Music and Medicine: The VCU Health Orchestra kicks off its third season with a new partnership

Two orchestra members pose with french horns
Kara Dods (left), an M.D./Ph.D. student and French hornist, poses with Theresa Erichsen, a registered nurse and fellow French hornist. Theresa is a co-founder and manager of the VCU Health System Orchestra and Kara is the librarian. (Courtesy Mimi Peberdy, M.D and Joseph Ornato, M.D.)

One message the VCU Health Orchestra — known as Music and Medicine — conveys through its music and performances is that there is room in life for more than one passion.

“You can be a musician and be a nurse. You can be a doctor and be a musician,” said Theresa Erichsen, a VCU Health nurse who co-founded the orchestra. “You don’t have to give it up just because you majored in something other than music.”

The doctors, nurses, therapists, students and others who play in the orchestra have pursued careers in health care, and making time for other interests, especially in the arts, has been therapeutic for many of them as they navigate high-stress occupations.

One example is a bassoon-playing paramedic who was in the orchestra and has since gone on to medical school. “He told us when he left that the two hours he had with us each week, laughing and playing at practice, helped him maintain his mental health between preparing for medical school and working as a paramedic,” Erichsen said.

For other orchestra members, the experience is just fun. That was the case this month as the orchestra gave a Halloween-themed performance at Firehouse Theatre on West Broad Street. Members donned costumes and played selections from superhero movies, “Phantom of the Opera” and pop culture.

This month’s performance was the first of the 2019-20 season and the first in a new partnership with Firehouse Theatre.

“We needed a theater home,” said Erichsen, who founded the orchestra with Francesco Celi, M.D., chair of the VCU School of Medicine Division of Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism. “We needed a place to perform where people would be able to come on a routine basis. So now, when we’re not playing for a fundraiser, we will be playing at the Firehouse Theatre.”

The fundraisers and other shows the orchestra has been a part of in the past two years have taken place at the Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center, The Jefferson Hotel, the Science Museum of Virginia, a military base and other venues.

“The Music and Medicine orchestra affords physicians and community members a chance to get together to build some of those relationships that are critical in providing health care to an entire city,” said Kara Dods, an M.D.-Ph.D. student at the VCU School of Medicine and French hornist in the orchestra. “On top of that, we provide an outlet for creativity for a lot of people within the health care community.”

Orchestra smiles with instruments.
The VCU Health System Orchestra — known as Music and Medicine — pauses for a photo following their Halloween performance at Firehouse Theatre Oct. 16. (Courtesy MCV Foundation)

As the orchestra has spent more time together over the years, it seems it was always inevitable a group of health care workers and active community members would develop altruistic goals. One of the main objectives of the members has become helping others through music. They have participated in fundraisers previously, which they’d like to do more of, but they’d also like to begin organizing their own events for Richmond organizations like VCU Health, Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU, World Pediatric Project and others.

While about 80% of the orchestra is made up of health care professionals, some members are professional musicians and represent the wider community. Will Pattie, the orchestra’s conductor and music director, is a music teacher in Henrico County Public Schools who has been working with the group for two years. He is a VCU graduate and the grandson of a former MCV cardiologist.

“I came to a rehearsal and immediately saw that there was potential for growth,” Pattie said. “They had some anchor players who were normal, everyday working doctors, nurses and staff, but they had musical backgrounds.

“One of the key things that makes it work and makes it enjoyable for me is a grounding philosophy for us to keep it fun and light, to make it something that makes us want to be around each other.”

Learn more about the VCU Health Orchestra at vcuhealth.org. Support the VCU Health Orchestra Fund at support.vcu.edu.

This article originally published on MCV Foundation.

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