Doctors Unplugged

Musically gifted physicians play for charity and raise awareness of the power of song

Photography by Elena Ray

Fingers gracefully flit across black and white keys with the precision of a surgeon and the sensuous touch of a dancer. A doctor whose forte lies in reshaping bodies and reimagining faces brings air into his lungs and transforms it into George Gershwin’s “Summertime” for the jazz flute. Bach’s “Prelude in C Major” fills an auditorium, courtesy of the skillful hands of a dentist on the piano. A psychiatrist-pianist indulges his emotional side with Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “18th Variation from Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43.” The clear bell of a woman’s voice displays her impressive vocal prowess with songs from Show Boat and Die Fledermaus, serenading the audience that gathered to hear these musicians and medical specialists perform at Steinway Society’s Doctors of the Desert Concert & Reception at the Annenberg Center for Health Sciences on the Eisenhower Medical Center campus in Rancho Mirage.

The annual event served as a fundraiser for Steinway Society scholarships. Among the performers were Rainer Bergmann, D.D.S (piano), Anthony Bassanelli, M.D. (piano), Eric Fox, M.D. (piano), and Scott Aaronson, M.D. (jazz flute) accompanied by Wayne Abravanel at the piano. Lisa Lindley, M.D. (vocalist) presented her notable range, accompanied at the piano by Tim Brueau and a stirring harp duet from Michael Mostyn, M.D, and Vanessa Sheldon, Ph.D.

 “Music with surgeons is big,” says Aaronson, a plastic surgeon. “There is always music playing in the background in the operating room during surgery. Playing music is very relaxing and a great alternative to the high pressure of medicine.

“I started playing the flute in fourth grade,” he continues. “Back then, boys who played the flute had it rough. When I play now, I play for personal enjoyment. Playing jazz flute is very creative. Jazz in itself is a very creative form of music. [Similarly] in golf, you have to concentrate on the ball. It takes your mind off your work. Whether it’s golf, music, painting — many physicians have hobbies that take them away from the job.”

There’s no question that music — whether playing or listening — makes people feel good. The relationship between music and health is physiologically complex yet spiritually simple: On the physical level, sound waves buzz the eardrums and bones of the middle ear, which cause your brain to decode the vibration and send an electric signal to your cerebral cortex, which governs thought, perception, and memory. The auditory cortex sends that message on to centers in the brain that control emotion, arousal, pleasure, and creativity. The hypothalamus takes the electrical hit, which, in turn, affects respiration and heart rate, as well as nerve endings in the stomach and skin. Anatomically, this explains why a certain melody may produce the sensation of butterflies or goose bumps.

The physical, emotional, and spiritual benefits of music combine to attract this core group of Coachella Valley medical professionals and musicians who regularly perform for the Steinway Society, an organization that brings music education to Coachella Valley youth through in-school programs and scholarships, and at other events.

“Performing with my colleagues has definitely challenged me to bring my A-game,” says Bassanelli, a psychiatrist at Eisenhower Medical Center and medical director of the Center for Geropsychiatry. “My colleagues are all excellent musicians. Playing with them in the Steinway Society Doctor’s Concert has really raised the bar for me.”

Bassanelli, who began playing the piano at age 4, credits music with helping him connect with his inner feelings. “It helps me get in touch with my emotional life,” he says. “Sometimes playing a favorite piece on the piano ignites certain emotions. It can be very cathartic and sort of resets me so I can face the challenges of the day.

“My work is very cerebral,” he continues. “Music helps keep me more human. There is a point in medicine where you take the knowledge you have accumulated and use it to develop your own style of working with patients — that is where it becomes the ‘art’ of medicine. Similarly, when I am playing the piano, there comes a point where I have learned and hopefully mastered the technical challenges of a piece of music, and then I can get into the soul of the piece and turn it into the art of music.”

According to Bassanelli, studies have shown that listening to Mozart can raise children’s mathematical abilities. “Listening to classical music has been shown to decrease heart rate and blood pressure,” he says.

The similarity between playing music and practicing medicine is clear, considering how each aids in healing and requires great focus and technical skill to rise to the level of an art form. “My dentist has the most beautiful music playing in the office when I go,” Bassanelli says. “It helps to set the tone and relax me. Music and medicine are definitely partners in promoting health and wellness.”

The program in the Helene Galen Auditorium at Eisenhower Medical Center’s Annenberg Center for Health Sciences benefitted Steinway Society of Riverside.

Dentist, Palm Desert (piano)
Prelude in C Major and Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring (Bach)

Psychiatric physician, Eisenhower Medical Center (piano)
18th Variation from Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 (Sergei Rachmaninoff)
Etude No. 3, The Man I Love (George Gershwin, Earl Wild arrangement)

Plastic surgeon, Desert Regional Medical Center (jazz flute)
Accompanied by Wayne Abravanel on piano
Summertime (George Gershwin) and I Feel Pretty (Leonard Bernstein, West Side Story)

Ob-gyn specialist, Eisenhower Medical Center (vocalist), accompanied by Tim Brueau
Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man of Mine (Jerome Kern, Show Boat)
Mein Herr Marquis (Johann Strauss II, Die Fledermaus)

Internist, Desert Oasis Medical Group, and Dr. Vanessa Sheldon (harp duet)
Fiesta Rhumba and Claire de Lune (Claude Debussy)

Family practitioner, Redlands (piano), Prelude & Fugue for Piano No. 24 in D Minor (Dmitri Shostakovich)

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