Doctors’ Notes

T chaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 has “thick orchestration,” conductor Robert Smith says. “The brass parts are really high up. They go fast and you have to double tongue and triple tongue. The strings are up in seventh position… The woodwinds have such difficult rhythm.” It’s a challenging master work, not something a community orchestra would ordinarily take on. But the Yale Medical Symphony Orchestra is no ordinary community orchestra.

Ten years ago, suspecting hidden abilities in her midst, Lynn Tanoue, a professor of medicine who practices in thoracic oncology, sent an email to everyone in the Yale medical community and invited them to a musical sight-reading. She also invited a conductor, Adrian Slywotsky, who taught music at Hopkins School. Slywotsky, she recalls, showed up with an “armful of music, and on the top was Beethoven’s Fifth.” That was a little higher than she was aiming, but Slywotsky told her, “Let’s see what happens.”

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The group started with easier classical pieces, rebuilding rusty skills and developing new ones. Over time, it began to tackle more challenging works. “Who would have dreamed we would be here ten years later, and we’re playing Tchaikovsky’s Fifth? That kind of blows my mind,” Tanoue says. It’s a Thursday evening in March, and the orchestra, which tops out at 45 or 50 musicians, has gathered in the medical school’s Harkness Auditorium for its weekly rehearsal. As we talk out in the lobby, we can hear the rest of the ensemble drilling a difficult passage inside.

How these elite medical professionals and students also manage to excel as musicians isn’t really a mystery. The key, Tanoue believes, is “diligence,” which comes with the territory of being a STEM professional. Or maybe, suggests first violinist and concertmaster Brian Rash, it works the other way around: children who grow up diligently practicing an instrument are more likely to end up in STEM fields.

Rash, a researcher in neuroscience, says the orchestra fills what would otherwise be a gap in his life. “I work in a laboratory during the day…and there’s not a lot of opportunity to emote,” he says. He began violin lessons at the age of three. That lifelong attachment to music, he says, is an important part of who he is. That’s true, he adds, for many of the orchestra’s musicians. “They want to continue to [develop] that skill and their ability to make music.”

Making music together also offers a respite—albeit one with its own challenges—from the intensity of their day-to-day lives, Tanoue says. “It’s a warm, friendly, safe space in a medical center where the work is hard and the stakes are high.”

The camaraderie of making music together sometimes spills over into their professional relationships. “The music is a great equalizer,” Tanoue says. A student might be sitting next to a renowned surgeon, but “it doesn’t really matter. All these hierarchical relationships that exist in science, in the hospital, in any school go away.” When they later run into one another in a professional setting, “It actually really changes that dynamic,” Tanoue says. “That, I think, is a really good thing, that it brings people together.”

Like his predecessor, conductor Smith teaches at Hopkins School, where he serves as director of instrumental music and chair of the arts department. With all the brain power in the medical orchestra, conductor Smith says, he spent the first two years of his tenure as conductor feeling intimidated. But it’s clear he has the musical chops to match theirs in medicine. Now in his eighth year as their leader, he notes, “We have the skill onstage to do [Tchaikovsky], and if I didn’t give a challenge to these musicians, to these doctors, it wouldn’t mean as much to them.”

Back in Harkness Auditorium, empty music cases and coats and bags are spread over the seats and along the aisles while onstage the violins are working note by note through a few challenging measures under the baton of Yale first-year Paul Stelben, a gifted musician and a recent graduate of Hopkins School. For the past six years, Smith has brought in a Yale undergraduate each year as an assistant conductor to give them some orchestral conducting experience. If Smith was once intimidated by conducting these accomplished medical professionals, Stelben must feel the pressure a hundredfold, but he leads them through their paces with impressive aplomb.

The rehearsal ends with Smith back on the podium, taking the orchestra through the fourth movement. It’s a workout not just for the violins on their part that Rash calls “stratospheric in some places” but for Smith as well. “Tchaik Five,” as he calls it, requires a full-body experience that, in the final concert, will last for 50 relentless minutes.

The performance season generally includes three concerts, but this year it was scaled back to two in order to focus on the difficulty of the program. The season often includes a Halloween concert complete with jack-o’-lanterns lit across the stage or a pops concert—offerings that Smith calls “wildly popular with our audience.” There’s also the occasional gig at Smilow Cancer Center or a benefit show. But it’s not all about the concerts. “We love Thursday evening,” Tanoue says. “It’s more fun if you’ve practiced,” she adds with a laugh. But even if some musicians haven’t, she says, sitting “in the midst of all the music” feels good.

“We just have a synergy together,” Smith agrees. “We’re growing older together as musicians, and it’s a wonderful thing.”

Yale Medical Symphony Orchestra
Yale School of Medicine – 333 Cedar St, New Haven (map)
[email protected]

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is a writer and communications pro whose perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the Green and a coffee milkshake. She posts twice-weekly content for book clubs in her Substack newsletter, Better Book Clubs.

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