Concentration Is the Key to Conducting

Question: How do you mentally prepare for a concert?

Alan Gilbert:  I restudy every piece that I conduct, at \r\nleast a little bit, before I go on stage.  Even pieces that I know very \r\nwell that I've done many, many times, I flip through the score, and I \r\nmake sure that my mind is there.  It's the phenomenon of coming to it a \r\nsecond time.  If something feels like it's the first time, even it it's \r\nnot really, it's hard to really get into it, and there's a comfort I \r\nfeel from actually just taking the time before a performance to remind \r\nmyself how it goes.  As I said, I don't really get nervous.  It's not, \r\nthere's no kind of wacky routine that I have to do in order to put \r\nmyself in the right frame of mind.  I'm happy to speak to people \r\nbackstage.  I'm happy to chat about whatever else is going on, you know,\r\n the US Open, golf, whatever it is that we're thinking about.  I just \r\nmake sure that at the very least I have a few minutes where I can sort \r\nof go into the zone and really be able to concentrate.

I think \r\nconcentration is one of the most important abilities.  To be able to \r\nconcentrate well is one of the most important things that a conductor \r\ncan have.  To really be able to focus on whatever it is at that moment, \r\nboth in terms of the performance, but also taking care of all the \r\nvarious things that go along with the job because being a music director\r\n is, of course, mainly about conducting and delivering good \r\nperformances.  But there's so many other questions that cross the desk \r\nin terms of personnel, and planning, and programming.  If I have to \r\nthink about everything at once, nothing really gets done that well, so \r\nwhatever it is I try to do it and not worry about the other things \r\nbecause I hopefully realize that when – if I've taken care of one thing \r\nwell, then I can let it go and move on to the next thing.  I try not to \r\nmultitask, actually.
\r\nQuestion: Do you ever lose focus when you're conducting?

Alan Gilbert:  I'm pretty good at keeping my \r\nconcentration on stage.  Today in the performance there was a moment \r\nwhere I almost lost focus, and it was; I don't know if it was my fault \r\nor not, but anyway I turned two pages in the Gruber trumpet concerto.  \r\nIt's a very, very complicated piece, and it was actually the most \r\ncomplicated section, the most dangerous section to lose your place.  If I\r\n had messed up, I probably wouldn't have been able to get back on, so it\r\n was a really scary moment.  I wasn't really thinking as I turned the \r\npage – and in this particular piece it's very important to turn the \r\npages really well at the right time and of course only one leaf at a \r\ntime.  I usually am able to stay really in the moment in the \r\nperformance.  If I'm tired, that's when I tend to lose my \r\nconcentration.  I sometimes think, well my kids are very important to \r\nme;  I think about them a lot, and I'll go through an entire concert, \r\nand I'll think, “Oh, I didn't think about my kids once during these last\r\n two hours.

What could someone in another field learn about focus from your experience as a conductor?

Alan Gilbert:  I think being well prepared helps you \r\nfocus.  I think... I like to go into a rehearsal or a concert knowing \r\nthat I know how it's going to go.  Not that I know exactly how it will \r\nplay out or how it will feel musically or artistically, but I don't \r\nallow myself to enter a situation without doing adequate preparation.  \r\nThat means focusing beforehand but also creating the situation in which \r\nit's possible to be 100 percent focused in the moment. 

My wife \r\nlaughs when I say this because I work hard and I keep a difficult \r\nschedule.  I say that I'm fundamentally lazy, and the only thing that's \r\nstronger than my natural laziness is this absolutely pathological need \r\nto be 100 percent prepared.  So in a way, it doesn't quite make sense, \r\nbut I really... it's just one thing that I just never would allow myself\r\n to do is to show up being less than prepared.  That's the one thing you\r\n can control.  You can't control what happens externally, but you can \r\ncontrol your level of preparation. That gives you confidence, and that \r\nmakes it possible to, I think, really give the best when the pressure is\r\n on.

Recorded on June 18, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman

One of the most important skills a conductor must have is the ability to really focus. Gilbert says the confidence that comes from being well-prepared helps him get in the zone.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.