The Med Center Orchestra
‘Physicians by day, musicians by night’
Microbiologist Lynn Zechiedrich took the stage at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 2012 with dozens of other Houston-area medical professionals. Toward the end of the evening, she looked out at the audience, then lifted her flute to her lips to perform a solo.
“There were just tears of joy pouring down my face as I played those notes,” says Zechiedrich, a Buzz resident and a professor at Baylor College of Medicine, “and then the crowd jumps to their feet and erupts in applause.”
Zechiedrich is one of 80 members of the Texas Medical Center Orchestra, a group of doctors, nurses, medical students, scientists, dentists, therapists and researchers who’ve banded together to pursue their love of music and share it. They often arrive at weekly practices dressed in scrubs, and their orchestra is a much-needed creative outlet.
It’s also one of only a few U.S. community orchestras based in the medical community. For the last 20 years, the TMC orchestra has performed for patients and visitors in locations across the Texas Medical Center. Each year it gives four or five performances at prestigious concert halls. In 2017 and 2018, it won the American Prize for best community orchestra.
“I love these people – they’re like a family,” says Zechiedrich.
Zechiedrich began playing the flute as a child. She started in middle school, and won awards including All-State and All-American. Her dream was to play in an orchestra, but she also fell in love with science. During post-doc work, flute playing fell to the wayside, and after she moved to Houston in the late 1990s, she wasn’t even sure where her flute was.
But in 2000, while giving a lecture at TMC, she saw a poster advertising a doctors orchestra. She auditioned and was accepted into the fledgling group. “I was so excited to go to the first rehearsal,” Zechiedrich says.
She rode the elevator to practice with West University resident Daniel Musher, an infectious-disease specialist at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center, professor at Baylor College of Medicine and an accomplished violinist.
“The doors opened up, and Dan said, ‘It sounds beautiful, I’m excited,’” says Zechiedrich. “I said, ‘Me too.’ It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
The orchestra’s last, packed concert in early March at The Hobby Center for the Performing Arts celebrated International Women’s Day with pieces by women composers.
Today, with social distancing and many orchestra members treating patients on the front lines of the coronavirus, practices and concerts are on hold. But orchestra members are still finding ways to create music.
Before Houston’s stay-at-home order, Zechiedrich rehearsed at her church – St. Andrews Presbyterian – alongside the church organist. Each entered the building through different doors, and they stayed six feet apart. They relished each other’s music. “I’m also eagerly rehearsing at home during breaks from work,” she says.
Musher, who grew up in Manhattan, started playing violin at age 8. “I always loved music,” he says. “I have music in my head all the time.” He played in college at Harvard and in medical school at Columbia, and he was concertmaster of the Boston Doctors Orchestra. For 14 years, he was the TMC orchestra’s concertmaster.
“The friendships in the orchestra, the energy of the young people, it’s all very exciting,” he says. “It’s a reasonably tough life in medicine. We’re under a lot of pressure. It’s therapeutic to pick up the instrument and play. This helps prevent burnout.”
With the orchestra on pause, Musher played in a string quartet that met weekly in his living room, keeping his distance from the other players. One was Musher’s son, Benjamin, who lives in the Meyerland area.
Bellaire resident Libi Lebel founded the orchestra when she moved from Manhattan to Houston with an ex who worked in medicine. Lebel has bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Julliard and studied piano performance and conducting at Westminster Choir College. Up east, she had seen the Philadelphia Doctors Chamber Orchestra perform at Princeton, and she loved the concept.
“Music is my passion,” Lebel says. “It’s what I do and who I am.”
After arriving in Houston, Lebel spoke to the dean of the McGovern Medical School at UTHealth and told him she wanted to start an orchestra. “Before I knew it, I had all these doctors emailing me who wanted to audition,” she says. “They’re physicians by day, musicians by night.”
Getting into the orchestra, which has high standards, is difficult. The audition for the woodwind and brass sections – which accommodate only one musician per part – entails two auditions followed by a trial run during a TMC Orchestra concert. “The personality fit is a very important aspect of our orchestra audition process,” Lebel says.
The orchestra also started and holds its own annual charity bike ride that typically falls in the spring just before Texas’ MS 150 bike ride—the Gran Fondo Texas charity bike ride. The ride offers varying lengths and takes cyclists through the Sam Houston National Forest.
Proceeds go toward the orchestra, which is a non-profit, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, and other charities members select. Small groups of orchestra members play at rest stops during the ride, and the entire group performs at the end. Lebel hopes to reschedule this year’s event for a later date.
Most recently, the orchestra participated in a collaborative video as part of the #ImStandingWithYou project, which featured performances by 170 musicians from across the world, and raised more than $5 million for coronavirus relief efforts.
“The orchestra is so unique,” Lebel says. “For a lot of our members, it’s a relief to come to rehearsal. Music is known to be a strong healing element. It’s been an amazing journey.”
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