Northwestern Medical Orchestra Builds Community Among Students, Faculty, Alumni, and Beyond
When Feinberg students Bettina Cheung and Michael Wang approached faculty member Gregory Brisson, MD, ’94 GME, for help starting an orchestra at the medical school, he recommended they “start slow.” They were full-time, first-year medical students with a heavy workload already. A month later, the pair returned to him and said they had 60 classmates interested in joining the group.
“So much for starting slow,” laughed Dr. Brisson, a clinical associate professor of Medicine in the Division of General Internal Medicine. Since 2018, the Northwestern Medical Orchestra (NMO) has grown to include nearly 100 musicians—including students, residents, faculty, staff, and alumni from across Northwestern Medicine—who have brought joy to audiences and each other during live and virtual performances and rehearsals over the last four years.
The Music-Medicine Connection
“Music and medicine both require a great deal of discipline, perseverance, a good memory, and technical skills. But the connection is deeper than that--music and medicine share the same DNA. Both are complex skills that are learned slowly. Everyone starts out feeling inadequate when they begin, but you gain competency over time. And you can't do them alone. You need exceptional teachers to be able to excel. The processes for mastering music and medicine are demanding, repetitive, and require lifelong learning. Both are incredibly creative and bring joy. I think music and medicine share a higher purpose, which is to improve people's lives and even heal.”
—Gregory Brisson, MD, ’94 GME
Building a sustainable orchestra came with financial costs: sheet music, a conductor stand, and a stipend for an artistic director, to name just a few. With support from donors and Feinberg’s Office of the Dean, the NMO was able to launch, and now a generous new gift from Dr. Brisson and his partner Kevin Toukoumidis helps ensure the NMO can thrive in perpetuity. Their gift establishes the Northwestern Medical Orchestra Endowed Fund, which will provide much needed funds that the medical school can grow through the support of other like-minded donors.
“We are determined to keep the out-of-pocket costs for student musicians low because we don’t want those to be a barrier for entry into the orchestra,” said Dr. Brisson, who serves as the NMO’s faculty advisor. “With the pandemic, the NMO’s opportunities to fundraise declined, but at the same time the need for the orchestra grew. We needed to preserve this community at a time when people were feeling so isolated. I decided that I needed to support the NMO to ensure that the organization could continue to grow and succeed.”
The NMO provides a multitude of benefits to everyone involved: It gives members a break from the intensity of medicine and time to pursue another passion. It also forges friendships and breaks down hierarchies separating students and faculty—and even patients, who have been able to attend NMO performances and listen in on rehearsals.
Dr. Brisson knows the mental health benefits of music first-hand. While an internal medicine resident at Northwestern, he would escape the demands of long nights on call by playing the piano in the hospital’s chapel during breaks. He grew up in a family that loved music and made his gift in memory of his parents. His mother, Elizabeth, was a nurse, and his father, John, a surgeon.
“They introduced me to my two passions—music and medicine—and I know they would be thrilled if they were here today to see the story of the NMO unfold,” Dr. Brisson said. His gift will help the NMO manage future expenses, including the costs of instruments and venues for performances.
“The Northwestern Medical Orchestra has been a source of inspiration and joy through my entire time in medical school,” shared Mr. Wang, now a fourth-year medical student. “It is amazing to see how much our musicians love playing in the orchestra and to become friends with people from many different parts of the medical community. Dr. Brisson, as our founding faculty advisor, has gone above and beyond in advocating for the orchestra, and I can't thank him enough for his role in growing the NMO to what it is today and supporting its future sustainability."
Dr. Brisson is grateful to support the NMO but insists that the musicians and their current artistic director/principal conductor, Taichi Fukumura, a doctoral graduate of Northwestern’s Bienen School of Music, deserve all the credit for the NMO’s success. He also wants to raise awareness of the orchestra and its impact—and inspire others to support the NMO or other initiatives at the medical school that are important to them.
“Funding has been critical in building this organization from the ground up,” he explained. “There is an incredible amount of talent among our medical students. Bettina and Michael are dynamos who are going to be great doctors and leaders in their fields. I wanted to do what I could to help them succeed.”
Register to attend the NMO’s Spring 2022 concert on May 6th. It is free and open to the public.
For more information about supporting the Northwestern Medical Orchestra or other student endeavors, please contact Larry Kuhn at email@example.com or 312-503-1717.
Alumni: Were you part of a Northwestern orchestra in your day? Did the arts play a role in your medical education or career that followed? Share your stories with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.