Ten years of music from Yale Medical Symphony Orchestra
Robert A. Lisak
The Yale Medical Symphony Orchestra (YMSO) kicked off its 10th year with a concert in Harkness Auditorium that was filled to the rafters. “We love looking out and seeing a packed auditorium,” said symphony conductor Robert Smith to the crowd, which used every seat and included people lining the walls of the auditorium. “Eight years ago, we had only about a third of the auditorium filled.”
Now a group of more than 50 musicians from the School of Medicine and Yale community perform composers like Tchaikovsky and Brahms to a full house. Lynn Tanoue, MD, professor of medicine (pulmonary), the group’s founder, started the orchestra after speaking with a school friend who, like Tanoue, is a musician. “We wouldn’t be here without Dr. Tanoue,” said Smith, as she was presented with flowers after the anniversary performance.
Tanoue soon discovered that medical school orchestras are rare, but she found a supporter in Thomas Duffy, MD, professor emeritus of medicine, then the director of the School of Medicine’s Medical Humanities and the Arts Council. Duffy agreed to provide initial funding, and Tanoue reached out to the medical school community, seeking musicians who might be interested in playing together.
Tanoue said 200 people responded, and she scheduled an open rehearsal where everyone would sight-read music together. Tanoue asked Adrian Slywotzky, director of instrumental music at the Hopkins School in New Haven at the time, to conduct the group.
“That first night, all these people start showing up. It was unbelievable,” Tanoue said. “Adrian shows up with his arms full of music. [On the top] is Beethoven’s Fifth. I said, ‘Adrian, you don’t understand. We’re doctors.’ He said, ‘No, no, it’s okay.’”
That night, Tanoue sat in the Harkness balcony to listen to the newly assembled group play a piece by Rossini. They rose to Slywotzky’s challenge, she said. “Wow,” she remembers thinking. “We could totally do this.” And the group was off and running: 50 people from across the School of Medicine made the commitment to rehearse and eventually perform as an orchestra.
The symphony began regular weekly rehearsals in February 2008, and at its first concert, performed Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1. Two years later, Robert Smith, who had taken over Slywotzky’s position at the Hopkins School, joined the orchestra as conductor. Since those early days, the symphony has steadily moved on to more challenging works. At the May concert, the orchestra debuted its first Tchaikovsky symphony, No. 5, a piece, said Smith, that goes beyond the capacity of most similar orchestras. “They work so hard every week, even though they have pagers and are constantly attending their patients,” said Smith.
YMSO plays two concerts a year: one in spring and another in winter. There are often special concerts at Halloween. Costumes, jack-o-lanterns, and a glow-in-the-dark conductor’s baton accompany an underscore set to creepy Halloween poetry readings. The 2013 Halloween concert was a breakthrough moment for the group. “It opened everyone’s eyes that we were a real orchestra,” said Smith. “We’ve been packing the auditorium ever since.” To celebrate their 10th anniversary, Smith said, another Halloween concert is planned for October 27, with the winter concert on December 7.
The participating musicians come from all parts of Yale School of Medicine. In addition to faculty members and physicians, the players include volunteers, students, and staff from many departments across the school as well as from Yale New Haven Hospital and the schools of Nursing and Public Health. “Music is the great equalizer. Your stand partner could be a famous scientist, or they could be a lab technician or a student,” said Tanoue. “The hierarchy that is so strong at the university and certainly in medicine totally disappears, so that nobody is more important than anybody else. No one is running that team except the conductor. And many of these people in their everyday lives are in charge of whatever they’re doing.”
“Medicine is all about relationships and listening—with patients, with nurses, doctors, hospital staff, office staff, family members of patients,” said Anna Reisman, MD, associate professor of medicine, director of the Program for Humanities in Medicine, and a symphony flutist. “You get nowhere if you’re not good at listening, which also means you have to be able to adapt your response depending on what’s said and how it’s said. The same thing happens in an orchestra.”
To Smith, it’s no coincidence that people who spend their days steeped in science are also talented musicians. Much of the group performed through high school and college, he said. Some were music majors as undergraduates or principal chairs in their high school orchestras. “The idea of grasping for perfection, that kind of drive and work ethic serves both populations. It’s part of a person’s character to do these things at a high level and work hard at it. And in both, they are using their hands. It’s a technical application.”
Aishwarya Vijay, a 2014 graduate of Yale College and current second-year medical student, nearly went to Julliard to pursue the violin but chose Yale College instead. She shares the first stand with Brian Rash, PhD, the orchestra’s concertmaster and an associate research scientist in neuroscience. “Music is one of those things when you are always learning, and medicine is like that too,” said Vijay. “It’s not finite. That’s why I think, for a lot of people, both appeal to them. For a busy clinician it’s nice to have something that’s an escape.”
Players connect at weekly rehearsals, in between concentrating on whatever piece they are working on. Graduate students meet professors who might share their clinical interests; chamber music groups formed of orchestra members perform beyond the symphony. Smith said that there is little attrition from year to year, so the musicians have come to know each other well and form a tight-knit community. “We come in and we have this joyful, hardworking time together,” Tanoue said.
Going into its 11th year, the symphony is looking ahead to the future, and is seeking new ways to become sustainable, so that it can keep growing. As admission to its concerts is free, the symphony’s funding comes from grants and donations from its members. Money for the various incidentals required by a symphony, including equipment, music, and support for the conductor wasn’t always easy to come by, but that changed recently. Thanks to an effort in spring of 2018 led by longtime music and YMSO fans Robert J. Alpern, MD, dean and Ensign Professor of Medicine and his wife, Patricia Preisig, PhD, professor of medicine (nephrology), a $100,000 endowment was created to pay the YMSO’s conductor a stipend.
Retaining a professional musical visionary is a key component of the symphony’s long-term success, and guarantees that Yale’s medical community will continue to meet and connect outside professional settings. Alpern and Preisig’s efforts to institutionalize the conductor’s position will be a significant piece of their legacy.
“The conductors, we couldn’t function without them,” Tanoue said. “And both Adrian Slywotzky and Robert Smith have been amazing.”
Funds also mean YMSO can take on different projects like lecture series tied to performances and concerts; the ability to bring music to patients’ bedsides; and children’s concerts. “The orchestra dreams big,” said Tanoue. “Why not?”
Smith said the group is ready to take on those big dreams. Musically, “I feel like we are where we need to be with the orchestra,” Smith said. They are ready to perform bigger, more iconic pieces for bigger audiences. “Now the fun begins.”