As it enters its seventh year, the Northwestern Medical Orchestra (NMO) is hitting a high note with continued growth among its musicians as well as its audience. The orchestra, founded by Feinberg medical students in 2018 with a goal of providing a musical outlet for healthcare professionals and the surrounding community, performed in Thorne Auditorium last month to a full house of more than 500, with more viewing the performance virtually.
“Every seat in Thorne was filled, and we also had some audience members standing in the back—500 in person and 200 over the livestream,” said Bettina Cheung, NMO co-founder and co-president, who is also a seventh-year Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP) student. “Our last few concerts have had the same level of attendance, and having a packed house definitely adds a palpable excitement to the performance.”
The orchestra, comprised of medical students, faculty, staff and alumni from across the Northwestern Medicine family, has grown from a group of about 50 musicians when it began to now more than 100. They also run a chamber music program and wind ensemble and with four performances a year, are now a year-round group.
Cheung attributes the popularity of NMO programs to how important and rewarding making music is at every level and in any field.
“We’ve really tried to continue to grow our offerings and provide high-quality experiences for larger and larger amounts of musicians every year,” Cheung said.
“There is this great energy in the orchestra that I think is very attractive to new students as well as staff, physicians and community members,” said Jennifer Huang, NMO principal conductor and artistic director, and a recent graduate of Northwestern Bienen School of Music. “Just as our community is growing with every concert that we hold, that is similarly happening within the orchestra,” she said.
Angela Yang, fourth-year medical student and co-president of the orchestra, said that over the years, many of their members have commented on how special NMO has been during their time at Northwestern.
“Personally, music has been a core part of my identity ever since I was young; in another life, I may have pursued a career in music instead of medicine. I think where the two fields overlap is that they are both providing a service to the community. The work that we do as an orchestra touches many lives, and I can only hope it brings a sense of healing and well-being to both our performers and audience members alike,” Yang said.
Cheung emphasized that the first two values in the NMO mission statement are community and well-being, and that they truly make those a priority.
“Our musicians have said in the past that NMO is their ‘cure for burnout.’ We’ve also had housestaff tell us that participating in the orchestra has been such a positive influence on their well-being, especially as they find themselves in the most challenging and demanding part of their medical training,” said Cheung. “One bonus of doing so in a community like NMO is meeting other healthcare professionals in all different fields and stages of training. For example, medical students are playing side-by-side with attendings, residents, nurses and physical therapists. I’ve even heard that some students have actually met their Area of Scholarly Concentration (AOSC) mentors through the orchestra,” Cheung said.
According to Yang, several of NMO’s first-year medical students have mentioned how the orchestra was a significant factor when considering medical school options, and that it has since become one of their favorite parts of being at Feinberg.
Huang underscored the parallels between medicine and music.
“The skills required to perform an instrument at a high level under a lot of pressure are very similar to what you would need to have in an operating room or on the floor of an emergency room, and dealing with patients,” Huang said. “And so, I find that people in the medical field make brilliant, passionate and very disciplined musicians.”
The recent concert, held December 15, also brought the Chicago and Evanston Northwestern campuses together in a special way with the orchestra performing a composition by Bienen School of Music’s new dean, Jonathan Bailey Holland, PhD.
“There has been a history of Bienen musicians being involved with the Northwestern Medical Orchestra, both in terms of conductors and performers,” Holland said. “Many who study music, either as a concentration in college or graduate school, or at some other time, feel that it is an essential component of their lives regardless of their primary vocation, and it is fantastic to see that the orchestra is a popular offering that is able to welcome so many performers into its ranks.”
Cheung said that one of NMO’s priorities is diverse programming, and so the orchestra was pleased to collaborate with Holland to workshop and perform his piece, “Dream Elegy.” The orchestra also performed Gustav Holst’s “Jupiter from The Planets” and John Williams’ “Star Wars Suite.”
“It was so wonderful working with a living composer once again! Dean Holland was kind enough to both introduce his piece during the concert as well as stick around for our post-concert reception. It’s a really special experience for both our musicians and audience to be able to interact with the composer and music in a new way,” Cheung said.
Another attraction for NMO musicians is the opportunity to rehearse and perform in the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab. Patients and their families stop to listen during rehearsals, and NMO collaborates with the Therapeutic Recreation and Volunteer teams to bring down patients to special concerts held there.
“It’s an experience that many of our musicians find really fulfilling,” said Cheung.
The next NMO performance, a Winter Chamber Music Concert, is scheduled for February 23 in Hughes Auditorium.