Professor Gerhardt Zimmermann, conductor for the University of Texas student orchestra, continually fights through the physical limitations of contracting polio at age seven.

Photo Credit: Marshall Nolen | Daily Texan Staff

If professor Gerhardt Zimmermann had a choice, he would play second base for the Cincinnati Reds. Polio knocked the wind out of that. 

But then again, until his first rehearsal after making second trumpet for Bowling Green State University as a freshman, he had never heard a full live orchestra.

“When I heard the strings, a light bulb went off,” Zimmermann said. “That changed my life, to hear all of the additional orchestral colors was just not the same. It was like going from a 24 crayon box to a 64 crayon box. All those other colors. That’s when I decided I wanted to be a conductor: an orchestral conductor.” 

Because he contracted polio when he was seven years old, Zimmermann wears two leg braces, but he doesn’t let that get in the way of his work. Like most conductors, he sits during rehearsals and stands during concerts, but Zimmermann said the most difficult part of being a conductor with a disability is getting over the prejudice.

“The problem is that people will look at a person with disabilities and they decide what they can do or not,” Zimmermann said. “Nobody decides that for me. I decide that.”

Roger Myers, professor of viola and chairman of strings division at UT, said that Zimmermann has a tested knowledge from a career of conducting symphony orchestras. 

“He teaches through his conducting itself so as you watch it, you’re also watching someone who conveys his authority through the end of his baton,” Myers said. “It’s completely demonstrative without using words. When he uses words, he has a sense of immense knowledge behind what he says and he can tell students what he wants quickly and he doesn’t need to talk to get his point across.” 

Meredith Riley, who completed her bachelor’s degree at UT and is now pursuing an artist degree in violin performance, referenced a speech that famous violinist David Kim once gave about how even the best performer needs to be a good person to be successful. 

“I think that speaks volumes about a lot of musicians, but for ‘Z’ especially because I’m sure that there were good candidates that came up for the job, and despite polio, despite whatever, despite age, the [reality was] that ‘Z’ got the job,” Riley said.

In her five years studying under Zimmermann, Riley said that she has never thought of him as disabled. 

“And that’s probably because he’s such a good conductor,” Riley said. “I know ‘Z’ used to want to be a baseball player when he was a kid, so I guess, in a weird way, him getting polio as a kid was a really great thing for the music world rather than him becoming a baseball player. You want to be an all-star but instead you’re a rock star.”

Zimmermann is one of the main reasons that Riley returned after receiving her undergraduate degree. 

“If he’s really into something, and it’s an exciting thing, he’ll even start to do a little dance on the podium,” she said. “‘Z’ will usually say, ‘If you can see the whites of my eyes when I look at you, that means play out.’ I don’t think I’ll ever have a conductor like him again, that you can just joke with, that can just joke about himself, and make mistakes and not feel bad about it.” 

Riley recalled one time during a concert when Zimmermann’s arm got stuck in the air while he was conducting. 

“He just turned around [and] said, ‘I just recently got shots in my arm.’ In this situation, there are 4000 things you can do,” Riley said. “The thing that was amazing to me was that he let everybody know what was going on, mid-concert, which was something I had never experienced before. I was amazed with his knowledge of how to communicate with a crowd.”

Zimmermann said that classical musicians need to break down the wall between themselves and their audiences because walking onstage, smiling and simply playing doesn’t work anymore.

“You need to sell the humanity of the art itself,” he said. “The more conductors and artists that can do that, the better off classical music is going to be.”

Zimmermann said there’s no greater thing in the world to a musician than a concert that seems to exceed expectations. 

“The music says so much more to me and for me, so much more than words could ever say,” he said. “[Music] takes me far away from any sense of having a disability whatsoever. You can experience so many different emotions just by listening to music. And to be conducting it in front of an orchestra and all of that sound is coming to you. It’s unbelievable. I don’t need anything, really, but this.”

Published on February 18, 2013 as "Professor orchestrates inspiration". 

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — A train packed with morning commuters slammed into a downtown station on Wednesday, killing 49 people and injuring hundreds as passenger cars crumpled and windows exploded around them. It was Argentina’s worst train accident in decades.

The cause wasn’t immediately determined, but many pointed to a deteriorating rail system. Some passengers reported signs the conductor was struggling with the brakes before the crash, saying he kept overshooting platforms and missed one entirely.

The dead included 48 adults and one child — most of whom had crowded into the first two cars to get ahead of the rush-hour crowds on arrival. Some 600 people were injured, including 461 who were hospitalized, Transportation Secretary J.P. Schiavi said.

Hours after the crash, passengers’ relatives gathered at the morgue anxious for word of their loved ones.

Ezekiel Mercado said he and his mother-in-law had been frantically searching for his wife, Sabrina Espindola, 29, who didn’t show up for work Wednesday. They checked nine hospitals before heading to the morgue, he said.

“I went everywhere. She is always with her Blackberry. We are always in contact,” he said. “This morgue is the last place I thought of, but, well, she’s missing. I call her cell phone, and it rings, rings, but she isn’t responding.”

Speaking at a news conference, Schiavi defended the rail system’s maintenance record.

“It was an accident like those in many other countries,” he said, pointing to a newspaper clipping about a fatal crash in Los Angeles. “In recent years, we’ve made huge investments” in the system.

As Schiavi spoke, riot police faced off against angry passengers in the closed Once station, where emergency workers spent hours extracting dozens of people trapped inside the train’s first car. Rescuers had to slice open the roof and set up a pulley system to ease them out one by one. Dozens of the injured were lined up on stretchers on the station platform.

The 28-year-old conductor, who survived the crash, was apparently well-rested, Schiavi said, having just begun his workday.

“Tiredness, his (young) age, the problems that a conductor might face” are among the factors being investigated, he said. “This young person had just begun his shift moments before the accident.”

The motorman was hospitalized in intensive care and hasn’t given a statement, Schiavi added.

Passengers said the conductor seemed to struggle with the brakes, missing his stopping marks at station after station, though a labor union official said the train appeared to be in good working order.

“This machine left the shop yesterday and the brakes worked well. From what we know, it braked without problems at previous stations. At this point I don’t want to speculate about the causes,” union chief Ruben Sobrero told Radio La Red.

Schiavi said the train was recorded slowing from about 30 miles per hour (50 kph) to 12 miles per hour about 40 yards (meters) before the impact. “We don’t know what happened in those final 40 meters,” he said.

The train slammed into a shock-absorbing barrier at 8:33 a.m., smashing the front of the engine and crunching the much lighter cars behind it. The second car penetrated nearly 20 feet (six meters) into the next, Schiavi said.

Most damaged was the first car, where passengers shared space with bicycles. Survivors said many people were injured in a jumble of metal and glass. Security camera images showed windows exploding as the cars crumpled into each other like an accordion, with a man on the adjacent platform scrambling across the tracks to escape the wreck.

The rush-hour train carried more than 1,200 people, many standing so tightly between the seats that they had nothing to hold onto. The hard stop sent them flying inside the cars.

Many suffered bruises or lesser injuries, waiting for attention on the station’s platforms as helicopters and dozens of ambulances carried others to nearby hospitals. The dead were carried out the back of the station, beyond the view of television cameras.

It was Argentina’s deadliest train accident since Feb. 1, 1970, when a train smashed into another at full speed in suburban Buenos Aires, killing 200. President Cristina Fernandez canceled her day’s agenda due to the accident, which raised fresh doubts about government investment in the train system millions depend on. While largely privatized, the system depends on huge state subsidies, and fares are relatively low compared to other countries in the region.

Union leaders blamed what they called a history of failure to invest in maintaining or replacing aging trains.

The Trains of Buenos Aires company promotes its low fares on its website, saying that passengers pay just 23 cents a ride on average, compared to 80 cents in Santiago, Chile, and $1.11 in Sao Paulo.

But the TBA also complained that without higher fares, it has struggled to maintain the trains. Employee salaries and benefits have soared nearly 900 percent in the last decade, while the TBA now spends just 12 percent of its operating costs on maintenance.

The company offered its condolences in a statement that said it was cooperating with authorities investigating the cause of the accident.

“This is not an accident whose causes will be hidden from view in any way,” Schiavi promised, noting that recorders, security cameras, computer systems and other evidence would be handed to investigators.

“We have a lot of evidence that will show the cause of this accident,” he said.

There have been a half-dozen serious train accidents in Argentina in the last 15 months. Last September, a bus driver crossed the tracks in front of an oncoming train, killing 11 people. Two months later, a bus driver transporting children on a field trip drove in front of a train, killing eight schoolgirls.

“The series of train accidents hurts, and exposes the reality of a state incapable of controlling and acting to protect the passengers,” opposition leader Ricardo Alfonsin tweeted. 

Printed on Thursday, February 23, 2012 as: Train crash in Argentina kills 49 when vehicle destroys building