HSC Orchestra
The UNM Health Sciences Center Orchestra has been exploring the medley of medicine and music since November 2012

When the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center Orchestra gets together to rehearse, the halls (of academe) are alive with the sound of music.

For more than a year, a dedicated corps of musicians ranging from first-year medical students and Main Campus music majors to senior faculty and staff has been gathering each Sunday evening. For two and a half hours, they rehearse a varied repertoire that includes pops and classical music – and every now and then they perform before a live audience.

“It’s an outlet,” says Dr. Bronwyn Wilson, a violinist who helped launch the orchestra 18 months ago. “It’s a way for anyone who’s been studying hard and working hard to pay attention to the right side of their brain, so to speak.”

The ensemble nicely complements UNM HSC’s 15-year-old Arts-in-Medicine program, which was created to benefit patients, their families and health care providers, says director Patrice Repar, an associate professor in the Department of Music who is cross appointed in the Department of Internal Medicine.

“There is a profound relationship between music and medicine,” Repar said. “There’s such a high number of clinical workers – nurses and doctors, primarily – who have musical training.”

The orchestra has been exploring the medley of medicine and music since November 2012, when Dr. Ellen Mozurkewich, a faculty member in the Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology, approached Repar with an idea. Mozurkewich, a trained flutist who also plays the viola, had performed with the University of Michigan Life Sciences Orchestra prior to coming to New Mexico.

“When I came here, I noticed there was nothing like that,” Mozurkewich said. “There’s not that much opportunity to play this kind of music out there in the community.”

Mozurkewich proposed launching a Health Sciences Center orchestra. She and Repar were encouraged by the response a questionnaire they sent to gauge interest in the idea. Before long, they had recruited Wojciech Milewski, a 25-year-old graduate student in the Department of Music, to serve as conductor.

Milewski, born in Poland and raised in New York City, has led the orchestra in some unexpected directions, including a Halloween 2013 concert for patients at UNM Children’s Hospital, in which the players donned costumes, and a pops concert that featured tunes from Broadway and Hollywood blockbusters.

The ensemble’s musicians vary considerably in experience. Some players had extensive training before their medical careers and family commitments led them to set aside their instruments, while some of the younger players have freshly honed skills, Milewski says.

“Many them of them are very good players,” he says. “With a lot of them who have those backgrounds, I can see the training. It does come back. It’s very rewarding.”

Directing musicians who may be old enough to be his parents can be a challenge, says Milewski, who says he has tossed the typical autocratic model for conductors out the window. “It’s more of a coaching role, to help them play better,” he says.

Milewski, who is unpaid, puts in many hours each week tending to logistical concerns, as well as musical ones. Members have put together committees to handle such details as maintaining a musician list-serv, organizing concerts, photocopying and handling emails.

“I’m a manager of a company,” he says, with evident amazement. He would like to get the orchestra on a sounder financial and organizational footing so that it can carry on after he graduates next year.

His musicians appreciate his input. “The orchestra is a work in progress,” Mozurkewich says. “The selection of the repertoire has gone from a totally democratic process to a little bit of a dictatorship – and the dictatorship works better.”

Wilson, senior associate dean for academic affairs for the UNM School of Medicine, played the violin in high school and college orchestras, but stopped performing classical music after for some time after becoming immersed in her medical career.

She was playing fiddle with a Celtic music group when Repar recruited them several years ago for an Arts-in-Medicine concert. She has enthusiastically supported the orchestra since it was launched.

“This is a nice thing, because it’s something where you can just come in and join – you don’t have to audition,” Wilson says. “It truly is a community orchestra.”

In the near term, Repar and Wilson hope to find funding to provide Milewski with an administrative assistant. But they are also looking for longer-term solutions to help the orchestra to thrive, because they feel it fulfills an important need.

“It isn’t just about fulfilling the wishes of 50 people who want to play their instruments,” Repar says. “It’s part of a larger movement: how do we bring humanity back alongside medical science?”