Music Makes Good Medicine

Music Serves as Alternative Medicine for Students' Stressful Workload

While the primary focus for medical and graduate students at Einstein is keeping abreast of their studies — memorizing terminology, learning clinical skills, and/or running experiments — it’s important to balance the hard work with an outlet for alleviating the stresses that accompany such focus. Whether composing original music, jamming or performing the works of masters, for some, music offers the salve that can tame the stress beast.

For Alexander Pyronneau music is something he grew up with and hasn’t abandoned despite his rigorous M.D./Ph.D. studies. Encouraged by his guitarist father, the Staten Island native started piano lessons at age four, and “about ten years into my classical training I started to dabble in jazz,” he said. Then two years ago, “I e-mailed a bunch of students to see who was interested in a jazz band and got a whole bunch of responses.”

The Einstein Jazz Ensemble has played events ranging from the class of 2009’s award ceremony to a classmate’s wedding. They also do several shows a year at Coals, a popular bar/restaurant across the street from the Jack and Pearl Resnick Campus. “We’re trying to think of a catchier name for the band,” Mr. Pyronneau admitted.

Although members come and go as their schedules and graduations permit, the ensemble includes a variety of accomplished medical students, graduate students and faculty members. “Everyone has a very busy schedule, so we practice on Sundays for about two hours,” he continued. “Each of us picks a song we’re interested in and then we vote on the ones we all would like to play. Our selections include swing, Latin and some funk as well.”

Mr. Pyronneau occasionally goes back to his classical roots, as he recently did to team with Jennifer Lee to open the annual Sam Seifter Memorial Lecture. A member of the class of 2011, Ms. Lee has played violin since she was seven. By middle school, she was leaving her New Jersey hometown to go on the road with several youth orchestras, even touring Europe.

“During free time on the tour, a friend and I would find a spot, take our instruments, open our cases and start playing for spare change. We’d also yell to people from our hotel windows to get them to come to our concerts.” 

Now concertmaster of the Albert Einstein Symphony Orchestra (currently in its 29th season), Ms. Lee plays in smaller groups as well; for Einstein’s 2008 transition ceremony, she put together a string ensemble of fellow class members and arranged the music herself. When she’s not playing violin, she might pull out the erhu, a two-stringed Chinese instrument.

“It’s just as challenging to learn as the violin, because it’s difficult to get a good sound out of it,” she said.

A frequent accompanist on the arrangements Ms. Lee organizes is fellow violinist Bret Negro (class of 2012). Mr. Negro has played everything from classical music to Irish fiddle tunes, at locations as varied as Einstein events to subway stations. While he isn’t a formal member of any Einstein group, he also has jammed with the Jazz Ensemble and is currently giving lessons to both children and adults.

He first took lessons back home in central Illinois, and then majored in violin performance at Illinois Wesleyan. While in Ireland exploring his family history, he also discovered the benefits of being a traveling musician: “If you carry a fiddle in Ireland, you basically drink for free. I’d pass a pub, and they’d welcome me in and I’d do a set of some of the Irish tunes I know.”

While playing for an audience is not uncommon for most musicians, Jared Winoker (class of 2014) prefers to play a host of instruments in the privacy of his home. Adept at piano, guitar, ukulele and a few wind instruments, he uses a computer program to assemble his own compositions.

He explained, “I can layer the tracks of different instruments, choosing a drumbeat, a piano part, and then maybe a rhythm guitar and a solo part.”

Growing up on Long Island, Mr. Winoker took piano lessons for a few years and played in school ensembles, but after learning to read music, he realized, “I didn’t like the structure, so I started picking up other instruments.

“I taught myself guitar with a book, learning the chords, and practicing as much as I could,” he added. “It’s a challenge, to try and figure out how this musician played a song and find my own little nuances and style that I can incorporate into it.”   

Of the therapeutic benefit that music provides, Mr. Winoker said, “When the last thing I want to think about is medicine, I’ll pick up an instrument. It’s a really great way to clear my mind.”

Mr. Pyronneau concurred: “It’s like meditation or yoga. It’s a great way to just relax and enjoy my instrument and the sounds it creates.”

“Being in the orchestra forces me to take out my violin once a week,” Ms. Lee added. “I love being able to do that.”

Mr. Negro summed things up, noting, “Medical school is a very demanding pursuit, and with it often comes a great deal of stress. Receiving support and encouragement for our talent and artistic merits from the Einstein community allows us to be better balanced individuals, which in turn nurtures our pursuits of science and medicine.” 

Posted on: Thursday, February 03, 2011