The Arts and Medicine

HMS students and medical professionals apply lessons from the arts to medicine

Longwood Symphony Orchestra. Image: Steven Vote

While the arts and sciences might sometimes be viewed as opposite ends of a spectrum, students and faculty at Harvard Medical School are embracing a convergence between these fields and seeing the benefits of artistic practice in their medical careers.

Several music groups on the HMS campus offer students and other members of the Longwood medical community an artistic outlet outside of their medical training or practices. The HMS Chamber Music Society, made up of more than 30 students, provides an opportunity for student musicians to connect and form ensembles.

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“Playing music serves as a creative outlet that allows me to disengage from medicine and to relax. Given that creating music relies on collaboration between individuals, I find that it is also a wonderful way to meet new friends and to connect based on our shared art,” said HMS student Enchi Chang, the current head of the Chamber Music Society.

Chang, a first-year student at HMS, plays violin in the Longwood Symphony Orchestra, which has brought medical professionals together to play music and benefited nonprofits for more than three decades.

Inspired by the Longwood Symphony Orchestra, HMS students Pamela Chen and Abra Shen decided to create an equivalent for singers. This fall they formed the Longwood Chorus, which is currently made up of 16 vocalists from HMS and the Longwood medical community.

“I knew that medical school would definitely be one of the largest challenges and stressors I have undertaken to date, and that, even if I felt like I had less time to do so, I would still need this creative and emotional outlet for my own mental health,” said Chen, who is in her second year at HMS.

“The art of music relies entirely on listening for the story and emotions in each piece, which is similar to how a physician listens for a patient's narrative and emotions.”

For many of those participating, the practice of music not only offers a way to de-stress but also provides further insight into the medical field.

“To me, the parallels between music, especially ensemble music, and the practice of medicine, are endless. Both require a foundational level of skill, built up over years of dedicated practice. But on top of that technical expertise, there is another layer of artistic interpretation,” said Chen. “Ultimately, both music and medicine are messy and ever-changing and human, and both can bring people together to heal.”

Some of the musicians have even found their artistic practice translates into better doctor-patient relationships.

“In the arts and as a clinician, the intangibles are really important. You have to be completely present to what’s going on, otherwise you’re going to miss cues, misdiagnose or not respond appropriately to a patient's discomfort,” said Isaac Chua, HMS instructor in medicine and a palliative care doctor at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and a member of the Longwood Chorus.

“Another parallel is in the art of listening and communicating without words,” said Chang. “The art of music relies entirely on listening for the story and emotions in each piece, which is similar to how a physician listens for a patient's narrative and emotions.”

Shen, co-founder and executive director of the Longwood Chorus and a second-year student at HMS, finds that artistic practice can simply provide a space to reflect.

“I remember the first time I cried after meeting a patient with pancreatic cancer. He felt hopeless, and I felt helpless. All I could do was write a poem. That act of reflection really helped me process not only what I was feeling but also helped me better perceive his perspective,” said Shen. “Taking moments to reflect and write, sing, paint, dance, perform—or any other artistic engagement—is immensely helpful in understanding ourselves and patients better.”

These parallels between the arts and medicine inspired the formation of the Arts and Humanities Initiative at HMS. Created just over three years ago, the initiative aims to better integrate the arts and humanities into the HMS community.

“The mission of the Arts and Humanities initiative is to promote and continue artistic practice that students come in doing, and to underscore that the integration of arts and humanities and medicine is a natural thing,” said Lisa Wong, co-director of the initiative and HMS assistant clinical professor of pediatrics at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Wong, who served as president of the Longwood Symphony Orchestra for more than 20 years, experienced firsthand the impact music can have on medical professionals.

“I discovered that there were all these wonderful people who were doing other art forms in medicine. We realized that it was all for the same reason, because it made us better doctors,” said Wong. “It gave us an outlet, but it also gave us an insight. We could hear our patients better and we could collaborate better. All those things that you want in a doctor, came through our training in the arts.”

The HMS Arts and Humanities Initiative supports the Chamber Music Society and Longwood Chorus by providing funding opportunities, assisting in event planning and inviting guest lecturers to the HMS campus.

The Longwood Chorus will be holding auditions in mid-January and welcomes any singers affiliated with the health care or scientific research communities. They also have an upcoming winter concert series on Dec. 12 and 13.