“Art is its own kind of medicine,” says Jacqueline Genovese, the executive director of Stanford’s Medicine & The Muse program.
Gary Steinberg was a serious trumpet player in high school, where his orchestral band was the best in the state. He minored in music at Yale University, spent three months after graduation intensively studying music at an institute in Switzerland, and kept up playing through the middle of his medical residency at Stanford University.
As family and career obligations increased, though, he focused on other things, including serving as the longtime chair of Stanford’s department of neurosurgery and leading the Stanford Stroke Center. But recently, after decades, he picked the trumpet back up, making music a part of his daily life again despite his very busy schedule. And he’s not alone. Steinberg is now a member of the Stanford Medicine Orchestra, which, alongside the Stanford Medicine Chorus, gives around 80 Stanford Medicine faculty, staff, students and affiliates the opportunity to make music together each week. The groups will perform an inaugural concert at Bing Concert Hall on Nov. 9.
“Both the orchestra and the chorus are efforts that were put together because members of Stanford’s medical community really wanted to make music with one another,” said chorus conductor Minseung Choi. “They want to have this opportunity for musical expression with one another as a community.”
“Art is its own kind of medicine,” said Jacqueline Genovese, the executive director of Stanford’s Medicine & The Muse program. “It goes right to the heart, in terms of connection with people.”
Medicine & The Muse offers ways for faculty, staff and students from Stanford School of Medicine and Stanford Hospitals to engage with the arts and humanities — “or as I like to say, a way to hold on to their humanity,” Genovese said, particularly during the COVID era. “The pandemic was a perfect example of what health care workers face that the rest of us don’t experience,” she said, of not only dealing with increased workloads and the illness and death of patients, but also the very real fear of increased risk to themselves and their families.
Stanford Medicine Orchestra and Stanford Medicine Chorus have roots in the musical endeavors some Medicine & The Muse participants undertook during the COVID-19 lockdown periods, including the “Stuck@Home” online concert series, which ended up involving more than 100 Stanford Medicine affiliates performing remotely over the course of a year. Once in-person events returned, a thank-you and celebration concert was performed last October. Following that enthusiasm, the Stanford Medicine Chorus and Orchestra were created in May, conducted by Choi and Terrance Yan, respectively.
“It’s really a way to continue the community and the healing that music brought during COVID,” Genovese said.
Choi is a doctoral student in neurosciences who’s been involved in music since a young age.
“It is something that I find a lot of joy in and something that gives me a lot of grounding,” he said. For Choi, his passions for science and music make natural partners.
“Music has given me a lot of motivation to study neuroscience, actually,” he said, noting that an early interest in how the human brain can transform sound waves into abstract notions of rhythm, melody, and chords inspired him in his academic career path. Conversely, he said his experience in neuroscience has also improved his understanding of how music is perceived, making him a stronger musician and leader. “I think that has helped me appreciate the beauty of music, and think about what might be effective ways of learning music and helping people learn music as a choral director,” he said.
Steinberg, too, finds common ground between his scientific and artistic worlds.
“I think there are many similarities between playing music and performing surgery or science. They’re creative in different ways and I think creativity is a common theme,” Steinberg said. “All of those — surgery, science and playing music — require meticulous attention to detail, and when you do any of those activities you don’t want to just do it as a job; they’re all passions we have.”
Chorus singer Allison Draper is the manager of spiritual care services at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital, the leader of an interdisciplinary team that supports the spiritual needs of patients and their families. Also a musician and singer since childhood, she’s found music to be an integral part of spiritual wellness — not only in her work life but also for her own self care.
“We could talk about the metaphor of being in harmony with other people, making music in groups, really listening and tuning in to what other people are doing … but it’s not just a metaphor, it’s an actual bodily experience,” she said. “We do feel in tune with others. It lifts our spirits and supports us.”
Serving as a chaplain during the pandemic, Draper said she was sometimes the last face patients would see before dying, facilitating goodbyes with family members of Zoom when visitors were not allowed. “This was a really difficult past couple of years to be in health care,” she noted. When she learned about the formation of the Stanford Medicine chorus she realized that making music was something that had been missing from her life recently, especially during such a challenging – often heartbreaking – time.
“When I saw an opportunity to not just join a choral group again but join it with other people doing health care in my own community, it was a no brainer,” she said. “I needed to be part of this group.”
Being part of an ensemble, with a public concert to rehearse for, helps inspire chorus and orchestra members to keep up with their practice despite their busy lives.
“This has motivated me to stay in good shape,” Steinberg said. “I usually play at night in my office before I go home. It’s a nice way to relax after operating all day or going to meetings. I look forward to it every day, playing some trumpet.”
With around 40 members in each ensemble (membership fluctuates), the Nov. 9 concert will include works by Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Bizet, Purcell, Vaughn Williams, Finzi and a Mozart finale featuring both ensembles performing together. Genovese said she was thankful for the support of Stanford Live for permitting the use of Bing Concert Hall for the event.
“It’s acoustic magic, particularly if you’re a singer,” she said of the venue. All ensemble participants and leaders are volunteers, and the proceeds from the $20 tickets go to covering the venue costs for the performance.
Choi, Steinberg and Draper all expressed excitement at the chance to perform at Bing, while also emphasizing that the performance is about celebrating community, not polished perfection.
For Draper, an ordained Zen Buddhist priest, part of what makes playing live music in a group so restorative is that it is a physical act that connects one to the present. “It’s healing because it involves other people and it’s exactly in this moment,” she said. At the concert, audience members will become a part of that moment.
“In Buddhism we say, ‘giver, receiver and gift are one,’” she noted. “This is a gift of our cumulative work and it doesn’t become a gift unless there are those there to receive it.”
The Stanford Medicine Orchestra and Stanford Medicine Chorus perform Wed., Nov. 9, at 7:30 p.m. at Bing Concert Hall, 327 Lasuen St., Stanford. Tickets are $20. More information on Medicine & The Muse is available here.