Most young boys dream about scoring touchdowns or being a superhero, combatting villains or evil aliens. When Brian Chen, MD, was young, he wanted superpowers, too, but of a different sort. He wanted to become a concert violinist.
Now a hospitalist at St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor Hospital in Michigan, Dr. Chen recalls watching Itzhak Perlman, the superstar virtuoso of the violin, perform on the PBS show “Great Performances” when he was just five years old. Entranced by Perlman’s genius, he vowed to master the violin. After years of study, practice, and commitment, Dr. Chen has not quite reached Perlman’s status but has achieved more in his musical career than some musicians ever dream of.
After watching “Great Performances,” Dr. Chen begged his parents for a violin. At the time, he was learning to play piano.
“My parents were smart about having me start with piano first,” he says, explaining that the piano helped him learn the basics of reading music and distinguishing tones. “With piano, you press a key that produces a sound you intended. With the violin, there’s no such luck. It requires precise placement of fingers. It was sort of something my parents saw that I could eventually [play] once I got past learning the basics.”
Dr. Chen received his first violin when he was six years old. By then, he had already been playing the piano for a year. His excitement quickly turned into frustration, however. Why couldn’t he play like Perlman?
Instead of admitting defeat, he became that much more determined. Throughout middle school and high school, he took piano and violin lessons and practiced both instruments for several hours each day after school. He joined the high school orchestra and the Dayton (Ohio) Philharmonic Youth Orchestra. Both gave free public concerts, which exposed Dr. Chen to the art of performing at a tender age.
He says the violin appeals to him partly because it is a difficult instrument to learn. Not everyone can play it. But, once mastered, he believes “its voice is the most beautiful and expressive, even more than piano.”
Likewise, he says violinists can play stronger and richer tones with a little vibrato, which adds yet another dimension to the instrument.
Like most teenagers, Dr. Chen was active, trying out for sports like his school’s swim team, but sports did not offer anywhere near the same satisfaction that he received from playing music. His musical ability was critiqued at state performances, where he scored high marks in the areas of technique, creativity, performance, and interpretation.
It wasn’t until he attended Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., that the piano took a back seat to the violin. He joined the university’s orchestra, chamber ensembles, and quartets.
“With the violin, I had more opportunity to meet new people, as opposed to playing the piano,” he says. “I had no misconception [about choosing] music as a career, because I felt I wasn’t good enough to be a professional musician.”
But opinions are a lot like music—subjective. Thanks to its unique talent, the university’s orchestra was invited to perform a public concert at Carnegie Hall.
“[It] was a once-in-a-lifetime [experience],” Dr. Chen says, adding that some student musicians at Cornell who share similar interests—music and medicine—recently contacted him to serve as their mentor. “Whether I could get back to that that level of perfection, in terms of playing, is certainly worth attempting, [and it would be] a lot of fun trying.”