Tag Archives: Washington Garcia

Nebraska Medical Orchestra

December 20, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

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.


Visit unmc.edu and unomaha.edu for more information about the partnering universities.

Orchestrated by God, Encouraged by Parents

March 12, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

At his first public concert, a benefit for disabled children in Ecuador, Washington Garcia realized that he was put on Earth to serve others through music. “It was a revealing moment,” Garcia says.

He was only 7 years old.

The next enlightening moment came when he was 10. He played and won his first national competition. The boy realized that he could earn money playing the piano.

Every step along his career has involved meeting the right people who could help at the right time. It’s something he and his parents believe God has orchestrated, placing him on a path that enables him to serve and give to a new generation of young artists.

That path led to Omaha in 2016. Today, the former child prodigy from Ecuador is the director of the School of Music at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

He started down his musical path at an early age, reaching for the piano as an infant and trying to recreate music before he was in school. “It was natural when we were little, my parents wanted us to be involved in music,” Garcia says.

At age 4, he tagged along with his 6-year-old sister to the music conservatory. By the end of the school year, his sister’s teacher contacted Garcia’s mother, Miryam Eljuri, and told her that he was a prodigy.

Miryam knew at that moment Garcia’s wish to play music was something the family had to support.

“Washington’s success was achieved as a team,” Miryam says through her son’s translation. It was Miryam who helped him apply for the Kennedy Center cultural exchange program in his teens, Miryam who lined up an airline sponsorship to fly her son around the world for his concerts.

Garcia’s father, also named Washington Garcia and one of the most respected neurosurgeons in Ecuador, helped as well, driving his son to classes and guiding him to become a responsible young man.

At age 18, Garcia simultaneously graduated high school and college, earning a Bachelor of Music from the National Conservatory of Music in Ecuador. By then, he’d played with the national symphony and performed for a former Chilean president. He’d won first prizes at the Guillermo Wright-Vallarino National Piano Competition in Quito, the Elizabeth Davis Memorial Piano Competition and the 19th International Young Artist Piano Competition in Washington, D.C., the 2004 Baltimore Music Club Piano Competition, and the Harrison Winter Piano Competition.

Garcia was accepted into the Kennedy Center cultural exchange program, earning a $25,000 fellowship to help cover his master’s studies at the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University. He graduated at age 20, returning later to complete a doctorate. At 25, Garcia became the youngest Latin American pianist to have ever earned a doctorate performance degree from the university.

Throughout his studies, he cultivated an impressive international concert portfolio, which up to that point, included performances and lectures in Asia and Europe. His desire to continue playing while helping students led him to a career in education. He taught seventh and eighth graders in Baltimore before taking his calling to a higher level.

Garcia became an assistant professor of piano at Texas State University. In nine years, he rose in rank to become the appointed chair of the keyboard area and then the assistant director. It was a dream position, allowing him to work with more people, fundraise, build relationships internationally, and play music. He knew his next step in life was to become a director of a music school.

He was hired at UNO in January 2016.

His career path has taken him around the world, and so, his choice to reside in Omaha has puzzled some people. He tells them that he fell in love with the friendliness of the city and the culture of the school on his first visit.

“The faculty at the school of music was so talented and so collegial that I fell in love with them,” Garcia says. “We have one of the best faculty in Nebraska. It’s a collaborative faculty, and this is huge, because it doesn’t matter how good you are if you cannot collaborate with others.”

Already, Garcia has helped establish an international concert series at the school. In the next year, he hopes to begin renovating UNO facilities, including adding another concert hall; start a radio broadcast program to showcase students; and increase community engagement with other organizations.

The School of Music already has a student recital series at First Christian Church and, in the fall, will begin another one at Gallery 1516. At the end of March, the school will be among many cultural institutions performing at the Longines FEI World Cup Jumping and FEI World Cup Dressage Finals at the CenturyLink Center. In 2019, he hopes to launch an international music festival in Omaha.

“My goal is to continue to establish Omaha as one of the most important cultural and academic destinations in the U.S.,” Garcia says.

It’s an exciting time at UNO, according to Garcia. And it’s exciting for his family. While visiting over Christmas to see Garcia and his wife’s newborn son, Garcia’s parents spoke about their son’s career.

“Obviously, he came here with a clear mission and vision from God,” Garcia’s father says. “I know that he is going to fulfill his mission here in Omaha.”

Garcia will debut with the Omaha Symphony Orchestra Oct. 8 at Joslyn Art Museum. He will perform Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D minor, K. 466 under the baton of maestro Thomas Wilkins. Visit washingtongarcia.com for more information.

From left: Miryam Eljuri, Washington A. Garcia, and Washington H. Garcia

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.