On various Tuesday evenings, the student lounge in Vanderbilt Hall transforms from a place of study to a creative sanctuary. It fills with the harmonizing voices of students, faculty, physicians and researchers from the Longwood Medical area who carve a few hours out of their hectic schedules each week to come together and sing.
“When you’re all listening together, and you’re all communicating intensely, you get this spark of emotional energy that can translate to an audience ... that they can really appreciate,” said Iris Chan, assistant music director for the Longwood Chorus and a research assistant in the Zon Lab at Boston Children’s Hospital.
Two years ago, Harvard Medical School students Abra Shen and Pamela Chen came up with the idea of forming the Longwood Chorus in an effort to address burnout and improve well-being among medical personnel. What started as a 12-member group is now a 75-person chorus.
“What makes us special is that we are almost entirely composed of scientists and clinicians. We are a little bit internally focused in that we try to make the day-to-day better for our members, using music as a tool to do that,” said Christopher Chen, current president of the Longwood Chorus.
The majority of the singers have demanding jobs in health care and science, but no matter their research or their specialty, Chen said, the music provides chorus members with a common language.
“Music is such a big part of these people’s lives; and when things get tough, if it’s in the clinic or doing experiments, being able to turn to music is great. It’s great as a stress relieving thing and it’s great for your soul,” said Chen, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Neurobiology at HMS.
Jeremy Faust, the chorus conductor, is an attending emergency medicine physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Brigham Faulkner Hospital. He said he studies for his conducting duties the way he would study for a board exam in terms of how much he has to commit to memory.
“Choral music in general is such a beautiful art form to be a part of, and it is such a special part of many peoples’ lives for those who do it. But to be able to combine that with people who you also share professional interests with is just a really remarkable and amazing opportunity,” said Faust, who is also HMS instructor in emergency medicine at Brigham and Women’s.
Health and well-being
Chorus members who serve the community by day create beautiful music together at night. They work to improve each other’s vocal skills, and some say without this cross-institutional chorus, many members might not ever have a chance to interact with one another.
“It's kind of nice to know there are so many people out there who … understand a lot of the toils that occur in your every day professional life, whether that is in a residency or it’s an emotional burden involved with working in the hospital or working in research,” said Chan. “There's many frustrations that can happen along the way, but being surrounded by those people outside of work and coming together to make music and enjoy the art form of music is just really beautiful.”
When many singers first arrive at rehearsal they seem tired, but by the time they leave, they look refreshed, energetic and excited, Faust said.
At one recent rehearsal, fully animated while conducting, Faust had chorus members beaming with admiration and enthusiasm. It was difficult to differentiate singers who had just come straight from a 12-hour shift from those who had yet to clock in.
David Mazumder, an MD-PhD student, is the Longwood Chorus’s financial manager.
“Just having that musical outlet as part of your life in the Longwood area allows you to work more effectively and efficiently. It is something that really helps ease the stress of doing science and doing medicine in the hypercompetitive environment that is modern medicine and modern science funding,” said Mazumder.
For other singers, the chorus is unique in that it is specifically designated for those who love the arts as well as science and medicine.
“People in this group have more than just music in common. It’s another level of familiarity and community that I think is very unusual,” said Faust.
The chorus provides another outlet and a safe haven for people who spend the entirety of their days caring for others in a deeply emotional and physically exhausting way, said Mazumder.
The Longwood Chorus has nearly doubled in size over the past year and its leaders attribute its rapid growth to the positive impact it's had on the community.
Typically, rehearsals take place once a week throughout the chorus’s year-long season. Two concerts at the end of fall and spring semesters are the largest performance events. Throughout each semester, singers participate in smaller, community-centered events, such as seasonal caroling around Boston or small concerts in hospital lobbies.
“Usually people will just pass by and stop for a song or two as they are going on their way,” said Mazumder. “It’s really nice to have a moment to sing some really joyful music for the season, and it helps us get into the holiday spirit. And it really makes a big difference for a lot of the patients that we see passing by, and people who stop by and tell us, ‘You made my day.’”
Community events provide a personal way to give back, in contrast with the more structured and professional situations members engage in during their day-to-day work lives.
“I love teaching emergency medicine to residents and students. I love helping my patients ... My colleagues and I are happy to do what we do. But for me to be able to do what I do with music, and combining these things, it’s just amazing,” said Faust. “It’s very fulfilling and really gratifying.”
The goal of science and medicine is to improve people’s health and well-being and that’s the overarching goal of the arts, too, said Chan. Rehearsals and concerts provide a fertile environment for conversations, with singers sharing practical ideas about research and collaborations that can sometimes lead to networking opportunities.
“I had a chance to shadow one of the attending doctors in our choir back in September. We became friends and he said, ‘If you ever want to shadow me, just send me an email,’ and I was like, ‘Oh that’s so great. I would love to,’” said Chan.
Above all, chorus leaders hope the group inspires members and audiences by encouraging them to reflect on many aspects of their lives. They also want to explore the chorus's unique identity through discussions on the science behind what inspired various composers.
“Often there are examples in classical music where a composer composes a particular piece in grief for a friend or a loved one that just passed away from a particular disease or is expressing some frustration or joy that comes with recovery through their music,” said Mazumder. “And those kinds of stories give a whole new life and meaning to the music that we sing, both for us and for the audience.”
“Music is not just about me making music. It is about how it affects other people's moods. And there's so much to music that can affect people’s happiness,” said Chan. “I think that is something we can bring, as a choir, to other people too.”
For a schedule of upcoming performances or to learn more, visit the Longwood Chorus website.