YMSO: The ‘musical soul’ of the medical community

When the Yale Medical Symphony Orchestra (YMSO) has its next public performance, the stage will be mostly dark, and the music predominately “spooky.”

For the first time since the YMSO was founded in 2008, the group will present a Halloween concert, featuring music with eerie elements by composers including Saint-Saëns, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Grieg, and Ives. The free concert will take place on Friday, Oct. 26, at 7:30 p.m. in Harkness Auditorium in the Sterling Hall of Medicine, 333 Cedar St.

In keeping with the Halloween theme, members of the orchestra will perform on a darkened stage, with the only illumination being the small lights on their music stands.

“Things will be a little different from our traditional concerts,” says YMSO concertmaster and violinist Brian Rash, an associate research scientist in neurobiology at Yale School of Medicine, who will perform a solo part in Saint-Saens’ “Danse Macabre.” “We get to do fun music that is a little spooky. We are going to get a kick out of it. It’s going to be a treat for the audience as well as for us.”

The YMSO was organized in 2007 by Dr. Lynn Tanoue, professor of medicine (pulmonary and critical care), after she had a conversation with Dr. Thomas P. Duffy, professor of hematology and director of the Program for Humanities in Medicine. Noting the success of the Longwood Symphony Orchestra in Boston, which is comprised of medical professionals in that community, Duffy mentioned to Tanoue that it would be a bonus to have such an orchestra of medical affiliates at Yale.

In the fall of 2007, Tanoue held an open sight-reading session, inviting musicians from throughout the entire medical community to attend. Nearly 200 people — including students of the medical, nursing, and public health schools to medical school faculty and community physicians and non-medical professional staff — attended the event.

“I realized we did have the talent to form a great orchestra,” says Tanoue, who played the violin from childhood through her days as a Yale medical student but had not had the chance to play with a group since the early part of her career as a physician. Today, the YSMO is a full orchestra with about 50 members.

Since holding its inaugural concert in the spring of 2008, the YMSO has performed twice a year — in the winter and in spring — as well as at numerous public functions, including the bicentennial of the Yale School of Medicine, a luncheon for emeritus faculty, and benefit events for Yale-New Haven Hospital. Rehearsals are held weekly on Thursday evenings.

For fourth-year medical student Adam Sang, finding himself in the YMSO was a bit of surprise.

“[When I first came to the medical school] I made a decision that I probably wouldn’t have the time to play in an orchestra,” says Sang, who has played violin since youth. “During the first week of medical school, however, a couple of friends told me about the orchestra and said ‘Give it a try.’ I had a great experience. I even played during my third year — a difficult year as a medical student because it’s when we do rotations. [Playing with the orchestra] is very different from medicine. … It is both a distraction and a form of enjoyment. I look forward to the Thursday evening rehearsals every week.”

Dr. J. Grant Thomson, director of the Yale Hand and Comprehensive Microsurgery Center and an associate professor at the medical school, has played cello and piano since his childhood but had few opportunities to take up the former instrument until he joined YMSO.

“Music is really important,” he says. “I play piano and have a couple of different groups. But playing the cello is different. [The YMSO] is a good way to leave the office after work and sit down and play the cello for a couple of hours, and then play in concert with a group of highly talented people. It’s a lot of fun.”

The orchestra’s concerts have been very well attended since its start, according to Tanoue, who says the group serves as the “musical soul” of the medical center.

“We represent the entire spectrum of the medical community,” she says. “For every concert, we list in the program all the departments we represent, and it is nearly every one. … The fact that we can fill positions for a whole symphony is remarkable. It’s not so easy to find a strong set of string instrumentalists let alone winds and timpani and so forth.”

In addition to the joy of making music together, Tanoue says, the YMSO also allows for interactions between students, faculty, and staff that might not otherwise take place during working hours.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity for students to sit side by side with their faculty members and have a different kind of relationship than you would have in the laboratory or on the wards,” she explains. “I’ve had several experiences where medical students I’ve shared a [music] stand with see me in the hospital, attending in the medical intensive care unit. I think it allows them a different window on what it’s like to be a ‘grown-up’ doctor and faculty member at the medical school, and it also allows me to interact with them in a teacher-student relationship that’s different because we’ve shared in something before they ever come to the wards. … The sharing of music means that you have shared creative moments outside the hospital, which actually translates into a powerful relationship in the hospital.”

One of the only YMSO members without a medical connection is the group’s conductor, Robert Smith, who is also the instrumental music director at New Haven’s Hopkins School.

“The YMSO is an all-volunteer orchestra,” he says, “and it is a very viable and capable ensemble.”

Tanoue adds that being a conductor of the orchestra takes special skills, as well as some patience.

“I am a doctor first, which brings certain responsibilities,” she says. “We’re all a highly educated and busy group of adults who are doing this for fun. We teach and travel and have obligations to our laboratories, jobs, and patients.” She notes that there may be times when members have to miss rehearsals because of those obligations.

Rash, who has played the violin since the age of three, says the YMSO allows him to continue the musical performance he has taken part in for nearly his entire life.

“If you played music for the greater part of your life, you have a sense of what you can do with an instrument,” he explains. “It’s like speaking another language. It’s fun, and I don’t want to stop speaking that language.”