Doctors are skilled with instruments. Scalpel. Clamp. French horn.

French horn? That’s right, and other instruments, musical instruments, as well.

Northwestern is one of about a dozen universities nationwide with medical orchestras: med students, doctors, researchers, and alumni, all connected to both the healing arts and the performing arts.

Bettina Cheung, an MD/PhD student at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine, and a French horn players since childhood, helped form the NU medical orchestra in early 2018.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” Cheung says. What began with a dozen or so medical musicians has grown to more than fifty. “It’s bigger than we ever thought it would be.”

And now, Cheung, three other NU medical orchestra members, and the group’s artistic orchestra director have performed with an outgrowth of the COVID-19 era, the National Virtual Medical Orchestra.

More than 70 musicians, each in a different location around the country instead of the usual concert hall, played the theme from a Japanese animated movie, “Howl’s Moving Castle.” Skilled video and audio editors assembled the final virtual product, which can be seen on YouTube.

Taichi Fukumura, a doctoral student in conducting at Northwestern, led the national ensemble in this particular performance. Fukumura, the NU medical orchestra’s principal conductor as well as artistic director, says music provides a “creative outlet” for people in the high pressure world of medicine, a world where the “stress and risk levels are now through the roof” because of COVID.

Mallika Patel, NU med student and medical orchestra member, was also in the national virtual orchestra for “Howl’s Moving Castle.” “Music has always been a big part of my life,” says Patel, who took up the flute at age 10.

“I was shocked at how much music making there is in the medical field,” she says. “There’s a strangely high number of classical musicians who are medical professionals.”

Conductor Fukumura says that actually makes a lot of sense, because “similar traits” are needed to succeed in both music and in medicine, such as time management, discipline and, of course, a willingness to work hard and take on challenges.

One of those challenges is making time for orchestra rehearsals, but Cheung says, “if you’re really passionate about something, it’s worth it to make the time for something you love.”

“I feel so refreshed after rehearsals,” she adds.

The music for this national virtual performance, from “Howl’s Moving Castle,” was written by Japanese composter Joe Hisaishi. Fukumura likens him to a famous American composer known for film scores. “Hisaishi should be performed like John Williams is in the states,” he adds.

Plus, leading an orchestra in this particular music, Fukumura says, “was a dream come true for me as a Japanese conductor.”

Before COVID, the Northwestern medical orchestra gave in-person concerts, sometimes for patients. And once the pandemic dissipates, medical music makers will gather once again in person, putting down one set of instruments and picking up another.

The medical orchestra, Cheung says, is “a place to make music together and just have fun.”

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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