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What is it like to come from an intensely musical family?

Many generations of Steven Isserlis's family have been involved in making music, transported and shaped by opportunities to play. A celebrated cellist himself, he describes how closely music is connected to a happy family life.

“I used to go to sleep every night to the sounds of my parents practising.” Photo: Getty

The other day, during an interview with a rather intense journalist in Armenia, I was asked a question that took me aback: “Coming from a musical family, did you feel more privilege or pressure?” I replied – almost immediately – “more privilege, of course”. But the question did get me thinking about what the effect of belonging to a family of musicians has on a child’s life.

Music was like an extra language in our family, one we all spoke. My father was a very keen amateur violinist, my mother a piano teacher, and my sisters both played piano for as long as I remember. The elder, Annette, is now a professional violist, as well as producer and arranger, while my middle sister, Rachel, is a professional violinist. (Perhaps the most expressive musician in the family, however, was our dog Dandy, a Dandie Dinmont Terrier of vast intellect and noble character – and impressive musical integrity. He would invariably howl a heartfelt accompaniment whenever any of us played Mozart’s piano sonata in C major, a particular favourite of his; but if we dared to change key – playing it a semitone lower, for instance – he would instantly break off and glare at us accusingly.) Obviously, with the piano, the violin and the viola taken care of, a cello was needed; and that was why I was taken to a local teacher to begin lessons when I was six.

The musical calling came from beyond our immediate family. While my mother’s background was not especially musical, my paternal grandfather was a pianist and composer famous in his day, Julius Isserlis. Julius was born in Kishinev in 1888. He was a child prodigy who was accepted to the Moscow Conservatoire at the age of 10 – a particularly impressive honour given that he was Jewish. His teachers there included a legendarily fierce piano professor called Vassily Safonov, who regularly reduced him to tears over the next six years or so, and for composition the great Sergei Taneyev, favourite pupil and later musical confidante of Tchaikovsky, and himself teacher of Rachmaninov, Scriabin and Medtner. Julius enjoyed a successful career within both Russia and the Soviet Union, until in 1922 Lenin decreed that 12 Soviet musicians should travel abroad with their families in order to spread the word about the cultural glories of the Soviet Union. A fine idea – except that not one of the 12 ever went back. Julius, with his wife Rita (also a pianist) and my father George, then five years old, settled in Vienna, lured by the same charms that had ensnared Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and countless others. (Not entirely relevant to the subject of this article, but this story is a favourite of mine: among their first tasks was that of finding somewhere to live. My father vaguely remembered going to see an apartment owned by a hausfrau of 102, who was friendly enough until she discovered that Julius was a musician. “I hate musicians,” she declared. “Why?” “Because I remember that when I was a little girl, my aunt had a lodger who was a filthy old man who used to spit all over the floor. Euagh!”  “But who was that?” “Beethoven!” So, for many years before he died in 2012, I am sure that my father must have been the last person alive to have met someone who had met Beethoven.)

Life in Vienna, not surprisingly, became increasingly difficult as time went on, and anti-Semitism increased. Luckily, Julius happened to be in England, playing here for the first time, when the Anschluss took place in 1938. He stayed here, Rita and George finally joining him some months later. My father, after being briefly interned as an “enemy alien” on the Isle of Man – where he roomed and played chamber-music with future members of the Amadeus Quartet – settled in London, and built up a career as a metallurgist.

Music remained his driving passion, however, and also my mother’s. I used to go to sleep every night to the sounds of them practising their violin and piano. (A few years ago, we found a privately recorded 78 of them playing together; we had it put on to CD for George’s 90th birthday – it is actually quite beautiful!) As far back as I remember, Annette and Rachel were already having music lessons. The sight and sound of my older sisters playing their instruments was a tremendous spur – I had to do something similar, or I would be left out. So – after a false start at the age of four or five when I refused to play on the right side of the bridge, driving my poor teacher to distraction with the horrible squeaky noise that made – I joined in. The house was alive with the sound of music; perhaps we were not the best neighbours, but we were too involved to give others much thought.

Occasionally the five of us (with Dandy adding a descant if he was in the mood) would play quintets together. That was not an unqualified success, I have to admit, rehearsals frequently ending in tears. But of greater effect were the times that Annette (on piano in those days), Rachel and I would play trios together. Playing chamber music with two older sisters of whom I was a bit in awe has had a huge effect on my musical life. These days I like to describe myself as essentially a chamber-musician – even though I spend most of my life playing concertos with orchestras. I was taught, by my sisters as much as by my teachers, to listen to other voices, to treat music as a conversation between equals. It was a very different upbringing from that of the prodigy who is put in a room by him or herself and made to practise eight hours a day, learning to play louder and faster, the main aim being to win competitions.

Of course, there were pressures on us too. We were entered far too soon for competitive music festivals – something I would never suggest for a musical child. Music is not a competitive sport. And sometimes it was hard for my sisters, who were less lucky in their childhood teachers than I was. At the age of ten, I had been sent to study with an extraordinary lady called Jane Cowan. She had studied general musicianship with Donald Tovey – still one of the most revered writers on music of all time – and cello with Emmanuel Feuermann, famous for his total command of the cello. (Much later, I would get to play his Stradivarius cello for many years – a satisfying connection.) Jane was an inspiring teacher; she gave me the feeling that the composers were in the room with us, fascinating, humorous beings who could become my friends for life. It was her influence that led me to renounce my earlier ambitions to be either a rabbi or a footballer, and to devote myself to the cello; and it was also my memories of those early lessons that inspired me later to write two books for children about composers, in the hope that my young readers would also make friends with these glorious (if complicated) beings.

Jane’s influence percolated into our home, as a great teacher’s will. Although she could not teach Annette or Rachel their instruments, she suggested better teachers for them than they’d had previously, and she coached us all in chamber music together. And so the family musical bond prospered, as we grew older and started to play professionally. Annette, Rachel and I grew up knowing many of the same people, because we work with them.  Having been exposed to the same musical influences as children, we have pretty similar tastes; that is a huge link between us – like having a similar sense of humour. Some siblings drift apart as they get older; that couldn’t really happen to us, because we are always meeting at concerts – our own and those of our friends. We all married musicians, and have passed on the musical genes to our children – Rachel’s two daughters Isabel and Natasha, and my son Gabriel, who play viola, cello and cello respectively. No matter that of the three, only Isabel is training to be a professional musician; the musical link is there. At Christmas, the three children used to read through chamber music for fun; it was a melting sight.

So, apart from all the arguments for a musical education that are regularly put forth – music, we are reliably informed, is good for both brain and character development, as well as for a child’s happiness (it’s true that a child humming Mozart is likely to be a happy child) – I would say that some sort of connection with music is an overwhelmingly positive feature in family life. Of course, our family is exceptional in that we three siblings chose music as a profession; but that is not at all essential. Music is something that everyone in the family can share – either as players, on whatever level, or as enthusiastic listeners, telling the players how wonderful they are.

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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

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The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

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It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge