The September 2003 full orchestra concert, Brahms’ "Requiem."

BY ERIC LEVY
WHEN HILARY SPENCER’06 WENT ON INTERVIEWS AT MEDICAL schools, he was asked the typical questions:

Why do you want to be a doctor?
What are you looking for in a medical school?
What are the qualities that make a good doctor?

Then came his interview at P&S. His interviewer, Donald Quest‘70, didn’t ask him any of the typical questions. Instead, they talked mostly about music.
Mr. Spencer, a violinist since age 14, says Dr. Quest’s interest in his music “made me feel more comfortable than being grilled with questions. It created a bond with the school and made me feel at home. It’s one of the major reasons I came to Columbia.”
Why should a student’s interest in music carry any weight in an admissions interview? “I talk with student musicians about their interest in music because I want to know about their avocations, passions, and accomplishments,” says Dr. Quest, the J. Lawrence Pool Professor of Neurological Surgery and assistant dean for student affairs at P&S — and a trombone and piano player. “I personally love music. I like to encourage young people going into medicine to continue their musical interests throughout their career. More important to me than an individual’s specific interest in the arts or humanities is their commitment to such interests.”
Andrew Frantz‘55, professor of medicine and associate dean for admissions, says he also has many conversations about music during admission interviews. Dr. Frantz, who plays the violin and piano, says he actively seeks out musical and theatrical people among applicants. “I look for a cultural breadth that goes beyond medicine. Medicine is a humanistic field and a matter of relating to other people. Having other interests makes them better doctors.”
Faculty and student musicians talk of an extraordinary connection between music and medicine. Some P&S student musicians, including some who attended Juilliard and other conservatories, had to choose between professional careers in music or medicine. When they chose medicine, and P&S, many joined the Musicians’ Guild, a P&S Club group that sponsors on-campus concerts and presents a monthly series of performances called Musical Mondays. Members of the guild also perform at Bard Hall Players productions, alumni reunion weekend, events for parents of medical students, formal ceremonies, memorial services, and other special events.
Once a year, the Musicians’ Guild presents a full orchestra concert featuring dozens of performers who have had only one day of rehearsal together. The 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. rehearsal time is so concentrated because it’s nearly impossible to get everyone together at the same time. The 2003-2004 concert, on Sept. 13 in the Alumni Auditorium, presented Brahms’ “Requiem” with approximately 100 performers, including students, faculty, and outside guests. Past performances have included Mozart’s “Symphony No. 40”; Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 3,” “Symphony No. 5,” and “Symphony No. 7”; Dvorak’s “Symphony No. 9 (From the New World)”; and Shostakovich’s “Symphony No. 5.”
Musical Mondays, which are smaller and more informal concerts, take place once a month at 6 p.m. in the Bard Student Lounge. Although most Musical Mondays consist of two or three performances by chamber music groups, the genre of music varies. The first Musical Monday this year, on Sept. 29, drew an audience of more than 50 people and included four compositions scored for voice and string orchestra by Dr. Kenneth Altman, retired professor of medicine; Bach’s “Prelude and Fugue No. 1,” performed by Albin Zhang’06; and Bach’s “Ciaconne” from the “Partita No. 2 in D Minor,” performed by Gabrielle Kopf, a 2002 occupational therapy graduate, on the violin. The Department of Pediatrics sponsors a reception that follows every Musical Monday concert.
Every year in the spring, the guild coordinates a benefit concert in the Alumni Auditorium for the Columbia University chapter of Head Start and Early Head Start programs. The concert attracts many families and children from the community. The guild also publishes an annual directory of student and faculty musicians so they may contact each other to form ensembles, bands, or chamber groups. The current directory lists more than 170 musicians organized by instrument or function: bass guitar, brass, conducting, guitar, percussion, recording, strings, voice, and woodwinds. Information on the directory is available by sending e-mail to Hilary Spencer at hts2007@columbia.edu.
Music and medicine, students and faculty say, are similar in that they both apply the rules of logic and demand intense concentration. In addition, says Dr. John Truman, professor of clinical pediatrics, who plays the harpsichord and has played the bagpipes at a guild concert, “there’s a strong emotional component to music. You can fill up a medical school with students who have high test scores, but you need that humane side too. Dedication to a musical instrument provides that much needed opportunity for expression that translates over to the practice of medicine.”
Speaking to members of the Musicians’ Guild reveals similar life stories: They grew up in families with a deep appreciation of classical music, started playing an instrument as a young child, continued to play and perform throughout high school and college, chose Columbia in large part because of its reputation for supporting music and the arts, and can’t possibly imagine not playing their instrument of choice regularly during their stay at P&S.
Although medical students make up the majority of performers at Musical Mondays, two P&S faculty members are well known to the group — Nicholas Cunningham, professor emeritus of clinical pediatrics and clinical public health, and John Austin, professor of radiology. Dr. Austin, who plays violin, viola, and double bass, has the typical medical degrees and honors framed on his office wall, but his wall also includes a sketch of a string quartet. “That sketch is just as important as the degrees,” says Dr. Austin. “It shows that it’s important to have something non-medical in your life that has emotional depth or artistic expression. Medicine is a commanding profession and it’s good for the soul to get away from it. There’s a lot more to life than just medicine.”
Dr. Cunningham was instrumental in the formation of the Apgar Memorial Quartet, consisting of musicians who play string instruments built by world-renowned anesthesiologist Virginia Apgar‘33 and her friend, Carleen Hutchins. The quartet has played at Musical Mondays and at fund-raising concerts for the Head Start programs. The instruments are now on loan to the Smithsonian Institution until late 2004. Once they return, the instruments will be available to any faculty or staff member or student who wants to play them.
The P&S Musicians’ Guild was conceived in 1992 by Frank David‘96 and his wife, Julie Lin‘96, who were first-year P&S students at the time. “Julie was a classmate of mine and we became friends,” says Dr. David. “I played clarinet and she played violin. We talked about starting an orchestra and the Musicians’ Guild began as a way for musicians to find each other. We went to the P&S Club, hooked up with Drs. Cunningham and Austin, and ended up forming a chamber string orchestra with 20 musicians.” Dr. David, a fellow in pathology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, and Dr. Lin, an attending physician in the renal division at Brigham, were married in 1996.
“Music forces you to turn on another part of your brain and turn off another,” says Dr. David. “You can’t run through your pharmacology class list of medications while playing an instrument. People in medicine are very intense and tend to give their all to whatever task is at hand — including music.” In November 1992, Dr. David conducted the first performance of the Bard Chamber Orchestra. The program included Mozart’s “Divertimento,” Bach’s “Brandenburg Concerto No. 4,” Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” and Schubert’s “Shepherd on the Rock.”
Two second-year students chair the Musicians’ Guild every year. This year’s co-chairs are Kar-mun Woo’06 and Hilary Spencer’06. “It’s impossible for me not to keep playing; it’s so much a part of my life,” says Ms. Woo. “In medical school, it’s important to keep part of you that is non-medical. It’s one kind of outlet.” Mr. Spencer adds: “Music to me is priceless, life-changing. Music organizes my mind for my studies — it’s highly structured. It helps if I’m really stressed out and I can’t focus on my studies, I play the violin for an hour, get focused, and return. It was a big factor choosing Columbia over other schools.”
One of the major attractions to P&S that student musicians mention is the collection of pianos — three Steinways, two Mason & Hamlins, and a new Kawai grand donated by Jay Lefkowitch’76. The largest piano, a Steinway D Concert Grand, is housed in the Clyde and Helen Wu Music Room in Bard Hall. It belonged to Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff and was later owned by world-renowned pianist Arthur Rubinstein before arriving at P&S.
The P&S Alumni Association was instrumental in raising money to restore all of the deteriorating pianos in Bard Hall. In the 1990s, the Alumni Association also began a three-year investment in converting the south end of Bard Hall’s first floor into soundproof music rooms that can control humidity, temperature, and light. Major donors for the piano and music room construction were Clyde’56 and Helen Wu and William Benson’69.
Serious medical student musicians say that P&S is the only medical school to have its own orchestra, spectacular collection of pianos, and performance space. “When I visited other schools,” says John Chen’05, past chairman of the Musicians’ Guild, “students told me there were no pianos or rooms to play in. Some said as a result they hadn’t played in years. At Columbia, I’m astounded by the number of doctors who still play an instrument or sing. It’s a great place to nurture musical talent.”

PHOTO CREDIT: GRACE LIU'06

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