Harry Ballan - "It Was the Salzburg Global Seminar Program on Neuroscience and the Arts That Made All the Difference"




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Aug 14, 2015
by Jan Heinecke
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Harry Ballan - "It Was the Salzburg Global Seminar Program on Neuroscience and the Arts That Made All the Difference"

A Salzburg Global Fellow's testimonial about his transition from law to music and neuroscience Harry Ballan (right) discussing The Neuroscience of Art with other Salzburg Global Fellows

Inspired by his participation in Session 547 The Neuroscience of Art: What are the Sources of Creativity and Innovation?, Harry Ballan decided to fundamentally change his career path. He was interviewed about his motivation by The American Lawyer and sent the following statement along with the article:

“The attached article from the American Lawyer is a reporter's account of a transition I recently made from being a partner at a leading international law firm to a clinician, researcher and teacher in music cognition and therapy. I had received training in music theory (Ph.D. from Yale) prior to law school; nevertheless, the transition back to music from law at the age of 55 (with my prime years as a lawyer ahead of me) and the decision to relinquish partnership at a prestigious international firm was a difficult one. It was the Salzburg Global Seminar on neuroscience and the arts that made all the difference. It was there, in the inspiring company of a group of neuroscientists and artists dedicated to pursuing the question of how these two areas of learning and action could be joined, that I saw clearly the possibilities of returning to music cognition and related therapies and research. I feel endless gratitude to the conference organizers and my fellow participants for the opportunity to think together about the nexus between neuroscience and the arts and for the ongoing support to follow a dream.”

Full text of the article in The American Lawyer:
"Former Davis Polk Partner Now Playing A Different Tune"

BY: Nell Gluckman

Instead of spending his Thursday afternoon negotiating a stock purchase agreement or working on a capital markets transaction, as would normally be the case, tax attorney Harry Ballan was in the New York City borough of the Bronx helping facilitate a therapeutic music session with a group of seven veterans.
As the now-retired Davis Polk & Wardwell partner explained it, his new job is to make sure that group members, many of whom suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, have the right instruments to participate in the music circle and to give piano lessons after the session is over.

Ballan, 55, has transitioned into a senior counsel position at Davis Polk in order to pursue a lifelong interest in a problem that is seemingly unrelated to the practice of tax law: how music can be used to understand the brain.
Since July 1, he has been working as a director at the Oliver Sacks' Institute for Music and Neurologic Function (IMNF) in the Bronx, where the therapeutic music sessions take place. Ballan is also creating a course on music and the brain that he will teach at New York's Yeshiva University next fall and The Juilliard School next spring.
These interests are not new for Ballan, but more a return to a career he once thought he would pursue. Before attending Columbia Law School, Ballan earned a Ph.D. in the history and theory of music at the Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. He taught music for several years at Penn State and Brandeis universities before changing course in his career to pursue a law degree.
Ballan joined Davis Polk as an associate in 1993 after graduating from law school and completed a clerkship with the late Wilfred Feinberg, a judge with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. He has worked on litigation matters and transactions, providing tax advice on deals such as Aetna's purchase of Coventry Health Care and the merger of Penguin and Random House, both in 2012.
But throughout his nearly quarter-century at Davis Polk, Ballan has maintained an interest in the intersection of music and neuroscience. The passion intensified dramatically in March 2011, when his father became ill and entered what Ballan referred to as a "minimally conscious state."
"There are states of the brain where there may be awareness, there may be attention and even focused attention, there may be self-reference," Ballan said, explaining what he has learned about his father's condition. "We now understand that a minimally conscious person can be aware, can have memory."
Ballan said he had a conviction that though his father was unable to talk or move, music was reaching him. He said he made sure that his father listened to music continuously until his death several months later. Ballan described feeling an overpowering sense of curiosity about what his father had been going through.
"After my father died, I was really consumed with this deep need to know what had transpired between us in the last months of his life," he said.
This question, along with his background in music theory, prompted him to seek out people studying science and music, including Jonathan Berger, a Stanford University professor who told Ballan about the IMNF.
In 2014, Ballan joined the board of directors of the IMNF, which develops music therapy treatments for patients with various neurological diseases and conditions. He also began helping with therapy sessions for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder on the weekends. Ballan's work with the institute has had a profound effect on his worldview, he said.
"To see someone who hasn't spoken in years speak, it shatters your idea of what it means to be human," he said. After music therapy sessions, Ballan said "people find themselves walking more comfortably; they find their balance is improved; they find their immune system is better; but most of all, they rediscover joy."
Ballan said he is nostalgic about his work at Davis Polk and added that his partners are supportive of his interests outside the firm, though he was quick to point out that until now, he always pursued them outside the workday.
"It's exactly the kind of thing we like to see our partners do-have successful careers and be partners of the highest caliber but also find the time to give back," said Davis Polk managing partner Thomas Reid, who assumed leadership of the firm in 2011.
Ballan's interest extends beyond simply helping people, though he said doing so is his greatest motivator. He has also become increasingly involved in the science of music and got involved with a research project by Joy Hirsch, a psychiatry professor at the Yale School of Medicine studying how different brains interact with each other. At times he visited her lab in New Haven, Connecticut, early in the morning before going to work at Davis Polk in New York.
"I don't sleep very much," admitted Ballan.
Ballan said his personal interests and his law practice are not entirely unrelated. He thinks lawyers and scientists have a lot to teach each other about the respective ways they approach evidence.
"The lawyer is trained to ask a question of a person who is demonstrated to be an expert through ways that the law has developed," he said. For scientists, Ballan said randomized control trials are the gold standard when seeking proof. Those methods use a different cognitive machinery than a lawyer's training, which is to evaluate credibility.
Elkhonon Goldberg, a neurology professor at the New York University School of Medicine, who Ballan said has been one of his teachers, said the Davis Polk lawyer's position gives him a unique perspective.
"Clearly lawyers do think differently," Goldberg said. "So too [do] musicians. So too [do] the hardcore scientists. Harry's now in the position to converge these perspectives."
Ballan said he hopes one of his main contributions will be to advocate on behalf of organizations like IMNF, something Goldberg said is much needed.
"Using music as a form of therapy and as a way to research these notions are not well engrained in the general public consciousness," Goldberg said. "And so what he's doing around public awareness is important."

You can also read the article online on The American Lawyer’s homepage.