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Music City Medicine


By Leslie Hill
July 2011

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Medicine is housed in the left side of the brain, the seat of logic, language, science and math. Left-brain-dominant people tend to be more logical, rational, analytical and structured – sounds like your typical physician, right?

But many of Vanderbilt’s physicians and medical students nurture the creative side of the brain, the right hemisphere and place of intuition, imagination, art and their most frequent destination, music.

“There are many aspects of creativity in medicine. We get boxed into this idea that we’re all type A, left-brained people, but in medicine there is creativity to think about things in different ways, look at different angles and be creative in how you approach problems, and music is the same way,” said Dan Stover, M.D., Internal Medicine chief resident and 2008 Vanderbilt University School of Medicine graduate.

For these moonlighting physicians and students, music is many things – an escape from the pressure, a way to relate to patients, and in Nashville especially, a connection to the community they serve.

“The music scene is part of the fabric of Nashville and extends to Vanderbilt as well,” Stover said. “I can’t count the number of times I have talked with a patient and realized we were at the same live show together or they wrote a hit song on the radio. Even the toughest, most gruff patient who doesn’t want to open up will talk about music.”

Music lost and found

Dan Stover. Photo by Joe Howell.

Dan Stover. Photo by Joe Howell.

Dan Stover, M.D., grew up playing classical violin, but stopped in 10th grade to concentrate on rowing. At Vanderbilt, his fellow residents Jay Montgomery, M.D., and Matt Semler, M.D., had formed a band and Stover wanted to join, but they had already found a fiddle player, Ashely Tauriac, M.D. Knowing Nashville was a good place to pick up a new instrument, Stover went to Cotten Music Center in Hillsboro Village, bought a mandolin and taught himself to play in six months.

They formed a bluegrass band called the Bourbon Family, named not for the Kentucky whiskey but for the French ruling family.

“The original name was the Bourbon Family Compact, which is this treaty that mitigated power across the European continent. We thought the reference to French history wouldn’t go over as well, but Bourbon Family seems very Tennessee.”

Semler is a prolific songwriter, and in January the group recorded 20 tracks in an east Nashville studio. The CD was released in June.
“We’re not going to quit our day jobs anytime soon, but we wanted to document all the music that we have. We all want to change the face of medicine more than we want to make a hit record,” Stover said.

Being a part of the Bourbon Family has let Stover reclaim a lost passion while concentrating on medicine.

“When I come home from work, a lot of time I’ll take out my mandolin and just play. Sometimes I’ll lose myself, and two hours later realize I really should make myself some dinner,” he said. “Music is something I had lost in college and medical school but had loved so much, and now I’ve gotten it back in my life.”


Match Day serenade

Chris Estopinal. Photo by Anne Rayner.

Chris Estopinal. Photo by Anne Rayner.

At this year’s Match Day, Chris Estopinal sat nervously, not like the rest of his fourth-year classmates who were waiting to open the envelope that would reveal their residency fate – he had already matched early at Vanderbilt. No, Estopinal was nervous because once his name was called, he would pick up his guitar and serenade the hundreds assembled in Light Hall plus everyone else watching the webcast.

Originally a friend asked him to play a song for her as she walked down to open her envelope, but when plans changed, Estopinal decided to play his own song.

The hardest part was picking the right tune – “I Can See Clearly Now.”
“We wanted to choose something that was upbeat and fun, and also had to do with being able to see because I’m going into Ophthalmology. Plus, everybody knows that song,” he said.

As soon as Estopinal and his friends Neal Carpenter and Stevie Griffin, who were backing him on guitar and mandolin, sang those first words, there was a cry of recognition from the audience and they were immediately clapping. Estopinal, bouncing to the beat, was clearly having a good time.

“Everybody really got into it and were clapping and singing along. I wasn’t expecting that at all, so it was a lot of fun,” he said. “It seemed like people really thought it was a fun addition to the day.”

After an injury in high school, sports were out, so Estopinal taught himself to play the guitar. He continued performing casually through college and medical school, playing for open mic nights and weddings. Though many of his friends have turned music into a full-time career, Estopinal has decided to concentrate on medicine.

“I don’t think I’ll ever stop playing. Music is more than a hobby. It puts a lot of meaning in my life,” he said. “But in the next few years, it will be more important and more meaningful learning to be an excellent ophthalmologist rather than really pouring everything I have into music.”


Student, singer, juggler

Adam Wegner is one of those people who likes to be busy. Many would find medical school overwhelming enough, but on top of that Wegner, a third-year student, also found time to lead Immune Response (the VUSM men’s a cappella group), sing with the Nashville Symphony Chorus (including leading its bass section) and serve as director of the Shade Tree Clinic, a volunteer clinic in east Nashville that provides free care and is run by Vanderbilt medical students and physicians.

But he has always been that busy – playing piano from fifth grade through college, singing in school ensembles, and playing soccer, even on the college level.

“I’ve just always been into a lot of activities,” he said. “Singing especially is my release away from everything. It’s therapeutic just to go and sing, so I make time for it. I enjoy the practice, and it’s only a few hours a week, so it’s pretty easy to fit in.”

Wegner’s high school music teacher got four boys together for an a cappella quartet, and that’s when he realized how much he enjoyed singing, especially in a group.

“With choral singing, there’s just something about being in big group coming together. It’s more than the sum of its parts, and it’s all about working with people and listening to people. You’re trying to fit in, not be
the star.”

Wegner first came to Vanderbilt in 2001 to study neuroscience in the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program. While taking the medical school neuroanatomy class, he found out about Immune Response and joined the group. He also went to the Nashville Symphony’s summer festival, realized that one of his professors, David Piston, Ph.D., was in the chorus and asked him how to get involved.

“On the weeks that we have concerts there is a lot of practice and dress rehearsal, and there have been times when that happens the week before an exam. But I’ve always done a ton of things, and it’s good motivation to study early and be prepared.”

You play the what?

Gretchen Roth. Photo by Joe Howell.

Gretchen Roth. Photo by Joe Howell.

The marimba. Gretchen Roth describes it as a giant xylophone. It’s actually best described as a percussion instrument with bars of wood that are struck with mallets to produce sound.

In fifth grade, Roth, now a second-year VUSM student, joined her school’s band and chose to play percussion. The drums led to the xylophone, and then the instructor suggested the marimba. She started lessons and continued playing through high school.

Roth was also a member of the youth choir in her Iowa hometown, a group that toured internationally, and decided to pursue singing at college at the University of Miami. It wasn’t until medical school that the marimba came calling again.

“After about a semester of anatomy, I decided I needed something else to do. So over Christmas break, I drove home and brought it back with me,” she said.

This is actually a pretty big hassle.

“Luckily, it breaks down into pieces and actually fits into my car, but I can’t move it on my own. I always have to get someone to help out.”
But the mental break it provides is worth the effort.

“It’s something totally different than medicine. It still requires work and effort and is something that I can work toward and get better at. For me, it’s just a way to relax and a break and a way to do something besides learning anatomy.”

Roth plays with the Vanderbilt Community Concert Band, a low-key group comprised of Vanderbilt students, faculty, staff and alumni, and she continues her singing with Biorhythms, VUSM’s female a cappella group. Being able to play solos on the marimba or sing or play with a group gives her the best of both worlds.

“Playing marimba is a way to express what I want to express, and I’m in control. Being in an ensemble is about coming together and using the collective to make music,” she said.

Roth recognizes how useful music can be to connect with patients and meet people in the community.

“The marimba is always a good conversation piece. People are like ‘What is that?’” 

Soul Incision. Photo by Steve Green.

Soul Incision. Photo by Steve Green.

It’s never too late to rock and roll

Often called Vanderbilt’s “house band,” Soul Incision is made up of physicians, nurses and administrators.

This year marks 13 years that they have shed their white coats and ties to take to the stage and play the songs that are guaranteed to get people dancing: “Play that Funky Music,” “Brick House,” “I Will Survive” and “Brown Eyed Girl.”

“We’ve toured around the country, and I like to tell people we’ve cornered the market on surgical conventions,” said Norman Urmy, vice president of Vanderbilt Health Services and the band’s founder.

After a year of guitar lessons, Urmy’s son had decided he had learned all there was to learn and offered Urmy his spot with the teacher.

“He said something to the effect of ‘Dad, you spend way too much time working. I’m quitting guitar lessons, why don’t you take my spot and do something fun?’ I thought that was actually a pretty good idea. About three years into the lessons, my teacher challenged me to get in a band,” Urmy recalled.

Word spread quickly as people heard about the band and suggested members. The band’s first gig was the Hospital Administration Christmas party, with a set list of eight songs.

“We finished the eight songs and they asked us to play them again. I think that’s when it really hit us that this is fun and people actually like us,” Urmy said.

Thirteen years and two CDs later, Soul Incision has expanded its repertoire to 80-plus songs and has shared the stage with big names like Steve Cropper, Charlie Daniels, Vince Gill, Suzy Bogguss, Lorrie Morgan and Billy Dean. They have donated close to $100,000 of CD proceeds to the Hospital Hospitality House.

“It works for us because we do it for fun,” said Bryan Brand, vice president of Medical Center Business Development and keyboard player in the band. “Making it a priority to do something fun does help with balance. A lot of us are compulsive types who work a lot, so it is helpful to have this. And it says something about Vanderbilt culture because there are a lot of corporate cultures where leaders would be anxious about perception.”

Soul Incision still has a few things on its bucket list – playing Chicago, New York and an international gig, and the band has no plans to slow down.

“If I can stand and speak, I’ll keep doing this. It’s better than paid therapy. It’s medicine for the soul,” said Deb Kemp, R.N., a physician liaison and vocalist. “It is such a privilege to be able to not just do this with people you love and have so much fun with, but to be able to represent the institution. We’re proof it’s never too late to rock ‘n’ roll.”


Michael Spinner. Photo by Steve Green.

Michael Spinner. Photo by Steve Green.

The major less traveled

En route to medical school, second-year student Michael Spinner took the major less traveled, choosing to study music in college.

At 16, Spinner wanted to be a rock god and took up the electric guitar, until his teacher introduced him to classical finger-style guitar.

“Once I went to my first classical guitar concert, I was hooked,” he said. “I loved how versatile it was, that you could play everything from the classical repertoire – Bach and other classical composers – but you could also play Brazilian jazz, and tango from Argentina.”

At Emory University, Spinner decided to major in music, taking guitar lessons with faculty member Brian Luckett, studying music history and theory, and practicing 20 hours a week. But Spinner also knew he wanted to be a physician and did the pre-med curriculum. His inspiration for this combination was his mother, who died from breast cancer when he was 15.

“My mom was always really interested in music as well. She taught me piano and we really bonded over that,” he said. “During my mom’s battle with breast cancer I really gained a lot of respect for physicians, so I knew I wanted to do medicine coming into college. But I always had this passion for music and figured this was my opportunity to study what I really want to study,” he said.

Being a music major means Spinner is sometimes learning things in medical school for the first time, but has no regrets about his decision.

“I did give some thought to pursuing music as a profession, but I think I just never wanted to have to look at it as work. I always preferred to have it as a hobby and as a respite from all of the science.”

Spinner has reduced his practice time to five to 10 hours a week and takes lessons about once a month from classical guitarist Stanley Yates in Clarksville, Tenn. In May, he recorded his first studio CD on Music Row.

“Involvement in the arts is something I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world. Even now, as busy as I am, I have to make time to practice and get gigs in coffee shops nearby. I always want it to be part of my life.”

Immune Response

At the 1985 Cadaver Ball, a few guys sang and snapped their way through a version of Billy Joel’s “For the Longest Time” – the lyrics changed to poke fun at their disillusionment with anatomy class. The group caused such a sensation that a permanent a cappella troupe, called Immune Response, was formed and still exists today as the official men’s singing group at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.

Founding member, Chris Hill, M.D., MD ‘88, now a urologist at Urology Associates in Nashville, said Immune Response quickly became the dean’s “favorite weapon,” and the group was trotted out to sing at fundraising events and alumni luncheons. In red vests and bow ties, the men performed classic barbershop arrangements, love songs and pop hits.

“Everyone appreciated that we were medical students first and singers second. I think they were pleasantly entertained and genuinely surprised we weren’t terrible,” said co-founding member John Wadlington, M.D., MD ‘88, now an anesthesiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital.

After the founding members of Immune Response graduated, the second-generation members wanted to give something back to Dean (John) Chapman, their strongest supporter. George Sawaya, M.D., MD ‘90, wrote the lyrics and Gregg Perry, M.D., MD ‘91, composed music for a class song, “Vanderbilt Remains With Me.”

“We always wanted it to be specifically a medical school song,” Sawaya said. “I figured that as long as Immune Response was active the song would be propagated.”

The song and the group live on today. Immune Response has about 12 members and has performed the song with Biorhythms, the female a cappella group, at Class Day.

Wadlington admits he is surprised the group still exists.
“I’m glad to know the students today can enjoy it as much as we did,” he said.


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