On a cold night in November, musicians in a new orchestra gather in a classroom at the Strauss Performing Arts Center. They are rehearsing the recognizable march from The Nutcracker. Only, in the song’s first few measures, they wait a few additional beats in silence due to the missing members of the woodwind section.
It’s a medical orchestra, one where its performers have day jobs in hospitals or in front of classrooms. Many of the musicians are the medical students in those classrooms.
No one passes judgment if an entire section skips rehearsal before a particularly stressful test. That’s not what this orchestra is about.
This collaboration between University of Nebraska Medical Center and University of Nebraska-Omaha School of Music formed to increase exposure to the arts with the belief that the arts reduce stress and may improve performance in medical careers. Part of the ongoing program has placed student performers in hospital lobbies, and small ensembles have performed in a Thursday concert series at the Buffett Cancer Center.
Known as the Nebraska Medical Orchestra, the collaboration began in April 2018. Similar programs exist in medical universities around the country.
“This is fun,” explains one of the cellists, Dr. Matthew Rizzo, chair of the UNMC Department of Neurological Sciences and director of the Mind & Brain Health Initiative. He acknowledges that many musicians in the group are tired by the time they get to rehearsal, and they may not have even practiced during the week. And it still works out for the orchestra.
“They just come here and do the best they can…It’s a great experience. You don’t have to be Mozart,” he says.
Rizzo was in a similar medical orchestra when he was at the University of Iowa; he was one of the key drivers of starting this orchestra in Omaha.
Nebraska Medical Orchestra consists of about 50 dedicated amateur musicians, describes Dr. Steven Wengel, assistant vice chancellor for campus wellness at UNO and UNMC. They are medical students, professors, doctors, nurses, and other members of medical teams, including medical billers. For a few hours a week, they step outside of their demanding roles and pick up their instrument of choice.
As conductor, Matthew Brooks (a doctor of musical arts), the director of orchestras at UNO, chooses the repertoire they perform and handles the artistic questions that pop up with running an orchestra. He keeps rehearsals light-hearted while fine-tuning musicians’ abilities.
“This has been a great opportunity for them to make their way back into music,” says Brooks, speaking a month prior to their first performance at the Buffett Cancer Research Center on Dec. 5.
Maddie Olson, a second-year Ph.D. student in the cancer research doctoral program, was among about 130 people to apply for a chair in the orchestra. She began playing cello in an orchestra at 9 years old, and continued it for a year in college while she pursued her interest in science. She says she feels lucky to have the opportunity to play again.
“I always wanted to keep cello in my life,” Olson says.
The medical orchestra is one part of a multipronged mission, describes Washington Garcia, director of the UNO School of Music (and doctor of musical arts). The first part is to bring more music into the medical community in Omaha, which is the stage the universities are in now.
Eventually, university officials hope to begin the research phase of the orchestra, measuring how it impacts the musicians and what its impact on the medical community may be.
Wengel says the medical humanities is a relatively new field of study, but a popular one. Already at UNO there is a minor in it.
Thus far, Wengel and colleagues know one thing for certain: When members of a health-care team are interested and involved in the arts, they are happier. The question is: Does it make them better clinicians?
“Anecdotally, it’s been a very positive experience,” Wengel says. “They’re exercising a different part of their mind, heart, and soul.”
A 2018 article in the Journal of General Internal Medicine attempted to measure the humanities’ impact on medical students. It didn’t seem to matter if it was passive exposure, like going to a concert, or more active involvement, such as playing an instrument. The finding was the same: The more exposure the students had to the humanities, the higher they rated on different tests in areas like empathy, problem-solving, 3D spatial reasoning, and tolerance for ambiguity.
“Basically, the more exposure to humanities, the higher they scored,” Wengel says.
Besides the research this orchestra could contribute to, there are artistic possibilities to consider. Brooks said the program may grow to have guest artists, they may tour, or there could be exchanges with other medical orchestras.
None of those possibilities are on the minds of the performers, though. For now, they are content fine-tuning those staccato rhythms in The Nutcracker.
And, more pressing, they’re thinking about acing that exam next week.