Heartstrings: Connections between music and medicine

By Marti Frantz

Choosing between music and science as a career is an ongoing debate for young musicians and aspiring scientist/physicians. For time immemorial, there has been a connection between the two fields, in part, because both depend upon the art of listening. In fact, the stethoscope was invented by the French physician-flautist (Rene-Theophile Hyacinthe Laennec, in 1816), and some of the earliest hand-carved wood versions of the stethoscope were carried in beautiful flute-like silk-lined cases.

In the August 2009 Stanford University Medical Center Alumni Association newsletter, we learned about several musicians who are physicians and how they view the connection between music and medicine.

Peter Van Roessel, a gifted cellist now completing his second year of psychiatric residency, explains the connection this way: “Both music and medicine require a similar commitment to reflective practice; to reviewing how an encounter has gone from multiple perspectives, both in the moment and after the fact. Both are performance arts, in that they require intense concentration and the repeated practice of a set of skills. And in medicine, as in music, the more practiced you are, the more able you are to listen and respond to others as you perform.”

What is also striking about musicians who pursue medicine is the seriousness they bring to both practices. Steven Lin, a fourth-year medical student composer and pianist, describes “struggling in the choice between a music school and a traditional undergraduate college.”

“Music,” he says, “keeps me in touch with humanity. Sometimes we are so focused on treating the illness that we forget to treat the person. Poets and musicians and artists are far more in touch with the human experience.”

For Dr. Cindy Mong, it was a passion for music that led her to medicine. She and her twin sister started Suzuki training at age 6, and by age 16, Mong was studying at the Aspen Music Festival. “On the first day, they pulled out this body chart with the muscles outlined and began to teach the anatomy of playing,” Mong says. “That got me interested in medicine and in the study of physiology. It is useful to know how to alter the sound you produce or be able to play for long periods without pain.” Mong played jazz and classical music as an undergraduate and throughout medical school.

For Mong, the connection between music and medicine emerges through storytelling. “I enjoy hearing a patient’s whole story, to understand the larger picture,” she says. “You have to listen with care, pay attention to the minute detail. Learning a piece of music and turning it into something beautiful beyond the technical detail is a similar process. Music provides me with a sense of beauty, hope, and awe. It keeps me invigorated and reminds me of the small things that make life worth living.”

Medical student Steven Lin feels so strongly about what the arts bring to medicine that he says, “Being involved in an art – photography, poetry, music, whatever – makes a person a better physician by keeping them in touch with their human side. All the doctors I know who are great with patients participate in the arts. It seems to help them practice the artistry of medicine as well.”

Watch for Heartstrings: Connections between Music and Medicine, an elegant gala coming in February! The gala is a partnership presented by the Music Academy and the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Rockford with performances by current students and alumni. Its purpose is to raise Music Academy student scholarship and financial aid as well as professional development funds for Academy artist faculty members. A vibrant scholarship and financial aid fund ensures the Music Academy remains accessible, affordable and provides the community with the chance to grow, dream and succeed through music education.

Marti Frantz is executive director of The Music Academy. This article was reprinted with permission from The Music Academy July 2012 newsletter.

From the Aug. 22-28, 2012, issue

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