New Book Explores the Mysterious Lives of Musician-Physicians

Musicians of Boston's Longwood Symphony Orchestra foster healing in the clinic and the concert hall.(Photo: Pegasus Books)
Musicians of Boston's Longwood Symphony Orchestra foster healing in the clinic and the concert hall.(Photo: Pegasus Books)

Violinist and pediatric surgeon Terry Buchmiller once had an interesting reason for calling in late for a rehearsal of Boston’s Longwood Symphony Orchestra. During the time she served as concertmaster, she made this last-minute request: “I’m closing the final anastomoses [openings] from a small bowel obstruction and will probably be a few minutes late. Can someone else tune the orchestra?”

Buchmiller’s anecdote is one of countless stories that blend the glamorous worlds of medicine and classical music in Scales to Scalpels: Doctors Who Practice the Healing Arts of Music and Medicine (Pegasus Books, $27.95), by pediatrician and Longwood Symphony Orchestra violinist Lisa Wong with Robert Viagas.

Equal parts memoir and institutional history, Scales to Scalpels tells the story of the Longwood Symphony Orchestra – the orchestra of Boston’s medical community – through testimonials of its members and documents the profound healing that can result when health care providers practice the art of medicine while also taking a heavy dose of music.

Wong begins her study of Boston’s “medical orchestra” by musing on the frequency with which individuals seem to hold medical and musical aspirations. The musician-physician phenomenon is so common that we might call the disciplines of music and medicine sister sirens, whose songs of intense, perfect beauty resonate in the minds of individuals who themselves tend to be intense and perfectionistic.

But as Scales to Scalpels shows, those songs also resonate in the hearts of many who find dual callings in classical music and medicine. The beauty of music hits home emotionally, as does the profound human beauty of healing people of what ails them. Those who seek intellectual stimulation in the kinds of analytical thinking music and medicine require often also seek beauty in serving the common good, through medicine and through music.

These are the people of the Longwood Symphony Orchestra, 80 percent of whose members are healthcare providers and researchers on staff at hospitals, clinics and practices around Boston, and on faculties as esteemed as that of Harvard University’s Medical School.

Their medical specialties run the gamut from occupational therapy to pediatric surgery to oncology. And despite the stresses of their jobs and the long, often erratic hours their medical careers demand, playing music – and playing with the Longwood Symphony, in particular – is an emotional outlet for them, one that some musician-physicians quoted in Scales to Scalpels even call a form of healing.

For example, Wong quotes Daniela Krause, a Longwood Symphony flutist and specialist in problems of the blood.

Imagine for a moment that you are a transfusion-medicine person. You get a call at three Sunday morning because somebody has had a terrible car accident and has already used up one hundred units of red cells, about ten doses of platelets, and fifty doses of fresh frozen plasma. … you can’t stand there and cry or wonder how terrible the world is. You have to treat that person. And waiting next is a gunshot victim who has bullets all through him. You will yourself not to cry. But where does all that grief go? You put it into your music. When you play an instrument, you feel better.

As much as the Longwood Symphony’s musician-physicians heal themselves through music, they also rely abstractly on their musical gifts as they work to heal patients. Throughout Scales to Scalpels musician-physicians liken the processes of healing patients with making music.

One health care provider says listening to patients describe their symptoms and other inner experiences is as important to health care providers as listening to other players in an orchestra is to musicians. Another likens working with a team of medical specialists on a patient’s treatment to the collaborative process of playing chamber music.

More concretely, Scales to Scalpels tells us that a large part of the orchestra’s mission is to bring about healing for the entire Boston community through live musical performances. As part of its Healing Art of Music program, the all-volunteer orchestra performs each of its concerts as a benefit for a different Boston-area non-profit health care organization. Orchestra members also participate in the LSO on Call program, which sends chamber ensembles to play for patients in hospital wards, in drug and alcohol rehabilitation facilities, in nursing homes and at memorial services at local hospitals.

While LSO on Call ensembles walk straight into the belly of the beast, allowing musician-physicians to bring music directly to patients, Scales to Scalpels also tells of orchestra members whose after-hours musical involvement has enabled them to make breakthroughs in on-the-job patient care.

Take the story of Ruth, an elderly patient in a Boston-area dementia unit. Occupational therapist and LSO member Tamara Goldstein was instructed to try to get some kind of response from Ruth, who hadn’t spoken or responded to other people in some time. Wong reports that Goldstein tried various things to get Ruth to respond – calling her name, speaking to her in the hopes of striking up a conversation, even splashing water on Ruth’s face. One day Goldstein turned on the radio to Boston’s classical music station and mentioned that she played the violin in the Longwood Symphony Orchestra. Immediately Ruth opened her eyes, told Goldstein that her husband had been a composer and that she herself had been a soprano, and started singing “The hills are alive with the sound of music.”

As dramatic as this and other individual anecdotes in Scales to Scalpels may be, the potential for the LSO’s business model to reframe thinking more globally about the relevance of classical music organizations and about healthcare in America is potentially even more significant. As Wong reports, one of the LSO’s music directors pointed out that, through its unique mission of healing, the orchestra has found a way to make itself relevant to its community and thereby might have stumbled upon an operational model that might help keep professional orchestras in business in the future.

The LSO might also have stumbled upon a way of putting the human touch back into the patient-health care provider relationship. Wong shows us in Scales to Scalpels that for these musician-physicians, the clinic and the concert hall become twin playing fields on which they wage campaigns against disease and, through the beauty of music, soothe the savage breast. And that’s good medicine, indeed.