I had heard of and read about Robert Vijay Gupta perhaps about two decades ago. His is a remarkable story on so many levels.
Gupta was born in 1987 in Walden, New York State, to first-generation emigrés from India. In a recent interview with Dateline NBC, he described his parents’ struggle in their adopted country. His father Vivek worked in kitchens all over New York, as a baggage handler in JFK airport, eventually becoming a travel agent while his mother Chandana worked as a bank teller.
He began playing at age four. “I don’t remember a time without playing. Music has always been a part of my life”, he said in that interview.
Gupta described the initial years as “painful”. “The motivation wasn’t mine.” He acknowledges that his parents lived vicariously through their children, fulfilling their own dreams through them.
When Gupta’s parents took him aged four to a music teacher, he was offered a choice of either piano or violin. The size of the piano was too daunting, so he chose the violin instead.
His trajectory since then was nothing short of meteoric: a successful audition aged just six at the prestigious Juilliard School of Music’s pre-college program; a solo debut with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Zubin Mehta at eleven.
However, despite these incredible achievements, the family still felt that a medical career would ensure a more secure future. A tug-of-war began between music and medicine; while Gupta di have both the aptitude and interest in medicine, music was far more important, “like oxygen”.
At 16, Gupta accepted a research assistant position at Hunter College where he studied spinal cord repair. He graduated with a pre-med biology degree at 17 at Marist College. Gupta then accepted a research position at Harvard University, where he studied Parkinson’s disease and the effects of pollution on the brain.
Around this time, Gupta met with Dr. Gottfried Schlaug, one of the pre-eminent neuroscientists studying music and the brain at Harvard.
Schlaug is one of the proponents of what is called the ‘melodic intonation therapy’, which has become very popular in music therapy today. Schlaug found that his stroke victims who were aphasic, and couldn’t form three- or four-word sentences could still sing the lyrics to a song.
After intensive hours of singing lessons, the music was able to “literally re-wire” the brains of his patients and create a homologous speech centre in the right hemisphere to compensate for the damage inflicted by the stroke on the left hemisphere of the brain.
In a 2012 TED talk, Gupta describes what he learned regarding some leading research on music and the brain when he visited Schlaug’s lab: how musicians had fundamentally different brain structure than non-musicians; how just listening to music could just “light up” the brain, “from our pre-frontal cortex all the way back to our cerebellum”; how music was becoming a neuropsychiatric modality, to help children with autism, to help people struggling with stress, anxiety and depression; how advanced Parkinsonian patients would find that their tremor and their gait would steady when they listened to music; and how late-stage Alzheimer’s patients whose dementia was so far progressed that they could no longer recognize their family, could still pick out a tune by Chopin at the piano that they had learned when they were children.
But Gupta had come to meet Schlaug for a much more personal reason: “I was at a crossroads in my life”, he said at the TED talk, “trying to choose between music and medicine.” He had “fallen in love with neuroscience; he wanted to be a surgeon; to be a doctor who would go far afield doing humanitarian life-saving medical work, a “Red Cross doctor, doctor without borders.”
But on the other hand he had been playing the violin his entire life. “Music for me was more than a passion. It was obsession.”
Gottfried Schlaug was perfectly placed to empathise with Gupta and offer advice based upon his own life. Schlaug had studied as an organist at the Vienna Conservatory, but had given up his love for music to pursue a career in medicine.
That afternoon of their meeting, Guptaasked Schlaug, “How was it for you, making that decision?’
Schlaug responded that there were still times when he wished he could go back and play the organ the way he used to. He told Gupta that for him, “medical school could wait, but the violin simply would not.”
Gupta must have decided to take Schlaug’s advice seriously. In the TED talk, he elaborated, “After two more years of studying music, I decided to shoot for the impossible before taking the MCAT and applying to medical school like a good Indian son to become the next Dr Gupta,” to much laughter in the audience.
He auditioned for a position as violinist in the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. His parents were, perhaps justifiably, skeptical of his chances of securing a place in this, one of the world’s top orchestra. It was his first-ever orchestral audition.
But, “after three days of playing behind a screen in a trial week”, he was offered the position, edging out the competition, some of who had decades of experience more than him. He still remains th youngest-ever to enter the hallowed ranks of the LA Phil, and if I am not mistaken, must be the only South Asian-origin person ever to do so.
A year later, Gupta met another musician, one who had also studied at Juilliard; Nathaniel Ayers (whose life-story inspired the book and the movie “The Soloist” featuring Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr.) was a double-bassist at Juilliard, but had suffered a series of psychotic episodes in his early twenties, and eventually ended up homeless thirty years later on Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles.
Gupta became his friend and violin teacher. “Playing for Nathaniel, the music took on a deeper meaning, because now it was about communication, of a message that went deeper than words, that registered at a fundamentally primal level in Nathaniel’s psyche, yet came as a true musical offering from me.”
Gupta’s experience with Nathaniel opened his eyes to how many tens of thousands more like him were homeless or neglected due to mental issues. “In the end, it was Nathaniel who showed me that if I was truly passionate about change, if I wanted to make a difference, I already had the perfect instrument to do it”, said Gupta in his TED talk, gesturing to his violin. “Music was the bridge that connected my world and his.”
Gupta quotes the German Romantic composer Robert Schumann (who himself suffered from schizophrenia and died tragically in an asylum): “To send light into the darkness of men’s hearts, such is the duty of an artist.”
Nathaniel Ayers inspired Gupta to launch Street Symphony (www.streetsymphony.org), “bringing the light of music into the very darkest places,” performing for the homeless and mentally ill; for combat veterans with PTSD, anf for the incarcerated and those labeled “criminally insane.”
Gupta has found that, “away from the stage, footlights, out of the tuxedo tails”, musicians “become the conduit for delivering the tremendous therapeutic benefits of music on the brain to an audience that would never have access” to it.
He ended his TED talk with a quote by the Romantic English poet John Keats (who had also given up a career in medicine to pursue poetry): “Beauty is truth, and truth beauty. That is all ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know.”
At Child’s Play India Foundation (www.childsplayindia.org), we too can attest to the healing power of music in our children’s lives, many of whom have undergone traumatic upheavals no child should ever have to suffer.
I am most grateful to Gavin and Joanne Pearce Martin, who not only hosted my visit to Los Angeles in 2012 and let me sit in on rehearsals of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, but when I expressed an interest in meeting with Robert Gupta, invited him over so we could discuss ideas at length.
(An edited version of this article was published on 23 September 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)