Hum a Few Bars
Song and singing round out the professional and personal lives of physicians
Five HMS alumni—Suzie Brown ’02, William Green ’54, Christopher Austin ’86, Chinyere Obimba ’12, and Carlin Chi ’98—reflect on the place singing has in their lives.
“Writing songs brings me joy; it lets me document the phases of my life.”
“I know it sounds cliché to say, ‘I’ve always been singing,’ ” says Suzie Brown ’02, “but I have. My parents loved folk music. We would sing Pete Seeger songs while my dad played guitar. When I was older, I would obsessively learn the words to my favorite songs in the Top 40.”
Brown still has a life filled with music. A successful singer-songwriter with a number of folk/Americana albums under her belt (her latest was released in late September), Brown tours several times a year with her husband and musical partner, Scot Sax. The music and the tours provide counterpoint to her career as a physician: She works part-time as a cardiologist and assistant professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville.
This balance was not achieved easily or quickly. Although her years at HMS provided some musical outlets—a role in the Longwood Players’ production of Hair, open-mic nights singing covers—she didn’t think of music as anything but a sideline. Yet toward the end of her fellowship in translational research at the University of Pennsylvania, Brown began doubting her goal of a full-time career in academic medicine.
“All I could think about was music and learning songs. Then I wrote my first song and sang it at an open-mic night. One show led to another, and I realized that playing music made me happier than almost anything else.”
“I had finished my cardiology boards,” she adds, “so I applied for part-time jobs in cardiology so that I would have more time to dedicate to music.”
Music also helps her maintain herself as a physician. “I used to feel a little sapped, dry, as a full-time physician. Having music in my life gives me a way to build myself back up again. I’m just a happier, more giving doctor now.”
Brown receives many emails and calls asking her how she achieved success as both a physician and a singer. “It took a lot of hard work and sacrifice,” she admits. “There has to be some up-front sacrifice to get where you want to go.”
Today, Brown also sings lullabies for her baby girl. Does she hope her daughter will go into music?
“My husband and I hope she’ll love music but hope to God she won’t be a professional musician,” says Brown. “We joke that she’ll become an actuary, just to rebel against her musician parents.”
“I think perhaps my voice sounds better now than it ever did.”
William Green ’54 has retired from his internal medicine practice and now lives in University House, a retirement community in Seattle. Although he participates in the community’s monthly sing-along, since 2011 he has also joined his voice with those of about fifty other members of Seattle’s Sacred Music Chorale for practices and performances throughout the year. The chorale, which focuses on Christian music, boasts a large roster of female voices. It also, says Green, includes a core of bass voices—his and those of fourteen other men. “We’re recruiting,” he notes.
It was classmate J. Donald Ostrow ’54 who, in 2011, encouraged Green, a recent widower, to join the chorale. Although Ostrow and Green sang together at HMS—“We sang ridiculous parody songs for the Second Year Show”—Green largely was on a vocal hiatus during his years at Harvard College and HMS. Those were years of change for Green, when he moved from his hometown of Berkeley, California, to Boston and transitioned from his family’s roots in the Church of Christ to “well, I guess I’d now be labeled an agnostic.”
His love of singing, however, always ran deep and true.
“I was part of a family that sang a lot,” says Green. “In our church, we sang a cappella. Our director of singing was called the song leader. My grandfather was a song leader, and my uncle was a song leader. I became one during World War II.”
“My family occasionally made records,” Green adds. “I would sing bass; my grandfather, tenor; my aunt, alto; and my mother would sing soprano.” High school found Green involved in song through glee club and a role in Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta The Pirates of Penzance. Then came life as a physician, with little time for song.
His participation in the chorale, however, has revived Green’s interest in music, with songs from the chorale’s repertoire, and songs from his youth, weaving themselves through his personal life.
Does that means he sings them in the shower?
Never, he says, then pauses. Well, hardly ever.
“Singing is a lot like medicine—it’s a calling. You feel you have to do it.”
It may have been kismet or simply a response to efficiency but Christopher Austin’s decision to enter HMS rested on the fact that the School’s acceptance letter arrived before his acceptance to a conservatory did. “I thought, gosh, I got into Harvard Medical School,” Austin ’86 recalls. “I can’t turn that down.”
It was the singing lessons he took during his undergraduate years at Princeton University that stoked Austin’s enthusiasm for singing, particularly for singing opera. “I got hooked,” he says.
“There’s an awful lot of training that’s necessary to be a good singer,” Austin says. “In fact, singing is sometimes referred to as ‘ ballet for the vocal tract.’ ” Gross anatomy class made him appreciate further the importance of vocal training. “It helped me to know what the muscles of the vocal tract looked like. I was aware of their delicacy. What singers require these tiny muscles to do is really Herculean.”
Austin has been making some notable demands on his vocal tract since those college voice lessons. He sang in two operas as an undergraduate. One that was staged during his senior year, Fidelio, Beethoven’s only opera, led to an invitation to perform in it at Alice Tully Hall in New York City. So, during his first year at HMS, Austin shuttled between Boston and New York.
While at HMS, Austin sang in three groups: the Boston Cecilia; the choir at Trinity Church; and, as Austin dubs it, “an infamous harmony group called The Testostertones,” a vocal group comprising Austin and three HMS ’86 classmates. Later, a move to Philadelphia led to more opera performances and to appearances with the New York Metropolitan Opera.
“I’ve been fortunate,” says Austin. “I’ve been able to do medicine and sing at the highest levels. I think what drove me to both medicine and music is that they are fundamentally about the same curiosity—the search for what makes humans tick. The kind of crucible that life represents. And both can be healing.”
As director of the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences at the National Institutes of Health, Austin has had to put performing largely on hold for the past three years. It’s been tough. During one bereft-of-song period, Austin came home in a bad mood. He recalls his daughter’s treatment recommendation, “ ‘Dad, what you need is a rehearsal.’ ”
Austin adds, “She was right.”
“I love the way you can use your voice as an instrument.”
After her first year in medical school, Chinyere Obimba ’12 began a project in Brazil. She was in the home of her host family one day, singing softly to herself. The mother of the family overheard her, and, as Obimba recalls, said, “Wow, when you sing in Portuguese you have no accent at all!”
“That was wonderful,” says Obimba, who is a family physician in a federally qualified health center in Seattle. “For me, Brazilian Portuguese is one of the more beautiful languages for song.” In addition to jazz, Obimba ranks Brazilian music, especially bossa nova and música popular brasileria, as her favorite musical genre to sing.
When Obimba speaks of her love of song and singing it’s easy to imagine her glowing, transported by the pure joy of song. A member of an extended family of skilled musicians, she sang, and wrote stories, from an early age. “When I was four years old, I would ask my mother to write down the stories I told her.” That combined affection means Obimba often learns the stories behind the songs she loves, such as the story behind “Águas de Março” or the “Waters of March,” a bossa nova piece written by Antônio Carlos Jobim.
“Jobim was reflecting on what a flood had done to his property,” she explains. “He just describes the mundane things around him: a stick, a stone, the end of the road. He’s painting a picture. It seems nonsensical, but it’s so light and happy that I enjoy singing it.”
The power of song to uplift appeals to Obimba. “I concentrated on integrative medicine during my residency and learned that compassion and love for self were important to achieve before trying to heal others. Singing is one of those things I love about myself. Knowing that helps me treat patients who are themselves struggling.”
It’s only in the past few years that Obimba has allowed herself to consider developing her skill further. Recent performances at a small club in Seattle has fueled this thought.
“It’s awesome,” she says, “but whenever I start a gig, I introduce myself by saying, ‘Well, guys, get ready to hear a shower singer.’ But I’m becoming more confident in my abilities.”
“Music and singing are integral to my work and my life. They bring me the peace and balance that help me be the type of physician, parent, and person I want to be.”
During her third year at Harvard College, Carlin Chi ’98 joined the Harvard-Radcliffe Chorus.
“I’d always enjoyed singing,” she says. “In fact, I started singing to myself—folk songs, campfire songs, and such—as a kid, while walking the dog. But I knew I would enjoy being part of a group, making music more formally, and being able to sing big classical pieces.” The community aspect and the laid-back nature of the Cambridge-based chorus worked for her.
Chi now works as a family physician at the Petaluma Health Center in Petaluma, California. Every Tuesday, she rushes off to rehearsal with the San Francisco Choral Society. That group’s sense of community, as well as its musical repertoire, also suits her.
Works from what Chi describes as the more romantic era of choral music appeal to her. “I actually joined the Choral Society when they were performing Verdi’s Requiem,” she recalls. “I’d never sung it before, and I really wanted to.”
Chi can link personal milestones to the music she and the group were singing at a given time.
“There are many people who enjoy Carl Orff’s cantata based on the Carmina Burana. I have special memories of that work. I rehearsed it for the first time, and was about to perform it with the chorale, when my son was born. I didn’t get to sing it in concert that time, but seven years later, I finally got to sing it.”
Chi shares her love of music and singing with her patients. “I find that my patients like knowing that I have other interests,” she says. “It’s similar to how people want to hear about your kids. It’s another point of connection.”
It’s also a way for her to stay grounded, to relax.
“I remember days when I was a resident when I was so tired I didn’t want to go to rehearsal,” she says. “But I don’t even think about that anymore. I know that once I get about halfway through rehearsal, everything else—the stress, the fatigue—goes away. I relax and focus on the music.”
Chi hopes that her children will enjoy music as she does. “My partner is very musical, too,” she laughs, “so I think there’s a good chance they will.”
Just for good measure, she sings to them.
Ann Marie Menting is editor of Harvard Medicine magazine.
Photos: Lisa Schaffer (Brown); Michael Schmidt (Green and Obimba); Cory Weaver (Austin); and Edward Caldwell (Chi)