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UTHSC Students Make Beautiful Music Together

Student musicians after recital
Members of the UTHSC Student Recital Group after a performance. From left, Daniel Phillips, clarinet; Ben Addison, piano; Robert Vestal, piano; Jessica Wright, piano; Peter Duden, euphonium; Molly McEwen, violin.

As a first-year medical student at UT Health Science Center, Peter Duden missed music. He had played tuba in an ensemble as an undergrad. “I missed the challenge of public performances,” he said.

So he reached out to his fellow students via email, hoping to find others who wanted to perform.

At first, he didn’t get any response.

He kept trying. Eventually an ensemble emerged with students from across UTHSC. The group’s first performance was last spring.

Some people were surprised  that students who did well in science also were interested in the performing arts, Duden said.

“We get that all time,” said Diana Alsbrook, a second-year medical student and vocalist with the group. “Before our first performance, people actually asked us, ‘Is this going to be any good?’ ”

Apparently, it was. Back by popular demand, the UTHSC Student Recital Group presented a holiday concert in tandem with the UTHSC A Capella Choir Dec. 1, 2015, in the Student-Alumni Center’s Schreier auditorium. The size of the group has continued to grow, and they plan to do more concerts.

Music and medicine are a natural combination, said Detlef Heck, PhD, associate professor of Anatomy and Neurobiology in the College of Medicine at UTHSC.

“There are many studies reporting that musical education benefits brain development and improves academic performance,” he said. “Newer studies, however, have shown that those benefits are not obtained by passive listening to music, but require active participation through the learning and playing of an instrument.

“In addition, playing music with others in a group advances social interaction skills,” Dr. Heck continued. “This is because the beauty and harmony of the music created by the group – the ultimate goal of each musician – is the most sensitive measure of communication, and requires the highest skills   of communication.”

It isn’t the first time in UTHSC history something like this has been done. For example, in 1922, nursing students formed the University of Tennessee Student Nurses Orchestra at Baptist Hospital, where they were housed. In those days, the duties of nursing students included washing, folding and changing hospital linens. Then as now, rehearsing and playing music was a welcome break.

All the UTHSC students involved in the current ensemble agreed it was a challenge to find time to practice. “We have to make time to do this or we’d go insane,” said Jessica Wright, a second-year medical student who plays the piano.

Molly McEwen, a second-year medical student who plays the  violin, doubts she would have the time to learn an instrument today, but relies and builds on skills she learned earlier. “I played a lot when I was younger, before medical school,” she said. “I’d hate to lose the skills that I worked so hard to build up. Doing this helps me to keep up my skill.”

The group is a cross section of UTHSC’s colleges and disciplines.

“Before this, I didn’t really interact with students from other colleges,” Wright said. “I wouldn’t have gone up and talked to people in scrubs a different color from mine.”

Performing together, however, was a way to take buzzwords like interprofessional and multidisciplinary and transform them into concrete reality.

Sara Wilkinson is a first-year nursing student and a harpist. For her, music isn’t something to be explored on the side as a break from studying. As a future nurse anesthetist, she’s looking at ways to incorporate music into pain management. “I’m very interested in music therapy,” she said. “It’s part of treating patients holistically.”

Wilkinson enjoyed meeting other health care students who performed.

“In my discipline, there aren’t that many students who are into music,” she said. “It’s nice to get together with others and produce something.”

William Compton, a first-year College of Dentistry student and a tenor, sees a link between being a good musician, a good student and a good health care provider. Self-discipline runs through all of them.

“If you’re a musician, you’re your own boss, so to speak,” Compton said. “You take responsibility – you practice on your own time, you learn your part. Everyone shows up on time, knows their role and performs it to the best of their ability in cooperation with everyone else. As a health care provider, you’re called upon to exhibit those exact same qualities in spades. As musicians, we have an advantage. We’ve already exhibited reliability and professionalism.”

McEwen agreed. “My early interest in music is a big part of why I’m in med school,” she said. “I learned time management, how to deal with stressful situations, and how to work by myself. All that prepared me for med school.”

Peter Duden
Medical student Peter Duden started the music group.

Duden, who plays the euphonium in the group, said some people had advised him to give up music. “They said, ‘You need to focus on school.’ But I’ve also talked to people who’ve graduated and gone on to health care careers who were told that and who’ve said they wish they had kept up with it. I believe if you like something, and if it’s part of you, you should keep on doing it. It’s not like we’re slacking off.”

“Exactly,” McEwen said. “It’s something positive to do when we get a study break.”