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FEATURE | Richard Kogan: “Resilience is a Skill, You Can Practice It"

By Robin Roger on May 20, 2015

Richard Kogan at Ring Hall, 2013
Merger of master pianist and master psychiatrist makes Richard Kogan a powerful role model

This week, at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, there were 11,000 attendees at the American Psychiatric Association Annual Meeting, heatedly debating mental health issues ranging from medication, diet, and diagnosis, to addiction, brain science, and ethics plus much much more. But there was one event about which there was no debate, when 1,232 psychiatrists filled every seat in the John Bassett Theatre for a lecture-recital by master pianist and eminent psychiatrist Richard Kogan, whose annual presentation at the A.P.A devoted to the mind and music of one of the great classical composers, consistently enthralls and illuminates every individual in the audience. This year Kogan transported the audience with a program devoted to the Mind and Music of Chopin.

With parallel and equal top-flight careers as a concert pianist and a psychiatrist, Kogan, who studied piano at Julliard and music and medicine at Harvard, (where he formed a trio with his close friends Yo-Yo Ma and Lynn Chang) and is currently the Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the Weill Cornell Medical Center, is uniquely qualified to report on the psychological profiles of great composers while demonstrating their artistic development through masterful performances of their works. There is nothing reductionist about Kogan’s integration of biographical detail and musical output, instead there is an increased understanding of the interplay of life and art that results in a far more enriched experience for the audience than the typical format of wordless performances backed up by specialized program notes.

Kogan’s presentations on composers including Rachmaninoff and Tchaikowsky, to name only two, have necessarily delved into dark conditions such as writer’s block and suicidality. With Chopin he moves to the positive side of the spectrum by focusing on the composer as a figure of resilience who was able to respond to extreme trials by the constructive application of his musical genius. In psychological terms, resilience is the ability to recover from traumatic events to such a degree that life goes on as well as it did before the trauma. As few of us get through life without being subjected to some trauma, resilience is an essential feature of mental health. It is a complex phenomenon, which requires a conscious effort to develop and needs to be in place before it is required, yet there has been relatively little emphasis on its cultivation until quite recently. In Kogan’s view, music can be a key component in the development of resilience, powerfully exemplified by Frederic Chopin.

Organized to highlight Chopin’s personal challenges and musical responses, early in the concert Kogan described one of the composer’s first crisis, at age 20, when the Polish uprising of 1830 was crushed. This resulted in excruciating distress, crazed outpourings in his diary, suicidal and homicidal thoughts, all of which were eventually mastered at the keyboard with the composition of the Revolutionary Etude. Kogan’s rousing performance of the piece gave a clear sense of unvanquished resistance mixed with a palpable loss.

“A pianist would normally like to play that piece after warming up the hands,” Kogan told me after the concert, “but it was important to launch the narrative of Chopin’s resilience with this demonstration of how Chopin, at the age of 20, converted his angst into a composition that created an internal healing state through the truest expression of his feelings.”

Each piece that followed demonstrated another vicissitude encountered and mastered by Chopin through his compositions. A particularly interesting sequence was a selection of three less-frequently performed Mazurkas, Opus 24 no 1 in G minor, opus 7 no 3 in F minor and opus 6 no 2 in C sharp minor as well as the Heroic Polonaise, Opus 53 in A Flat Major, all of which were composed by Chopin as a way of immortalizing Poland, despite its oppression, by creating music with a distinctly Polish voice. The Mazurka was a Polish folk dance similar to a Polka, and the Polonaise was more of a ballroom composition, with a processional quality, both of which Chopin heard during his youth in Poland. By creating these more refined piano versions of uniquely Polish music, Chopin achieved his goal of making the world aware of his homeland’s musical heritage while also preserving and extending the reach of these forms. Kogan evoked the sense of Chopin’s inward pain of exile in these rhythmic but melancholy works.

In addition to the plight of being separated from his homeland and family for his entire adult life, Chopin’s severe medical conditions, including tuberculosis, as well as mental tribulations such as visual hallucinations, caused enervation, exhaustion and the constant presence of the shadow of imminent death. The most stirring point in the concert was Kogan’s performance of the Lento movement from Sonata no 2 in B flat minor, after making the observation that “it was probably not a coincidence that this man who was deathly ill for much of his short life composed the most famous funeral march in history.” Listening to Kogan play, it was easy to imagine Chopin’s frame of mind as he musically prepared for the early end that his disease presaged.

But Kogan’s intention is not to present Chopin as a figure of morbid or even pessimistic temperament. Rather, it is Chopin’s heroic ability to meet the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune by bending but not breaking, that Kogan convincingly portrays. Furthermore, Kogan is emphatic that utilizing creative genius to meet overwhelming life obstacles is a model that can be adapted to the lives of all of us, whatever degree of talent we may possess.

“Resilience is a skill,” Kogan observes, “you can practice it. Chopin exhibited many of its components, including discipline. Despite his horrible health, energy fluctuations and weakness, he maintained a very disciplined work schedule, composing, teaching five hours a day, and practicing.” Chopin’s model is one example of the immeasurable benefit of a musical education, particularly of learning to play an instrument. “Everybody who learns an instrument has the potential for fulfillment through such study, not just geniuses like Chopin. It’s a tragic loss that currently, in the U.S., something like two-thirds of music students who start music lessons are no longer playing two years later. This may be because teachers are classifying students in terms of who has professional potential, rather than encouraging everyone to continue.” Chopin’s pedagogy was not this specialized, according to Kogan. “He was a master teacher with an extraordinary ability to inspire students. He would ask a new student how much he or she practiced, whatever they answered he would say, “Do half of that—look at paintings, read literature, this will improve your artistry.”

The leading experts on resilience recommend that we find resilient role models whose example we can imitate. Through his lecture and performance, Kogan provides two models—Chopin and himself. While his extraordinary achievements at the pinnacle of two fields are not ones most of us can hope to achieve, the impressive combination of extensive research, subtle observation and analysis of material, smoothly integrated with compelling performance, are skills we can attempt to acquire at our own level of ability. It’s the training and effort that contributes to our stamina. Kogan recognizes and embraces the fact that musical endeavours always entail a level of frustration and falling short.

“I don’t think I’ve ever given a performance of a Beethoven sonata that is worthy of his exalted standards,” he told me with a wry chuckle. “But I’m not sure he ever measured up to his intentions either. Everybody has creative potential, and all fields can be conceptualized as having a creative component. My life as a musician helps me understand that achieving this creative potential can help everybody heal.”


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Robin Roger

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