
"The cliffdwellers cling precariously to the brush-covered slopes of the Hollywood hills, sharing the common perils of fire and flood. In the late fall, when the humidity drops and a warm wind whips through the canyons, the hills may suddenly explode with flame. In the rainy season, when the naked cliffs crack and slide, the mortgaged wickiups come tumbling down. But the true cliffdweller always returns to his wildlife refuge. He trades in his charred Porsche, patches his pool, rebuilds his house-with-a-view and again settles down to enjoy the comforts of his mountain lair." ...
"Laurel is Southern California’s semi-tropical version of Manhattan’s East Village. Mediterranean villas dating back to the first hoarse days of talking pictures are hemmed in by dilapidated shacks owned by absentee landlords. The canyon’s natural fire hazards have been intensified of late by shaggy young nomads who turn on in the blackened ruins of burned-out mansions where Theda Bara may once have dined. The daily life of the community swirls around a small shopping center, “The Square,” which boasts the old-fashioned Canyon Country Store and a pleasant cafe, the Galleria."--1970 article from Holiday magazine on what it's like to live in the Hollywood Hills.
Posted on November 01, 2014 at 03:40 PM | Permalink
A number of years ago, well before this subject was written about elsewhere, I learned about, met, and began interviewing the Silverlake-area guitar luthier and music-shop owner Reuben Cox who uses found materials to make equisite instruments that harken back to a period of American guitarmaking that has slipped away. Reuben, a photographer with credits from The New Yorker and New York Times, had opened a place called Old Style Guitars on the eastern/southern edge of the neighborhood -- before it had become hip. Still, bands like The National would drop by and play secret shows in his driveway. And quickly, the place became a node, a scene, for some of the best elite rock musicians in the country: You could see Richard Reed Parry from Arcade Fire there, Chan Marshall, Devandra B., Bobby Womack, Beck, Sufjan Stevens, Alexi Murdoch, Andrew Bird, tons of studio players, even Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein. It was something like a micro Laurel Canyon for our time, inside a little box with lots of wires and wood. But it's hard to place significant articles about such esoteric subjects in the focused, news-oriented consumer magazines. So, I waited, and then an option to do something creative came up with one of my favorite magazines, The Believer. Now, I have turned the piece, which at last ran in The Believer's 2014 Music Issue, into a multimedia digital thing, with videos of The National playing at the store, a fetishistic guitar slideshow, and even a video of Arcade Fire using one of Reuben's guitars in Helsinki. Check it out at this URL, where I hope that it will live for a long time. http://logger.believermag.com/post/100588053844/interview-with-a-luthier-i-e-someone-who-makes
My thanks for reading, watching, waiting, and listening.