Autumn 2012

Whole Notes

Does healing make a sound? Just listen to the Longwood Symphony Orchestra

Wounded, Deeply Issue

  • by Jessica Cerretani
  • 8 minute read

Performances by the Longwood Symphony Orchestra often benefit health-related nonprofit organizations, a mission central to the LSO's Healing Art of Music program.

The sounds of Johannes Brahms’s Sonata No. 1 drifted from the Joseph B. Martin Student Lounge in Vanderbilt Hall, prompting passersby to peek into the room. Their curiosity was rewarded by the sight of Xiaoming (Sherman) Jia ’12, concertmaster of the Longwood Symphony Orchestra, in action. Immersed in the music, Jia was playing to a camera—his midday violin performance would become a video aimed at increasing visibility for the orchestra.

Established in 1982 by a group of physician–musicians in the Longwood Medical Area, the LSO has humble roots: its clinician–members simply wanted the opportunity to perform.

The orchestra’s past president, Lisa Wong, an HMS clinical instructor in pediatrics at Massachusetts General Hospital and a violinist who has studied her fellow dual-career peers, estimates that about three-quarters of physicians and scientists have had at least one year of instrumental training as children, and many continue to play through medical school and beyond. The LSO itself boasts more than 100 musicians—most with a background in medicine—including a pathologist who plays flute, an infectious disease specialist who plays cello, and an orthopedic surgeon who plays clarinet.

For some physicians, the LSO’s existence influenced their choice of medical school. “I decided to pursue my education at HMS in part because I knew of the LSO and of its involvement in the Boston community,” says Michael Barnett ’11, a second-year resident in internal medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and an oboist with a degree from the Yale School of Music. “Playing an instrument has been an important part of my life, and something I plan to continue even during my residency at Brigham and Women’s.”

The influence music has on medicine and its practice makes sense, says Jia, who began violin lessons at age three. “My years of musical training helped prepare me for the rigors of medical school, and listening to music has helped me better listen to and understand patients.” Jia is no doubt putting this training to work; he is undertaking a year in medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and next year will head to the University of California, San Francisco, for a neurology residency.

Indeed, a growing body of research suggests that regularly practicing an instrument can have remarkable effects on the brain, improving motor skills, alertness, hearing, and memory. Even listening to music in the operating room—particularly classical music—has been linked to better performance and lower stress in surgeons.

But for Jia, and other members of the LSO, the music and medicine connection holds another link, that of philanthropy for health-related causes. “Many professional musicians see performance as just a job,” Jia notes. “But as a physician, I want to use my musical skills to help others and as a complementary avenue for healing.”

Stephen Wright is an HMSStephen Wright, MD, playing the bassoonist in the Longwood Symphony Orchestra lecturer in medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital by day, a bassoonist with the LSO many a night.
Stephen Wright is an HMS lecturer in medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital by day, a bassoonist with the LSO many a night.

Tap Root

It’s that attitude that led Wong and some of her fellow musicians to develop the orchestra’s Healing Art of Music program. Based on what has become one of the LSO’s guiding principles—giving back—the program partners with local nonprofits to create fundraising opportunities that showcase the organizations’ work, as well as the orchestra’s talent.

Although the program was created some 20 years ago, its roots can be traced to the early 1900s and the African village of Lambaréné. There, the physician and future Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Albert Schweitzer, himself a musician and biographer of Johann Sebastian Bach, founded a hospital, treated patients, and developed his mission to promote a way of being he called a reverence for life. This philosophy has resonated with generations of physicians. It was an honor, therefore, for the members of the LSO when, in 1991, they were invited to join master cellist Yo-Yo Ma for a concert celebrating the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship’s new community-service program.

“It was the finale of a Boston-wide symposium aimed at discussing four issues Dr. Schweitzer might address if he was still practicing today,” explains Wong. “HIV and AIDS, homelessness, children’s health, and domestic violence. The concert was a chance to bring physicians together with nonprofit agencies and their clients. We were thrilled.”


The excitement of performing helps fuel many medical–musical ensembles. From Texas to New York, U.S. physicians, dentists, nurses, and researchers are joining orchestras composed principally of medical professionals. These groups range in size, from duos to the 500-member World Doctors Orchestra, a five-year-old group based in Germany, that draws its members from some 30 countries.

Most such ensembles donate at least a portion of their ticket-sales revenue to charity. The LSO’s philanthropic model, however, remains unique, forged as it was by the outcome of that Schweitzer Fellowship concert two decades ago. Despite careful planning, the concert’s organizers hadn’t anticipated some of the obstacles the fledgling philanthropy would confront. Looking out at the audience the night of the concert, the musicians noticed large pockets of empty seats. Some of these areas represented seats offered to survivors of domestic violence who, concerned for their safety at such a public event, hadn’t shown up. Members of Boston’s homeless community also were absent: The event was scheduled to end after the 10 p.m. curfew of most city shelters.

Inspired by these revelations, the musicians found a new sense of joy that night, one that allowed them to play with more passion than usual. “We were playing for something beyond ourselves, and that realization was transformative,” says Wong. “But we understood that, although we were on the right track, we needed to create events that really resonated with the people we were entertaining.”

The LSO’s members decided to tailor each of their concerts for a different underserved population. Although this decision was easy, putting it into action proved a bit more difficult. At first, the members considered simply donating blocks of tickets to nonprofit organizations. But, Wong explains, “When you give something away, the recipient might consider it to be of a lesser value.” Instead, the nonprofit is asked to collaborate with the LSO by purchasing a block of tickets, so that together, the two groups can raise awareness about public health causes, a practice that continues today.

Yet the goal of the Healing Art of Music program is not merely to provide nonprofits and their clients with an evening of entertainment. Again, tapping the lesson from the Schweitzer concert, Wong and her fellow musicians realized that, to truly touch their audiences, they had to get to know them.

The members decided to focus on just a few organizations each season, learning all they could about the groups’ missions, and working with them to create concerts and other fundraising events tailored to those missions. With that, the Healing Art of Music’s community partnerships were born.

Airs Jordan

One such community partnership had started incubating six years before the Schweitzer event, when Wong met James O’Connell ’82, who had helped found the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program. O’Connell, an HMS assistant professor of medicine at Mass General, recalls, “We were both really taken by what was happening in Boston at the time in terms of tackling community health challenges.”

The friendship persisted. So when Boston Health Care for the Homeless needed to raise money for what is now the Barbara McInnis House, a medical respite-care facility, the organization teamed up with the LSO to plan the ultimate fundraising event: a concert for the homeless community, the nonprofit’s staff, and donors, at the New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall. Inside that elegant wood-paneled venue, the musicians delivered a powerful performance, delighting the audience with a selection of classical pieces, including Vuk Kulenovic’s Wave, Antonín Dvorák’s Cello Concerto, and Richard Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration. The effects of the performance continued long after the standing ovation.

“Lisa and the LSO were instrumental in introducing us to the world of philanthropy,” says O’Connell. “The concert was a fabulous event—and very successful.” The LSO and Boston Health Care for the Homeless have repeated their collaboration twice, most recently in 2011, with each effort contributing to the growth of service and support for Boston’s homeless community.

Group Dynamics

The LSO’s Healing Art of Music program has grown, too. Now in its second decade, it has fine-tuned its approach to fundraising and choosing organizations to help.

“We tend to partner with nonprofits that focus on health, social justice, or community building, ones that might not be able to put on a large event on their own,” says Barnett, who has been the chair of the LSO’s Community Engagement Committee for the past several years.

The orchestra has teamed with 37 nonprofits, ranging from Artists for Alzheimer’s to Children of Chernobyl, often for multiple events. In January 2010, the LSO joined with Partners In Health to raise money in response to the earthquake in Haiti. This November, the LSO celebrates the opening of a new rehabilitation hospital in that country, made possible in part through donations the orchestra generated, with a follow-up concert that features Haitian musicians playing with the orchestra.

As the LSO opens its thirtieth season, change is in the air. A new music director has been appointed, and the future of the LSO’s dual mission looks strong. Says Barnett, “We’re always exploring how we can have an even longer reach and an even better recipe for success.” And while some shifts are bittersweet—such as the move by Wong to step down as the LSO’s president—the orchestra’s mission remains strong. “The fusion of music and medicine is quickly becoming part of a national conversation,” Wong says. “It’s an exciting time for the LSO.”

Jessica Cerretani is a health and medical writer based in Boston.