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Campus Life Education

Campus Musicians Find Balance Through Performance

Choir, orchestra use ‘different part’ of brain

Author Guest Contributor | Publish Date November 20, 2019

From handling our emotions to pain management and rehabilitation, science is starting to fill in the details on a phenomenon that most humans know intuitively: when we’re going through a tough time, music can help us feel better.

Enter the Music and Medicine Initiative (MAMI) at CU Anschutz, which helps musicians recharge through core principles of healing, outreach, and education/research. Therese (Tess) Jones, PhD, is chair of MAMI’s governing board, associate director of the Center for Bioethics and Humanities and associate professor in the Department of Medicine. “We wanted to create a way for people interested in music to connect with one another on campus,” Jones said.

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The CU Anschutz Orchestra

Musician, heal thyself

MAMI’s outreach efforts include the campus choir and orchestra. Collaborations with the College of Music at CU Boulder have produced orchestra director Renee Gilliland, MS, and choir director Jackie Pennell, MS, under whose leadership Jones said both organizations have flourished.

Relative to healing, Jones said, “We wanted to use the most general and expansive definition of healing, both for people who turn to music as a way to compartmentalize or a creative outlet, and for those who hear the performances.”

Jones reflected on a spring choir concert two years ago, when the parents of a first-year medical student told her that the choir made all the difference to their student’s experience. “The choir provided him with an entirely different set of colleagues and friends – something different from the day-to-day routine of studying, going to class and being anxious about tests.”

In addition to bi-yearly concerts which are free and open to the public, the choir and orchestra perform at venues including the Children’s Hospital Colorado, departmental celebrations, CU Foundation events, collaborations with CU Boulder and local area musicians, and the annual donor dinner gala.  

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The CU Anschutz Choir's winter concert will be held in two shows on Dec. 3 – at noon and 6:30 p.m. at Fulginiti Pavilion

Not a musician herself, Jones said, “Like most people, I truly love and appreciate music. It makes me feel better.” She added, “I keep threatening to join the choir.”

A different part of the brain

Orchestra President Priya Krishnan, a fourth-year medical student, has played violin since she was 8 years old. “Music has been an especially relieving outlet throughout medical school,” Krishnan said. “It’s nice to have something that harnesses a different part of the brain and that utilizes self-expression more than the analytical and memorization skills that we practice during med school.”

How does she find time to play? “The more stressed or busy I feel, the more I benefit from taking a break to immerse myself in a totally different type of experience, like music or writing. Even though our rehearsals can come at the end of a busy day, I always feel I benefit from exercising the creative ‘muscles’ that music requires,” she explained.

Currently in the process of applying to general surgery residency programs, Krishnan said that standing at the juncture of a major life transition has made music especially grounding. “Music has definitely taught me to be a better team member and to problem-solve creatively – skills that translate tangibly to my passion for surgery.” 

She added, “Playing music with our campus community fosters a spirit of camaraderie at the end of a long week, and I think many of us feel fulfilled having the opportunity to share in the emotional and artistic experience of performing together.”

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Brian Lloyd, a third-year MD/PhD student and president of the CU Anschutz Choir

Keeping the music alive

The demands of post-baccalaureate training can often leave students feeling like they lose themselves in their studies. With over 15 years’ experience singing, Brian Lloyd, third-year MD/PhD student and president of the choir, was excited to find a place where he could keep performing during grad school. “It’s a way to keep the music part of me alive at this time, and it’s convenient that it’s right here on campus,” he said.

Lloyd credited music as a necessary part of his stress-management plan, and said he sleeps better when he makes music regularly. “It’s like after a workout – my mind is cleared.”

Though the upcoming concerts take place the week before finals, Lloyd isn’t too worried about choir practice interfering with studying. “When I’m in the library doing flashcards for hours on end for med school exams, I can take a break to go sing and help myself relax.” He added, “It’s a nice way to burn off some steam at the end of the day.”

Lloyd has also made a few friends through the choir and said that making music together is a good way to connect with others. “It’s good to see people from other programs from all over campus so you’re not alone in your own silo.”

When asked about vocal talent requirements, Lloyd emphasized that the choir is composed of a lot of people who’ve never sung in a choir. “You don’t even have to know how to read music,” he said. “If you like singing, just come and have fun. We want everyone to feel welcome.”

The choir’s winter concert will be held in two shows on Dec. 3 – from noon to 1 p.m. and from 6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at the Fulginiti Pavilion. Concerts are free and open to the public. To learn more, contact the choir at anschutzcampuschoir@gmail.com and the orchestra at amcorchestra@gmail.com.

Those interested can contribute to the MAMI fund.

Photo at top: Priya Krishnan, CU Anschutz Orchestra president and fourth-year medical student, has played violin since she was 8 years old. 

Guest contributor: Shawna Matthews, a CU Anschutz postdoc