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Hospitalist Brian Chen, MD, Marries Medicine With Music


Dr. Chen's favorite pieces are from the romantic period of classical music. More photos @

Dr. Chen's favorite pieces are from the romantic period of classical music.

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.

Musical Gifts

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.

“Medicine and music can be inexorably connected in more ways than one. Learning music early on certainly set a tone and established a certain discipline that I rely on every day as a physician.” –Dr. Chen

“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.”

Perfect Match

According to Dr. Chen, medicine and music are complementary.

“Medicine and music can be inexorably connected in more ways than one,” he says. “Learning music early on certainly set a tone and established a certain discipline that I rely on every day as a physician.

“Even the process of how you learn music—the repetition, the constant trying to obtain perfection—you can also find in medicine.”

He adds that music and medicine possess similar qualities in terms of their duality. They both offer structure and opportunities for creative expression. Doctors keep track of all the minutia to form a big picture. So do musicians, whose musical notes are combined into a song or symphony. To be a really good doctor or musician, he says, people need to excel at both the creative and technical aspects.

Dr. Chen still practices the violin, roughly an hour each day. Among his favorite pieces are those composed during the romantic period of classical music—generally between the 18th and early 19th centuries.

“You can play musical notes [that are] technically precise, but unless you add a certain creativity to make the music beautiful, then the music doesn’t carry any meaning,” he says.

His music is appreciated by many of his peers when he performs at staff meetings or concerts as part of the hospital’s orchestra. But performing has stirred up a new passion—to pursue other performance venues. He says a handful of exceptional musicians in the hospital’s orchestra are members of the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra. Dr. Chen hopes to audition for the orchestra within the next two years, after polishing a new classical piece he is working on—Mendelssohn’s Concerto in E minor.

Until then, he’s considering playing his violin in the hospital’s lobby. Since music is medicine, performing mini concerts throughout the year may help minimize patients’ pain or ease the anxiety experienced by family members.

Not to mention that it also helps Dr. Chen maintain balance in his own life. At this point, he has no plans to sacrifice one career for the other.

“Music has been able to help me get in touch with my human side, nourish and nurture it,” Dr. Chen says. “Music, by all means, helps give equilibrium, so I can stay a complete individual. That’s how I function best, whether as a musician or physician.”

Carol Patton is a freelance writer in Las Vegas.

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