Doctors make sweet music with VA orchestra, chorus
■ Volunteers nationwide trade their white coats for tuxes and give concerts that foster patriotic pride.
By Damon Adams — Posted Oct. 18, 2004
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Sometimes, a doctor can't enjoy a concert because of an emergency. Even if he plays in the orchestra.
The VA-National Medical Musical Group was performing a concert in Russia when someone offstage motioned to the cardiologist. During "The Stars and Stripes Forever," the cardiologist put down his trombone, got up, walked off and checked out a person backstage.
"I looked up, and he just left me there," said Victor Wahby, MD, PhD, music director and conductor of the musical group.
That happens when a symphony orchestra features physicians as singers and musicians. They're the backbone of the VA-National Medical Musical Group, a chorus and orchestra made up of health care professionals. Physicians, nurses, dentists and other health professionals volunteer their voices and instrumental skills to perform patriotic concerts here and abroad.
"Certainly, professional musicians may be more polished, but they often lack the enthusiasm of the gifted amateur," said Las Vegas neurologist Morton Hyson, MD, who sings bass.
The group has a core of 200 health practitioners who dabble in the arts on the side. Physicians make up roughly half of the group, doing everything from conducting to playing oboe to singing tenor. Some work in the VA health system while others practice in groups or in teaching hospitals.
The doctors strike up the band on Flag Day in the nation's capital and for Veterans Day concerts elsewhere in the country. Their next gigs are Nov. 6 at the Cathedral at Chapel Hill in Atlanta and Nov. 11 at Coral Ridge Church in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
They have played with Shirley Jones, Pat Boone and Judy Collins, performed for the Reagan, first Bush and Clinton administrations at the White House, and appeared at Carnegie Hall and before the pope at the Vatican. They typically make an annual jaunt to one or more foreign countries and have played in France, China and Australia.
Not too shabby for a bunch of white coats who sport black tuxes on the side.
"The idea of a doctor playing music has always fascinated people. It shouldn't. Music is an art, and medicine is an art. Timing is everything in music and timing is important in medicine," said conductor Dr. Wahby, director of special projects for the Veterans Health Administration in Washington, D.C.
Doctors get musical start
Dr. Wahby traces the group's origin to the late 1970s, when he practiced at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. "A few physicians got together and said, 'Let's do some Christmas caroling for the patients,' " he said. More than 70 turned out, so they gave a concert instead and started a medical musical group.
Dr. Wahby started a similar group when he moved to Connecticut. He formed the VA-National Medical Musical Group around 1990 after relocating to Washington, D.C. In the early days, only doctors participated. "Now, we say if you have seen a doctor, you can come and play with us," Dr. Wahby joked.
Richard Chen, MD, a Los Angeles anesthesiologist, has played with the group for about 10 years. He started playing violin at age 6 and now is the concertmaster. He loves performing and enjoys making new friends.
"The friendship in the group is tremendous. It's like another [medical] society I joined," he said.
The musicians usually gather from around the country a day or two before the concert and rehearse. Before that, they practice on their own. The doctors pay for their own room and board.
Most of the group members have played in local bands and orchestras. Joseph Car, MD, for example, plays with the Bloomington Concert Band in Indiana and the Columbus Symphony Orchestra. Like most in the group, he takes time off from his medical practice to perform with the VA group and fine-tunes his musicianship when he can.
"You have to have a significant level of playing experience. It's definitely not for beginners," said Dr. Car, an internist in Spencer, Ind.
Doctors such as Wayne McBride, DO, say they enjoy performing for veterans. Meeting celebrities is also fun, even if some don't stick around long. At one concert, the musicians didn't see Andy Williams until about five minutes before he went onstage.
"Andy kind of blew in and blew out. But it went well," said Dr. McBride, a U.S. Navy captain.
Dr. Wahby said the group's concerts are meant to offer more than entertainment. "It's an instrument of healing," he said. "Instead of a stethoscope or scalpel or medicine, we use music."