The Music of Science

The Life Sciences Orchestra at the U-M combines music and medicine.

By Kara Gavin
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Carl Engelke could have been a professional musician.

Instead, he’s helping develop new therapeutic strategies to treat cancer as he works toward an M.D. and a Ph.D. His trumpet may have taken a back seat to science, but you wouldn’t know it from listening to him play.

Ellen Janke, (M.D. 1989, Residency 1993) once had a violin teacher warn her about the hard life of a musician — so she chose a path to medicine instead. Now, the same hands that she uses to adjust anesthesia gases for U-M surgical patients also help her navigate the lightning-quick notes of major symphonies.

And Bernhard Muller (M.D. 1964), who started on violin in fourth grade, remembers medical school study sessions accompanied by the sounds of a professor’s string quartet. He kept up his own playing throughout his medical training and decades as a pulmonologist, and now livens up retirement using his late uncle’s viola.

Coming Together

Every Sunday night, Engelke, Janke and Muller join with 62 others from across the spectrum of U-M’s life science community to form one of the nation’s unique symphonic ensembles.

Called the Life Sciences Orchestra, or LSO, it welcomes faculty, staff, students and alumni from across the Medical School and broader Health System, and many of U-M’s other health and life sciences schools, colleges and departments.

For a few hours, they can forget the demands of classes and caseloads, laboratory experiments and work deadlines, patients and prototypes. They can set aside the fact that they’re nurses and dental students, biomedical engineers and health economists, medical students and lab technicians, physicians and environmental scientists.

Their rank in the academic universe — from undergraduate to professor emeritus — vanishes.

Every year or two, the LSO welcomes a new conductor, as doctoral students get placed in the post by Kenneth Kiesler, who heads the School of Music, Theatre and Dance’s world-renowned orchestral conducting studio.

Past LSO conductors now lead ensembles around the nation, from Seattle to Nevada, and cite the orchestra as one of their formative conducting experiences.

This season, Roberto Kalb holds the LSO baton, as the Gilbert S. Omenn Music Director. He splits his time between Ann Arbor and St. Louis, where he conducts members of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra as part of his job as assistant conductor to Opera Theater of Saint Louis. A native of Mexico, he’s an award-winning composer as well as conductor.

Twice a year, the LSO shares its music with the community through free concerts at Hill Auditorium.

The next performance, on Sunday, April 24 at 4 p.m., features an ambitious program: the entire first act of Puccini’s opera “La Bohème,” complete with national-level vocalists, a concerto for organ by Poulenc, and Gershswin’s famous “An American in Paris.”

Let’s Put on a Show

The LSO got its start in 2000 as the idea of a first-year U-M otolaryngology resident who had played in a medical orchestra while at Harvard Medical School. He approached the director of the Health System’s Gifts of Art program, Elaine Sims, about starting such a group in Ann Arbor.

Though most of her programs to date had focused on bringing art and music directly into U-M’s health care environment, Sims knew a good idea when she heard one.

“There is a well-documented connection between music and those who pursue careers in medicine,” she says. “In the first week we put up flyers on the medical campus advertising for an orchestra, 120 people responded. It fell into place quite quickly and easily, and we presented our first concert in early 2001.”

Years later, still the LSO’s “stage mother,” Sims watches the performances with pride. It all pays off: the rehearsing by the members; the preparation by the conductors; the work by Gifts of Art staff to handle the business of running an orchestra; the shoe-leather fundraising and publicity.

“The end product is an amateur orchestra which twice a year mounts the stage with the ease and grace of professionals, and dazzles its sizeable audience with the gift of music,” she says. “At the same time, the LSO helps our members build community, reduce stress, foster creativity and nourish the essence that gives meaning to our lives.”

And that young otolaryngologist who sparked the idea? He’s associate vice president and associate dean for Health Equity and Inclusion David Brown, M.D. Though he’s taking a break from the LSO to focus on his new role, he still practices his flute regularly.

The Harvard-area orchestra that sparked the idea for the LSO only included members of the medical community. But U-M’s innovation — including people from many fields and professions, linked by life science — has now spawned its own imitators. From North Carolina to New Mexico to Texas, LSO-like ensembles have sprung up over the past decade.

Mastering Music Together

For longtime LSO members like Michael DiPietro, M.D., a pediatric radiology faculty member and ultrasound specialist at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, the orchestra offers a unique opportunity.

“For most LSO members, music is an avocation. We do it because we love it. Had music and fine arts not been available to us in our early education along with all the science, there would now be a hole in our lives,” says the bassoon player.

The fact that the LSO gets to perform in one of America’s finest concert halls, on the same stage where countless professionals have played, adds to the experience. So does sharing that music with an appreciative audience.

Says DiPietro, “Many work colleagues attend our concerts with their families. Some have told me that they had never before attended a symphony concert and quickly became devoted fans of classical music because of the LSO.”

Janke, who serves with DiPietro on the orchestra’s volunteer executive committee, also appreciates how the LSO brings colleagues together as musicians and audience members.

“I never cease to be amazed by the musical talent that exists within the Health System, and in the broader reaches of the life sciences,” she says. “I cannot imagine not playing the violin, and I am so glad I have had the opportunity to keep playing nonprofessionally. It is crucial for me to maintain interests outside of work.”

Muller, the orchestra’s oldest member and resident photographer, says he particularly values the contact with people of all ages. “It is easy for an old geezer like me to become stuck in elder activities; contact with such a diverse age group helps keep me active and optimistic.”

On the other end of the LSO’s age range, but just a few seats away in the violin section, Jenna Devare, M.D., agrees. “The LSO provides me with a wonderful opportunity to continue making beautiful music and to collaborate with U-M physicians, scientists and trainees in a new context, helping to balance my life as an otolaryngology resident,” she says. “I am lucky to be a part of such a multitalented group.”

For more information about the April 24 concert, please visit the Life Science Orchestra's website