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Med students and residents with Dr. Howell at the concert.

Med students and residents with Dr. Howell at the concert.

This story starts back in February, in Rackham Auditorium at a piano concert. UM’s University Musical Society was presenting Sir Andras Schiff, with his program, “The Last Sonatas,” in which he played the last three sonatas written by Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, and Shubert over a series of three concerts. Waiting for the performance to begin, a few classmates and I were chatting about our interest in music, and one announced that he was planning a small concert of performances by medical students, and we should all consider taking part. Music! A night full of music, for an audience of friends! I’ve long been involved in music, first with private lessons and then through school-based ensembles, but after graduating college it had been harder to find chances to play and sing. How could I resist? I agreed to perform. Voice has been my instrument of choice in recent years, but I decided on the spot I would play the piano. The unassuming Sir Schiff walked across the stage, sat down at the piano, and began to play Beethoven’s “Piano Sonata No.30 in E major, op.109.” A smile grew on my face as the notes danced around us. I tapped my fingers on the arms of my chair; soon they would be playing on keys. 

Meeting Sir Andras Schiff after his concert.

Meeting Sir Andras Schiff after his concert.

First I had to make sure I could play the piece I had in mind. I learned Debussy’s “Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum” in eighth grade, the last year I took lessons. It remains one of my favorites, and one of the few songs I still have in my fingers – or at least it had been in my fingers half a year ago when I had last played it… I went in search of the UM practice rooms.

The Earl V. Moore Building, home of the UM School of Music and Dance, sits on a wooded hill next to a little lake on North Campus. My most recent visit was on a serene summer evening, with fireflies surrounding the lake at dusk, but that first encounter in February found the building enveloped in snow and my breath materializing in the biting air. Inside, music filled the halls, leaving no room for the cold. Violin, piano, trombone, cello, saxophone, trumpet, and oboe; classical, jazz, and pop: a different sound came out of each room. I walked down the hall through an auditory kaleidoscope, wondering what the medical school library would be like if each person’s soul or mood carried a tune we could hear as we walked past the usually silent study rooms. Smiling at this thought, I found an empty room, sat at the piano and ran my fingers over the keys, wondering why it had taken me so long to come here.

I went to the practice rooms as often as I could, which was a few times a week. Soon, the song was playing in my head as I walked to school, as I studied, and, once, while shadowing a pulmonologist, Dr. Sisson, in clinic for ICE. We were saying a cheerful goodbye to an elderly couple, everyone laughing as we left their room, when suddenly there was music in my head, startling and beautiful. Incorporating so much music into my everyday lifted weight from my shoulders and made me happier while I was at school.

The concert, which happened to be on my birthday, was at the home of Dr. Joel Howell, an internal medicine physician, professor of medical history, and director of the Medical Arts program at UMMS (which provides opportunities for medical students and residents to engage with the artists who visit campus). A beautiful mahogany Steinway grand piano sits in an alcove of his living room, surrounded by stuffed bookshelves and art. On the spring evening of the performance it was raining; umbrellas stacked up by the door as the 20 or 30 audience members and performers arrived and squeezed into the living room. I was nervous but happy, and watched with a distinct feeling of pride as my classmates performed. There was a piano duet, fiddle tunes that made me sing inside, a string quintet that played a song so full of fast, aggressive energy that it must have been wonderful therapy to practice during our beastly CNS sequence that had ended only a few days before, and many more. My classmates were so talented! Finally, it was my turn. I stepped up to the piano, sat down, and began to play.

Dr. Howell's beautiful piano!

Dr. Howell’s beautiful piano!

After the concert, everyone in attendance enjoyed dessert in the dining room. All around, people talked about how fun the concert had been and how much we hoped to do it again. It was just what I had hoped, a night full of music for an audience of friends, and it made for a wonderful birthday!

Book recommendation: Five Days at Memorial, by Sheri FInk. I read this report on the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina at a New Orleans hospital during my summer break. It’s a great look into the ethical grey areas surrounding medical rationing and disaster medicine!