George Gershwin, possible ADHD sufferer, a 'life saved by music'

Richard Kogan, who has employed his psychological take on other composers, including Mozart and Beethoven.
Richard Kogan, who has employed his psychological take on other composers, including Mozart and Beethoven.
Posted: December 23, 2013

Hyperactive and behaviorally challenged, George Gershwin probably had some form of attention deficit disorder. He grew up in a music-starved environment. His family moved 28 times before he turned 17. And somehow Gershwin fell in love with music and was able to convert the sounds of a train he took from New York to Boston into one of the most beloved symphonies of all time, Rhapsody in Blue.

These are some of the points made by Richard Kogan, 58, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College and artistic director of the Weill Cornell Music and Medicine Program. He gave a recent talk at Temple University on "Music and Medicine: The Art of George Gershwin."

"When I started researching the lives of musicians that I had been playing all of my life, I realized that they had the signs and symptoms of certain psychiatric disorders that I was familiar with from my patients," says Kogan, a Juilliard-trained pianist. "Understanding them psychologically helped me to better understand what had gone into the masterpieces that I had played all my life."

While admitting that "it's difficult to make a retroactive diagnosis," Kogan postulates the enormously successful Gershwin - composer of such major works as Rhapsody in Blue, An American in Paris, and Porgy & Bess - represents a "life saved by music."

"Part of what's fascinating about Gershwin is that he grew up in a home almost completely without music," Kogan says. He and his siblings spent a lot of their time roaming the streets. "George stole food from pushcarts, regularly engaged in fistfights, even set fires on occasion. He was a hyperactive kid with behavioral challenges and remained probably somewhat hyperactive all his life."

But at 10 or 11, Gershwin heard a violin recital by a fellow student. "On the spot," Kogan says, "he decided that was what he was going to do with the rest of his life."

"Gershwin might have fit a diagnosis of ADHD," Kogan speculates. "Today, a child psychiatrist might have prescribed Adderall or Ritalin, but in Gershwin's case his behavioral problems stopped when he found music."

Back home, Gershwin persuaded his parents to let him take piano lessons. At once, he poured all of his considerable energy into a musical education that covered classics by Mozart, Schumann, and Beethoven, but he also "inhaled all of Broadway tunes and jazz."

"He used to say that, 'Studying the piano turned a bad boy into a good boy,' " Kogan notes.

At 15, Gershwin dropped out of school and went on to a Tin Pan Alley publishing company to promote other people's songs. By 20, he had his own breakout hit with "Swanee" recorded by Al Jolson, who had overheard Gershwin performing the tune at a party.

Kogan also is intrigued by Gershwin's creative process. He points to a train ride Gershwin and his lyricist brother Ira took when the composer was 25. They were going from New York to Boston for the tryout of a musical called Sweet Little Devil.

"On the way, George said he paid close attention to the clickety-clack of the train on the tracks and the whooshing sounds of the train in motion. Later, he claimed that all of the themes of Rhapsody in Blue revealed themselves to him during that ride." The composition combined elements of classical music and jazz and was finished in a mere three weeks.

"He was stimulated by what others might consider noise," Kogan. says. "This was true for the Paris taxi horns that influenced An American in Paris as well."

"Some composers insist on absolute quiet, but Gershwin composed with the window open."

At 38, Gershwin tragically died of a brain tumor. Physicians missed the signs of the tumor, which wasn't diagnosed until the day of his death. He had gone to a hospital complaining of headaches and lapsed into a coma. Later, a glioblastoma was found on his temporal lobe.

"He was showing symptoms," Kogan says. "He interrupted rehearsals complaining about smelling burning garbage and had trouble with his coordination." But people may have missed the signs because he never stopped working; he was composing music until the last week of his life.

Along with Gershwin, Kogan has employed his psychological take on other composers, including Mozart, Beethoven, and Leonard Bernstein. You can see and hear Kogan at the piano by searching his name on YouTube.com.

"Music has an unparalleled capacity to heal," Kogan says. "We are learning that music can reduce pain, reduce stress, help patients with Parkinson's with motor functioning, and reduce blood pressure."

In elderly patients with cognitive impairment, he adds, music can help unlock otherwise irretrievable memories.

"What fascinates me is what influences creativity," Kogan says. "And the capacity of music to heal and transform lives."


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