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Music and Mental Illness

The opera stage is filled with tragic characters who have lost touch with reality—one of the best-known examples being Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, seen in Mary Zimmermann’s new Met production earlier this season with the high-flying soprano Natalie Dessay.

But, as Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez tells it in his new book The Soloist, out from Putnam on April 17, real-life tragedies with mental illness at their center are playing out on our streets every day, and some of them involve musicians. Lopez literally stumbled on a story one day three years ago: a middle-aged, schizophrenic homeless man playing a violin in Pershing Square, who clearly had had some serious musical training in a former life.

The story of this man, Nathaniel Ayers—who once attended Juilliard—was originally the subject of a series of newspaper columns. Readers began donating musical instruments, and Lopez became more and more involved in trying to get Ayers off the streets and into treatment. The book is now being made into a movie for release later this year, directed by Joe Wright (Atonement) and starring Jamie Foxx as Ayers and Robert Downey Jr. as Lopez.

Steve LopezThis week, I spoke to Lopez about Nathaniel Ayers’s life and his music—his progress and his limitations, the efforts of the musicians and staff at the Los Angeles Philharmonic to help him, Ayers’s reaction to the book, what Juilliard was like for Ayers back in the 1970s, the ongoing debate about the connection between creativity and mental illness, and the upcoming film. Lopez also spoke about how much he learned about classical music and himself from his friendship with Ayers.

Jennifer Melick: What was that moment like when you first saw Nathaniel Ayers playing a beat-up violin out on the streets of Los Angeles?

Steve Lopez: I was passing through downtown L.A., looking for a newspaper column to write at the Los Angeles Times–when you’re a columnist, you always have your eyes and ears open. I saw him three years ago now, standing on the sidewalk, playing a violin, and what was striking about the picture was that he was quite clearly living on the streets, he had a shopping cart next to him with all of his belongings, and he had only two strings on the violin. And the music didn’t sound bad to my untrained ear.

I have since learned that when Nathaniel plays violin, he doesn’t play a set piece, he improvises and riffs … he gets a thought and he works with it, and it becomes kind of circular. When I saw him, he was standing near the Beethoven statue in Pershing Square at the time … he later said he was playing Beethoven-inspired riffs. That’s the first day, me looking at him, playing a violin that has only two strings, with all its limitations.

I introduced myself, and he was quite wary of me, kind of jumped back, and I realized that I was not going to get a column that day, that it was going to take some work. I did have a selfish interest at this point—can I write about this guy? On subsequent visits, he warmed to me, and his history began to come out in bits and pieces. One day, I asked him why he had scrawled these names in chalk on the sidewalk, and he said, “Oh, those were my colleagues at Juilliard.”

I immediately went back to my office and called Juilliard, to see if they had a record of a Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, and after checking their records they said no, they did not. I was crestfallen. I thought he might be more delusional than I first thought, and isn’t this sad that this man–standing on a corner playing a two-stringed violin–thinks he went to Juilliard. Then Juilliard called back, and said yes, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, they did have a double-bass student named Nathaniel Ayers.

So I began my journey with Nathaniel, calling people who knew him—family members, teachers, and people in his hometown of Cleveland and in New York. Nathaniel was saying at the time that the person who knew the most about his career was Harry Barnoff, a member of the Cleveland Orchestra. So I said, “Well, is he still performing?” And Nathaniel said, “Well, I don’t know if he is, he has been there 30 or 40 years.” So I asked Nathaniel how would I even get in touch with Barnoff, and Nathaniel wrote out a number in thin air—a kind of Rain Man moment, because Nathaniel had not spoken to Harry Barnoff in many years. For Nathaniel, there are things that have been ingrained for many years that are going to be there always, and Mr. Barnoff’s telephone number is one of them. When I dialed the number, it was Mr. Barnoff’s residence. He had retired after 46 years playing double bass in Cleveland, and when I told him where I had found Nathaniel, he was in tears. Nathaniel had been one of his most promising students, and he had tried to help him both before and after his breakdown. He said that Nathaniel was clearly gifted, but when he took him in as a teenager, he had trouble getting Nathaniel focused. And he commented that while Nathaniel was not the best student, he was very natural with the instrument, and comfortable with it, and that his sound was quite moving. One teacher after another has described him that way, including his friends in the Los Angeles Philharmonic—all of them talk about his “soulful expression.” Harry told me that when Nathaniel was making some progress, he told his student that he could apply for a scholarship to the music program at Ohio University, but that Nathaniel said, “But Mr. B, you went to Juilliard.” Nathaniel goes to Ohio University, but he has this thing about Juilliard. So he gets an audition, nails it, and goes there. All this info came to me in bits and pieces from Nathaniel and all the people who had known him.

JM: The musicians and staff of the Los Angeles Philharmonic have taken an active part in Nathaniel Ayers’s life. Could you describe their initial reactions to Mr. Ayers’s playing? When he first was given the chance to take lessons with Peter Snyder and Ben Hong, he had been in mental institutions and on the streets, and had not studied music formally for a long time.

SL: From the beginning, the people in the LA Phil have been quite surprised by his dexterity and flexibility on the various instruments—he plays violin and cello in addition to double bass. This past Sunday, Nathaniel and I went to a concert of the LA Phil at Disney Hall. It was Dvorák followed by a Beethoven violin sonata, and then Strauss. And during intermission, Nathaniel went backstage—he knows half the orchestra now; they ask him questions, and he asks them questions; he has quite a nice social network in the fraternity. After the concert he went outside and played his violin, two members of the orchestra came outside just to watch him. One of them was cellist Peter Snyder—who had jumped offstage the first time I went to Disney Hall with Nathaniel, because Peter had read about him in my column, and Peter had told him that he was moved by his story and proud of him. Nathaniel later took up with a cellist named Ben Hong, who helped make the Yo-Yo Ma reunion possible.

So on Sunday we’re out in front of Disney Hall, and also there is Robert Gupta, a 20-year-old Los Angeles Philharmonic violinist—who also has degrees in music and biology –premed with a neuroscience focus. Gupta was going to go to Harvard and become a doctor, and then took the audition in Los Angeles and got the job. So Robert has become Nathaniel’s current teacher on violin. They’re chatting, and it breaks into an impromptu lesson, and I’m watching Robert Gupta playing with Nathaniel—one is 20 years old, and the other is 57 years old—doing their thing. What Peter Snyder said of Nathaniel’s playing on the street, that his intonation is better on violin than it is on cello. That Peter understands that aspects of the violin appeal to him and play to his strengths, even though he originally thought Nathaniel’s instrument should be cello, because the fingering is closer to double bass fingerings. But Nathaniel’s fingering on the violin is really quite impressive. Robert cautions not to overestimate his progress–that a lot of what he’ll do is play one string. What Robert is pretty impressed by is his ability to hear someone else play a passage and then repeat it, not with the proper fingering, but carrying the melody of it on one string. Robert says he is quite surprised by the speed with which he can do this.

One advantage Nathaniel has is time: He has nothing to do all day other than the chores at the mental health agency where he lives. He has a choice of instruments to play and loves nothing more than playing them for hours at a time. His passion and dedication are striking. Part of what I found so inspirational about Nathaniel is that I watched this man who has had the courage to get through each day with this terrible disease, and he focused me on my own passions.

There’s another remarkable thing about knowing Nathaniel. I don’t understand music, but I understand it better through knowing its impact on him. I communicated with him through the music, because he is very soulful in his playing, and I’ve been able to connect with that, and have sort of a picture of his soul and his psyche through the music. I’ve learned to appreciate it more, can have a conversation with somebody like [bassist] Gary Karr, who thinks back on Nathaniel’s years at Juilliard—where he would often have trouble working on the assigned piece, but if assigned something soul-searching like the Bloch prayer, Nathaniel would shine. I hear that and I am moved by it, by its impact on Nathaniel. When he is playing, he is blessed out, in a groove, his eyes are closed, his head is thrown back, and there is not a happier person alive. It makes you reconsider the definition of happiness and success.

When Nathaniel had the chance to meet Yo-Yo Ma, I stood looking that these two guys from completely different lives and orbits and thought, which is happier? I don’t know. I know that when Nathaniel has his music, he is a very contented soul. To do what Mr. Ayers does, even with his cruel disease, is inspiring. He finds peace in the music each and every day, and to hold on to this dream all these years of discovering himself through the music. And he has the disadvantage of resisting medication and treatment. He has the advantage of going into it with a passion…Music is his medication, and Disney Hall is his hospital. When he’s there, he still has the same condition, but he just is in his own world, and I envy that. I envy the passion and the talent of this man. Maybe I can steal a little bit of that, and put it back into a sort of flamed-out interest in my own craft, refocusing me on what I realized is my own passion.

I see music’s therapeutic impact on him. I got an idea of what he experiences—there is interference all day long, as he struggles with images, with signals that I don’t see or hear. He has difficulty distinguishing between what’s real and what’s not. His escape is go to what he knows and trusts best: music. His world is constantly changing, but music is not. It’s on sheets of music in the same place where he first saw it as a junior high student in Cleveland, and then at Ohio University, and then at Juilliard. That map of music is ingrained, and it’s very centering, and it brings him great balance and joy and comfort.

The SoloistJM: Has Nathaniel read the book?

SL: He has read the book. I held my breath waiting for his reaction: the book is an intimate portrait of a man who has some very serious issues. There is something called “insight” that psychiatrists talk about—awareness into one’s own condition. There are times when Nathaniel is fully aware, and other times he is unaware of it or denies his condition. So I just held my breath … his courage and humanity didn’t work unless it was juxtaposed against the ugly cruelty of the illness. I worried. Initially he was little disturbed. Then began calling me twice a day to say thank you; that even though parts of the book were difficult to read, he felt that he needed to read it.

There are moral conflicts inherent in a project like this: Do I even have the right to write about him in a newspaper column? But his story has moved people, and they have developed a rooted interest in his life, and we have been able to humanize people like him who have fallen off track and help de-stigmatize mental illness. Nathaniel is not a mentally-ill homeless man. He is a man and a musician who has a mental illness. This is part of an important step in getting this country to realize that the stigma still exists, and we need to change the way people think about mental illness. It’s the last subgroup in the closet—there’s no 10K fundraiser for paranoid schizophrenia research, nobody wants to acknowledge it. One in 100 people in the world have schizophrenia. One in 6 people either have a mental health condition or know someone who has one. Part of telling the story is my way of saying this man should not be in the shadows. His accomplishments are as great as anyone I have met—the courage and the perseverance it takes for him to get through a day are not something that should be hidden away. We wouldn’t do that to people with pancreatic cancer. There are no easy answers, even when someone’s holding an apartment open for you, like we did with Nathaniel. But it’s possible for someone to make a difference in someone else’s life. And for Nathaniel it’s all wrapped up in the music.

JM: In the popular consciousness, there is this link between mental illness and creative ability in fields like art and music. This is not something that seems to be supported by what you write in the book, in which you suggest that mental illness may be equally likely to strike people of any background.

SL: When I was researching the book, I kept encountering people who would tell me that Nathaniel is musically inclined and “he has a mental condition—you know that’s quite common.” I found nothing conclusive, as I researched the book. I originally had it playing a bigger role in the book, but that is a different book entirely. There already have been a couple books in recent years about this. I’m no expert, and I don’t have time to become one. What I can write about is the impact of music in people’s lives. Now that I’ve gotten to know him better, and know more about the disturbances in the brain and how they function, I see the therapeutic balance that music can bring. People with a genetic predisposition to schizophrenia or bipolar disorder are more likely to be musical geniuses, but I don’t know how that brain chemistry works. For anyone who is stressed or troubled or mentally ill, music can be among the best medicine there is. It may be that people confronting that issue gravitate toward music, because it silences the demons and brings some level of peace. I didn’t want to fall into cliché, which I would if I did much with the idea that Nathaniel was both crazy and a genius.

JM: While researching the book, you visited Juilliard—in particular, the infamous fourth-floor practice rooms.

SL: I visited in summer. It was like a prison—I’ve been to lots of jails and prisons. I was escorted by Joseph Russo, Nathaniel’s former classmate, who described the pressures of going up to the fourth floor, and hearing someone on the same instrument, playing a piece on the next level that you had to learn in the next 20 minutes. My chest tightened walking through there. Juilliard was different place back then—many of Nathaniel’s classmates tell me this—there was no social aspect to life at Juilliard.

When you weren’t there practicing, there were head games going on — not just with teachers and faculty, but students playing head games with each other in such a competitive environment. There would be catch-22 conversations like, “Hey, do you have any outside gigs?” “Oh, yes I do, on Friday night.” And they would say, “Don’t you think somebody at your level should be focusing on your studies?” If you answered that you didn’t have a gig, then it would be, “Don’t you think that if you were good enough you would have a few gigs?” You either excel in those conditions, or you crack. And looking back at what happened to Nathaniel, it’s believed the kind of breakdown he had was from a genetic predisposition, triggered environmentally. — it could be a broken home with no father figure in your life, someone stepped into that role—whether it’s Homer Mensch or Gary Karr. Nathaniel maybe looked around at the kind of talent—it was such a pressure-packed environment that you could argue it was hostile—this was maybe the trigger.

JM: You write in the book that you seriously considering changing professions, away from newspaper journalism and into a job where you could be more directly involved in helping people like Mr. Ayers. Do you still think about doing that?

SL: More and more as the industry declines, I have been really been inspired by those in the mental health field. But I’m 54, and if I can get ten or fifteen years’ more work [as a newspaper journalist], why not? Because I’ve got what Nathaniel’s got — I’ve got a passion, and I had sort of watch it slip away as my industry slipped into decline. I can make my own music, write my own stories—a gift that Nathaniel presented to me, an opportunity to assess what my own passions were and what I wanted to do … I may possibly move to a nonprofit field, working as writer in residence, so I can work in both fields. So I might at some point walk away from the newspaper business. Working with Nathaniel reminded me of what I like to do best, but also of what newspapers can be at their best. I can grab a story that throws light on a subject or rethink an issue like mental illness.

JM: The movie is scheduled for release as early as November.

SL: Jamie Foxx, who plays Nathaniel in the movie, is also trained as a musician—though not on cello. It has been interesting to get regular reports from [L.A. Philharmonic cellist] Ben Hong on how his lessons are going with Jamie. He’s been quite struck by Jamie Foxx’s dexterity and ability to switch instruments. My understanding is that in the movie you will see Jamie Foxx playing, but you’ll hear Ben Hong—he’s essentially trying to teach him to fake it really well. Jamie Foxx doing really well on the cello, but probably not well enough to do the actual playing.

JM: You mentioned that you and Nathaniel went to a concert last Sunday at Disney Hall. Do you go to concerts often now?

SL: We catch probably a concert a month. We’re always escorted to our seats by Adam Crane [the Los Angeles Philharmonic publicist who originally arranged for Nathaniel to come hear the LA Phil play], who has become one of Nathaniel’s best friends. He’s has a huge impact on Nathaniel’s life, and have Robert Gupta and Ben Hong and Peter Snyder. It’s wonderful the way they’ve treated him and brought him back into the fraternity. He’s not in their league, but they adore him and appreciate his challenges, and have been very generous with their time and their interest in trying to help him along. Adam has led the way with that, and another recent development is that Nathaniel is beginning to go to Disney Hall alone. He will call Adam Crane if, say, Lorin Maazel is in town conducting, and ask if he can go, and Adam says to meet him at the artist entrance at 7:45.

JM: How would you describe Nathaniel Ayers’s life now?

SL: He has a number of things he didn’t have before—he has an apartment, friends, a little music studio where he can play. In the time since I finished the book, there have been some ups, some downs. There’s a dark and ugly side to his illness; we’ve had our run-ins and have to dig down for more patience, because sometimes it’s not Nathaniel, it’s the disease …. When it’s really bad, he’s aggressive and insulting to people around him. When it’s great, he stands across from Disney Hall and plays his violin, and it’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever heard. Life is quite operatic for Nathaniel right now. He might never have more stability—I have to embrace that and respect him. But as he continues to take these small steps toward a better life, we hope that maybe one day he will decide he wants to try the new generation of antipsychotic drugs. That is, if he can ever get beyond his memories: the horrors of shock therapy and thorazine and being arrested and being in jail. If he gives regular treatment another try, he wants to be a music therapist, and help others through his music. I don’t know how possible it is when you’ve gone untreated as long as he has. The life at age 57 may be the life he’s going to have. I just don’t know. But I have not given up hope.

JM: Did writing this book change your view of the classical music world?

SL: I had this fear of classical music and classical musicians. I think that I felt too uninformed and uncultured to be in their presence. It was impossible to be seen as anything other than a rube if I couldn’t relate to what they were talking about. On my first trips to Disney Hall with Nathaniel, I would just kind of stand back like a proud parent who could not believe how well their child was doing, and I could not understand the conversations at all—Ben Hong and Peter Snyder and Adam Crane talking about composers and conductors, or common acquaintances going back 35 years… Nathaniel would bump into somebody in the orchestra and say something about Alice Tully Hall, and the violinist would say, “You might have seen my husband play with the New York Philharmonic”, and Nathaniel would say, “Oh, yes, I heard his performance.”

The folks who have stepped up and helped Nathaniel have become friends of mine, and in some ways it’s like the mystique is gone, all the reasons for my fears have been erased. I relate to them in ways that are beyond music, and having them in my life makes me more aware of what music is, and how I can learn to appreciate it. It’s very enriching for me. I’m comfortable chatting with them about anything, and they’re curious about my craft as a writer. I write the language of those things in the newspaper, and they play the language of those things in Disney Hall. It’s more accessible than I would have imagined. My jazz collection is not shrinking, but my classical collection is what I’m adding to now. I’m just fascinated at the difference between Yo-Yo Ma’s Bach unaccompanied cello suites and Jacqueline du Pré doing it. What is the difference? I’m trying to figure out. I relate more to Jacqueline du Pré, because that was Nathaniel’s god, and I think, what was in her expression, her sound that drew him in, more so than, say, Janos Starker or somebody else? When I listen to the music, I’m hearing a little bit of Nathaniel and finding another path into his soul. When I first met him, things that might strike some people as insane are clearly, instead, profound. I’ve been able to love the music as a way to understand Nathaniel.

Photo of Steve Lopez (top) by Gilles Mingasson.

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