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Music as therapy – and not just for us!

20 July 2021 - Dr Cathy Fraser

It had been too long between concerts.

The NSW Doctors Orchestra’s concert “Harp to Heart” planned for March 2020 had to be rescheduled three times and then finally cancelled due to pandemic restrictions. With the social distancing rules, no stage could accommodate a full orchestra. String players couldn’t share desks, each needing their own stand spaced 1.5 meters apart, donned with masks. Wind and brass players needed to play preferably from behind a screen. Flute players were potentially the most infectious, requiring to be 3 meters away from anyone. And of course, we couldn’t raise funds without selling tickets. Even a maximum audience under the spacing limits would not cover costs incurred.

We are all missing the part that music used to play in our lives. Since 2004, NSW medical students and doctors who play a musical instrument have had the opportunity to balance their study and work lives with playing in the NSW Doctors Orchestra. In busy schedules, it always helps to have something specific to work towards, to motivate us to practice our instruments. The annual fundraising concert has fulfilled that need for many years, until last year when COVID hit. During these pandemic times, many of our members have confessed to unfortunately neglecting their instruments. This is equivalent to a sportsman stopping training. We can’t expect to keep up skills and techniques without practice. Not having a ‘marathon’ to train for stopped musicians in their tracks.

Early in the 2021 new year, motivated by a resolution to work on a repertoire of new solos, I picked up my flute again, safely distanced from anybody. If I couldn’t play with anyone, at least I could work at playing on my own. While practicing a favourite passed on to me by a local composer, my mind started wandering. Wouldn’t it be good to let others hear this beautiful new piece? How could I share it? How to perform it without too much pressure? Could I just play it for friends and family? Why not rather to musical medical colleagues? This is how my idea of a Musicus Medicus soiree of chamber music in our home evolved. I discussed it with our orchestra committee - on Zoom of course - who were all enthusiastic. I put an invitation out to our database of about 200 members and was flooded with positive responses, some to play and others to listen. The risk was low, with no money involved for venue hire or other costs. If there was yet another shutdown, we would simply share news of cancellation by email. Then when the limit of visitors to a home in Sydney was suddenly reduced from 50 to 20, my heart sank. Just six days after that limit was lifted, we were fortunately able to hold our inaugural Sunday evening soiree after all. I had so many responses that we couldn’t fit them all into one event, so we have a second soiree planned for early July. I suspect it won’t be the last.

The music was followed by socialising over drinks and an array of snacks brought by everyone to share. It was a forgotten pleasure to reconnect in person with at least some of our group. One conversation that stood out was with one of our talented young flautists Dr Austin Lee, a senior surgical resident at Royal North Shore Hospital, who told us about recently playing music at work.

“As an avid flautist and a strong advocate of the power of music in medicine, I have always been seeking ways to add tunes into my patient care.” Austin says. “I have been fortunate enough to perform in the main foyer and various wards, enjoyed not only by the patients, but also their families and even our very own staff members. Music is very accessible and affordable, and most importantly, can act as the safest medication you can prescribe with minimal side effect profile (apart from the occasional palpitations you may experience while listening to Beethoven’s 5th symphony...!)”

Austin has even unexpectedly performed in front of some renowned Australian musicians who were inpatients.  After playing the ‘Irlandaise’ from Claude Bolling’s Jazz Flute Suite, a patient said to Austin “I feel treated now”. That patient was Wilfred Lehmann OAM, internationally acclaimed violinist, conductor and composer. Just a month later, Austin found himself playing for local renowned pianist and composer Albert Landa. “Unforgettable for me.” he said. If you suspect that Austin is getting as much out of playing music than his listeners are, you’re probably right. We all do it for the love of it. We believe that taking care of our creative health helps us in our work, and contributes to being well in other parts of our lives.

Musicus Medicus is keen to stage a chamber music concert at a small affordable venue later in the year, with donations at the door in aid of a charity.  In the meantime, we have an online masterclass planned in July with a doctor conductor, which will be another chance for members to interact. Nothing will substitute for playing together in person in an orchestra, but until then we’ll keep doing what we can.

Dr Cathy Fraser
Dr Cathy Fraser

Dr Cathy Fraser is a flautist who played in the inaugural concert of the Australian Doctors Orchestra (ADO) in 1993, and has played in almost every concert since then. She is the founder and President of Musicus Medicus (NSW Doctors Orchestra).

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