DURHAM — Several years after Shannon O’Connor started taking violin lessons, her teacher sat her down to talk about long-term goals. O’Connor was not yet 10 years old, growing up in Montana. But her ability was already apparent to her teacher.
“She told me, ‘You’re great, you’re wonderful, you could do this,’ ” O’Connor recalled. “‘Or you could cure cancer.’ I wanted to go the cure-cancer route.”
So O’Connor went in the direction of medicine as she progressed through school, and she’s now a graduate student in biomedical engineering at Duke University. She also managed to maintain a side career in music, playing in orchestras through college – until hitting the demanding regimen of medical school.
But then O’Connor found the Duke Medicine Orchestra, a group predicated on striking a balance between music and high-pressure medicine. O’Connor was among the first to join when the orchestra started in 2010, rising to first violinist and concertmaster.
For her and the rest of the ensemble’s members, music is a way to take a break from the rigors of the lab, ward or operating room. Still, it’s less of a respite than you’d think.
“I wouldn’t necessarily call it a respite, because it’s no less challenging than medicine or scientific research,” O’Connor said. “But it’s a vastly different challenge that brings together a very diverse group to focus all our attention on one thing. It’s healing for us, I think. There are a lot of physicians working huge hours in ICU wards, very intensely giving their time to patients. For a couple of hours each week, we give hours to ourselves and each other and to music.”
Duke Medicine Orchestra formed under the auspices of the university’s Health Arts Network and Multicultural Resource Center. Modeled after the University of Michigan’s Life Sciences Orchestra and the Longwood Symphony Orchestra in Boston, it’s open to anyone connected to the Duke health system (which includes the medical school, nursing school and Global Health Institute as well as the hospital).
The group started with about 30 members, a number that has grown to more than 80 from several dozen departments across Duke’s health system – surgeons as well as students, from pharmacy to finance. Nick Bandarenko is president and plays clarinet, while overseeing the blood bank at Duke Hospital as director of transfusion services.
“It allows us to focus on something else, to use different skills and take off our usual hats and responsibilities,” said Bandarenko. “We come together as equals, true colleagues, which helps build and develop professionalism. In the orchestra, there will be a surgeon right next to a med-school student. They’re of the same importance.”
Like O’Connor, Bandarenko grew up studying and playing music, putting it aside during medical school. He jumped at the chance to get back into it when the orchestra started, getting his clarinet back out and studying with N.C. Symphony clarinetist Jimmy Gilmore. Last year, when Duke Medicine Orchestra’s founding president Barbara Kamholz took a job in San Francisco and had to leave, Bandarenko stepped up as president.
As the orchestra has grown, it has started to take on more challenging repertoire. The group plays its spring concert Sunday, a program that includes Dvorak’s “From the New World” and Shostakovich’s “Festive Overture in A Major.” As a measure of the group’s growing ambitions, there are plans to record the concert; the music might wind up on the patient-television system at Duke Hospital.
“Some selections might be appropriate for health care settings,” Bandarenko said. “Some that are slower and sweeter.”
Playing in the Duke Medicine Orchestra isn’t a small commitment. In addition to the big spring and fall concerts, the group plays dress-rehearsal shows at area hospitals and rehearses 2 1/2 hours per week (to say nothing of the individual practice time involved). Rehearsals tend to be businesslike affairs, usually at Duke’s music building; it’s not unusual for doctors or nurses to show up in hospital scrubs.
“It is a challenge because of the demands of health care schedules,” said Bandarenko. “Members are very agile at preserving their rehearsal time. That’s another indicator of how dedicated they are.”
Jamie Walker, who works in administration at Duke Hospital and is principal cellist in the orchestra, had a pretty typical pre-entrance experience. He was trying to figure out if he had enough time to spare, until his instrumental mentor from high school and college spoke up.
“She reminded me that all sorts of offices and organizations have sports teams,” Walker recalled. “But how many have something dedicated to the arts? And she told me, ‘You have to make time to do this,’ and of course she was right. It’s been wonderful. Far from being a drain, if anything it’s energized me.”
Prospective members have to audition for conductor/artistic director Verena Mosenbichler-Bryant, a visiting assistant professor of music at Duke. Since it’s a volunteer group of non-professionals, there are some who “need to get their skills back up,” Bandarenko said. Along with time management, the group’s other major challenge is finding music that everyone can do.
“It’s all about finding that common ground,” Walker said. “Verena does a really good job of holding us to a high artistic standard while keeping the critiques constructive. You don’t leave rehearsals feeling beaten down, and I’ve been in other groups that left you feeling defeated. I never leave Verena’s rehearsals that way. These are amateur musicians, so music is their passion, not their vocation.”
As for Mosenbichler-Bryant, she’s pleased with the group’s progress. And working with a group of medical professionals has some side benefits, too.
“If I ever fall off the podium,” Mosenbichler-Bryant said, “I’m sure there will be enough people in the room to help me out.”
Menconi: 919-829-4759 or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat