Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 17, 2017
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I prescribe a trip to... singing camp

An FM gets her trills during a master class in early music

Would famed soprano Renée Fleming leave her world of music to participate in, say, a two-week workshop on inserting Swan-Ganz catheters? I don’t think so. Now I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, the Renee Fleming of medicine, but one might still ask the question as to why a mature physician (chronologically, at least) would decide to temporarily abandon her everyday world to go explore Baroque vocal music with a dozen exceedingly well-trained international singers on the campus of the University of British Columbia.

In fact, I had no idea that the vocal programme would be of such high calibre. When it came right down to it, all I really wanted to do was to sing with a lute just once in my life!

When I met Kelly, my first collegial contact, I found out that she had a doctorate in vocal performance and taught in the music department of a college in Michigan. Must be just a fluke, I figured.

But alas, no. I was the only amateur musician in the group. Most were from the US, and one had come all the way from Estonia. Everyone had studied voice for many years, specializing in Early Music. The youngest of the group was preparing to enter his junior year of college as a music major, and already knew far more about the Baroque period than I ever will. My paltry vocal experience, spanning about five years, seemed like kindergarten level in comparison.

I was not at all sure why the programme faculty would possibly want me to join this erudite group, even as a “Participating Auditor.” What could they have heard in my audition CD or read in my application letter that prompted them to crack open the door to their silvery castle long enough for me to slip in?

I kept reminding myself that I know a lot of stuff about a lot of stuff. And yes, this is true. But my colleague's depth of knowledge about things musical was astonishing to me. And their voices!

In a foreign world

So I was in a strange land, among people who did not always speak my language. Like all travellers, I felt lost and alone from time to time, but these natives were kind and gracious in their willingness to share their culture with me.

I happily soaked up information on inflection, vocal technique, breath control and performance presentation. I learned all about Baroque gesture, which I am relieved to say has nothing at all to do with modern gesture, such as one performs (usually irately) while driving!

The group prepared a couple of major works together. We performed excerpts from the opera Dido and Aeneas by Henry Purcell, as well as the semi-opera Venus and Adonis by John Blow and Les Arts Florissants, a chamber opera by Marc-Antoine Charpentier.

In the morning, people took turns singing various roles of the opera pieces. Our main vocal instructor was Ellen Hargis, a soprano who teaches in Chicago and performs extensively in the US and internationally. Our afternoons were spent learning Baroque dance and gesture with Stephen Adby (a dance instructor from the UK who comes to Canada each summer to teach at this course), which was incredibly fun.

Two weeks isn't long enough to prepare a full opera, of course, but at the end of the session we performed what we had learned for the faculty and whoever else happened to be around to watch. It was an amazing privilege for me to be on stage with that calibre of talent.

Although I was prepared to learn a lot — and I did — there were a number of things for which I was thoroughly unprepared. I was profoundly moved by the willingness of each performer to courageously lay themselves open in singing before the group. After all, an instrumentalist can always point the finger of blame for a poor performance on his instrument, but a singer’s flaws are theirs alone.

Singing in a master class is a little like presenting at medical rounds where the entire audience is made up of sub-specialists and you, the lowly medical student, are charged with presenting information that is contrary to established thought and practice. In other words, wildly intimidating.

I was delighted, then, to witness the blanket of kindness cushioning any critique offered by the faculty members during the master classes. With every correction they suggested (and it was indeed a suggestion, not a command), there was the related illumination of some more attractive aspect of the voice. This was not at all reminiscent of the medical teachings I recall in university or residency!

Artistic rigour

Where there was a parallel between music and medicine, however, concerned the dual concepts of evidence-based medicine and the well-researched musical performance. I was impressed by the intellectual rigour with which the group approached each piece of music, which stressed examining substantiating documents with a critical eye and always considering the sources. The difference for the audience member is not life or death as it might be for a patient, but it was refreshing to see that the quest for excellence thrives in academic spheres outside of our own.

I suppose my ignorance dates back to university days, when my science buddies and I considered arts students less serious somehow. Once accepted into the hallowed halls of medicine, we fairly bobbed and floated on a happy and insular cloud of self-worth. I confess this bias did not fully abate after graduation, when the frenetic pace of professional and personal life allowed little time for deep reflection on academic realms outside of medicine.

I was taken completely by surprise one morning when, listening to a colleague sing a piece of music, I suddenly noticed tears falling onto my shirt. The room had fallen away, leaving me with nothing in the world but the pure beauty of the singer’s voice. I was lost. It was at that precise moment that I realised the truest lesson of all: the singer’s job is not simply to sing pretty notes, but to move hearts. All the tools, trills and other ornaments only serve to strengthen the expression of the performance, they are not the performance itself.

Finally, I was unprepared for the emotional bond that developed within the group over what was really a very short period of time. Perhaps in part due to the stress inherent in the performing arts, perhaps because we were all away from our normal lives, we all found it difficult to say goodbye.

In the weeks that followed the course, I still felt an achy tightness in my chest when I thought of the people I met on my musical journey. I wish them well in their world, which I had the privilege to share for a brief, glorious time.

I did indeed get to sing with a lute. I even got to sing with a harpsichord — though not particularly well!

But what I really gained, in those two magical weeks, was perspective. Although my technique will never match that of my talented colleagues, I now seek to find the power to move the audience in performance, to take them out of their everyday lives and perhaps provide a bit of respite.

Not such bad work for a doctor, after all.

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