Massachusetts Medical Society: Clinicians Achieve Harmony through Music

Clinicians Achieve Harmony through Music

By Sarah Ruth Bates, MBE

Leonard I. Zon, MD, takes his trumpet practice seriously, and so do the police. When Dr. Zon visited California to give a talk, he couldn’t practice music in his room without disturbing his neighbors in their shared faculty housing. “So I decided I would go out into my car and play. All of a sudden, I heard sirens. The police came up to my car, and they said, ‘Sir, what are you doing?’ I said, ‘I’m playing Mahler.’ They said I was disturbing people and I had to stop. I said, ‘Well, I just have a little bit more.’” This incident was the second time that police have interrupted Dr. Zon’s outdoor trumpet practice.

Leonard I. Zon, MD
Leonard I. Zon, MD

Dr. Zon, director of the Stem Cell Program and chair of Pediatrics at Boston Children’s Hospital, has been practicing medicine for 35 years and playing the trumpet in the Longwood Symphony Orchestra for 34. The Orchestra is a nonprofit group of volunteer musicians who work as clinicians, researchers, and students in the life and basic sciences.

Nonmedical Community

Physician communities built around nonmedical interests can help counter the more draining aspects of medical practice. “It’s always really healthy to have a hobby, something outside of medicine, an outlet for artistic expression, a different social circle, and just another way to try to experience the world,” says Michael L. Barnett, MD, MS, an internist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, an assistant professor of health policy and management at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, a chair of the Orchestra board, and an oboist.

Vital Signs spoke to four members of the Orchestra, each of whom emphasized the power of community as an antidote to professional stressors. “I have some very close friends in the orchestra, and the synergy between an emotional release and the fellowship of our group provides a balance for the rigors of practicing medicine,” says Read Pukkila-Worley, MD, an infectious disease physician and a PI of a lab at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and a cellist. The curative powers of music can be immediate, says Dr. Zon: “The most therapeutic thing is, if you’ve had a bad day, you can just point the trumpet right at the conductor and play as loudly as you can.”

Playing for High Stakes

On Monday evenings for two-and-a-half hours, the Orchestra practices music instead of medicine. The group performs three annual benefit concerts, partnering with local health care nonprofits and donating a portion of ticket sales to those organizations. In 30-plus years, they have raised over $2.5 million. “It’s a wonderful mission and it feels like we’re benefiting the community in material ways as well as helping ourselves to cope with the stress of our careers,” says Dr. Pukkila-Worley. Dr. Zon agrees: “The benefit concerts raise the mission of the Longwood Symphony. It’s a real privilege to play.”

Teamwork, Learning, Dedication

Emily Mackey, MD, MS
Emily Mackey, MD, MS

Medicine and music and their practitioners have plenty in common. “The skills that I’ve developed as a musician are the same skills that I work on every day as a young physician,” says Emily Mackey, MD, MS, a surgical resident at UMass Medical School and violinist. Both pursuits are about teamwork, she says, “and bringing together all of these different elements — in music, for a concert, and in medicine, for patient care. Both are powerful expressions of how people can come together to get things done.”

Dr. Barnett agrees: “Medicine is a team sport, and there’s something satisfying about using that part of your brain and working with a team in a completely different way.” The tenure of the physician-musicians builds their sense of community, says Dr. Pukkila-Worley, who in his 15th year of playing with the Orchestra yet remains one of the newer cellists in his section. “I see the same wonderful people, week in and week out.”

Music, like medicine, requires lifelong learning: Dr. Zon still takes trumpet lessons every Saturday. And the concerts don’t always go exactly to plan, requiring quick thinking and contingency planning. This year’s highly anticipated concert in the Hatch Shell got rained out. The musicians plan to incorporate the pieces they didn’t get to play that day into this year’s concerts.

Perhaps the most striking parallel is the dedication that physicians and musicians bring to both work and play. When Dr. Zon was called to testify before Congress about stem cell research on the same day as a rehearsal, he flew to Washington, DC, to testify, returned to Boston for the rehearsal, then went back to DC that night.

The Orchestra’s program on December 1 benefits Global Oncology; find information and tickets.

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