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TED2010

Robert Gupta: Music is medicine, music is sanity

February 10, 2010

Robert Gupta, violinist with the LA Philharmonic, talks about a violin lesson he once gave to a brilliant, schizophrenic musician -- and what he learned. Called back onstage later, Gupta plays his own transcription of the prelude from Bach's Cello Suite No. 1.

Robert Gupta - Violinist
Violinist Robert Gupta joined the LA Philharmonic at the age of 19 -- and maintains a passionate parallel interest in neurobiology and mental health issues. He's a TED Senior Fellow. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
One day, Los Angeles Times columnist
00:15
Steve Lopez was walking along
00:18
the streets of downtown Los Angeles
00:20
when he heard beautiful music.
00:22
And the source was a man,
00:25
an African-American man,
00:27
charming, rugged, homeless,
00:29
playing a violin that only had two strings.
00:33
And I'm telling a story that many of you know,
00:36
because Steve's columns became the basis
00:38
for a book, which was turned into a movie,
00:41
with Robert Downey Jr. acting as Steve Lopez,
00:44
and Jamie Foxx as Nathaniel Anthony Ayers,
00:46
the Juilliard-trained double bassist
00:49
whose promising career was cut short
00:51
by a tragic affliction with paranoid schizophrenia.
00:54
Nathaniel dropped out of Juilliard, he suffered a complete breakdown,
00:58
and 30 years later he was living homeless
01:00
on the streets of Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles.
01:02
I encourage all of you to read Steve's book or to watch the movie
01:06
to understand not only the beautiful bond
01:09
that formed between these two men,
01:12
but how music helped shape that bond,
01:14
and ultimately was instrumental -- if you'll pardon the pun --
01:17
in helping Nathaniel get off the streets.
01:20
I met Mr. Ayers in 2008,
01:24
two years ago, at Walt Disney Concert Hall.
01:26
He had just heard a performance of Beethoven's First and Fourth symphonies,
01:28
and came backstage and introduced himself.
01:31
He was speaking in a very jovial and gregarious way
01:33
about Yo-Yo Ma and Hillary Clinton
01:36
and how the Dodgers were never going to make the World Series,
01:39
all because of the treacherous first violin passage work
01:41
in the last movement of Beethoven's Fourth Symphony.
01:44
And we got talking about music, and I got an email from Steve a few days later
01:48
saying that Nathaniel was interested in a violin lesson with me.
01:52
Now, I should mention that Nathaniel refuses treatment
01:56
because when he was treated it was with shock therapy
01:59
and Thorazine and handcuffs,
02:02
and that scar has stayed with him for his entire life.
02:04
But as a result now, he is prone to
02:08
these schizophrenic episodes,
02:10
the worst of which can manifest themselves as
02:12
him exploding
02:14
and then disappearing for days,
02:16
wandering the streets of Skid Row,
02:18
exposed to its horrors, with the torment of his own mind
02:20
unleashed upon him.
02:24
And Nathaniel was in such a state of agitation
02:26
when we started our first lesson at Walt Disney Concert Hall --
02:29
he had a kind of manic glint in his eyes,
02:32
he was lost.
02:35
And he was talking about
02:37
invisible demons and smoke,
02:39
and how someone was poisoning him in his sleep.
02:41
And I was afraid,
02:45
not for myself, but I was afraid
02:47
that I was going to lose him,
02:50
that he was going to sink into one of his states,
02:52
and that I would ruin his relationship with the violin
02:54
if I started talking about scales
02:57
and arpeggios and other exciting forms of
02:59
didactic violin pedagogy.
03:01
(Laughter)
03:03
So, I just started playing.
03:04
And I played the first movement of the Beethoven Violin Concerto.
03:07
And as I played,
03:11
I understood that there was a profound change
03:13
occurring in Nathaniel's eyes.
03:16
It was as if he was in the grip of some invisible pharmaceutical,
03:18
a chemical reaction, for which my playing the music
03:21
was its catalyst.
03:25
And Nathaniel's manic rage
03:28
was transformed into understanding,
03:32
a quiet curiosity and grace.
03:36
And in a miracle, he lifted his own violin
03:41
and he started playing, by ear,
03:44
certain snippets of violin concertos
03:47
which he then asked me to complete -- Mendelssohn,
03:49
Tchaikovsky, Sibelius.
03:51
And we started talking about music, from Bach
03:53
to Beethoven and Brahms,
03:55
Bruckner, all the B's,
03:57
from Bartók, all the way up to Esa-Pekka Salonen.
03:59
And I understood that he not only
04:01
had an encyclopedic knowledge of music,
04:03
but he related to this music at a personal level.
04:05
He spoke about it with the kind of passion
04:09
and understanding that I share with my colleagues
04:11
in the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
04:13
And through playing music and talking about music,
04:16
this man had transformed
04:19
from the paranoid, disturbed man
04:21
that had just come from walking the streets
04:24
of downtown Los Angeles
04:26
to the charming, erudite,
04:28
brilliant, Juilliard-trained musician.
04:30
Music is medicine. Music changes us.
04:34
And for Nathaniel, music is sanity.
04:39
Because music allows him to take his thoughts
04:43
and delusions and shape them
04:45
through his imagination and his creativity,
04:48
into reality.
04:50
And that is an escape
04:52
from his tormented state.
04:54
And I understood that this was the very essence of art.
04:56
This was the very reason why we made music,
04:59
that we take something that exists within all of us
05:01
at our very fundamental core,
05:03
our emotions,
05:05
and through our artistic lens,
05:07
through our creativity, we're able to shape those emotions into reality.
05:09
And the reality of that expression
05:14
reaches all of us
05:16
and moves us, inspires and unites us.
05:18
And for Nathaniel,
05:23
music brought him back into a fold of friends.
05:25
The redemptive power of music brought him back
05:28
into a family of musicians
05:30
that understood him,
05:32
that recognized his talents
05:34
and respected him.
05:36
And I will always make music with Nathaniel,
05:39
whether we're at Walt Disney Concert Hall
05:42
or on Skid Row, because he reminds me
05:44
why I became a musician.
05:46
Thank you.
05:49
(Applause)
05:51
Bruno Giussani: Thank you. Thanks.
05:58
Robert Gupta.
06:01
(Applause)
06:03
Robert Gupta: I'm going to play something that I shamelessly stole from cellists.
06:22
So, please forgive me.
06:25
(Laughter)
06:27
(Music)
06:28
(Applause)
09:13

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Robert Gupta - Violinist
Violinist Robert Gupta joined the LA Philharmonic at the age of 19 -- and maintains a passionate parallel interest in neurobiology and mental health issues. He's a TED Senior Fellow.

Why you should listen

Violinist Robert Vijay Gupta joined the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the age of 19. He made his solo debut, at age 11, with the Israel Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta. He has a Master's in music from Yale. But his undergraduate degree? Pre-med. As an undergrad, Gupta was part of several research projects in neuro- and neurodegenerative biology. He held Research Assistant positions at CUNY Hunter College in New York City, where he worked on spinal cord neuronal regeneration, and at the Harvard Institutes of Medicine Center for Neurologic Diseases, where he studied the biochemical pathology of Parkinson's disease.

Gupta is passionate about education and outreach, both as a musician and as an activist for mental health issues. He has the privilege of working with Nathaniel Ayers, the brilliant, schizophrenic musician featured in "The Soloist," as his violin teacher.

The original video is available on TED.com
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