Probing the Performing Arts-Health Care Connection

Trumpeter and Jazz Studies faculty member Eddie Henderson took his first music lessons with the great Louis Armstrong and, as a high schooler dreaming of being a musician, studied at the San Francisco Conservatory. He also earned an M.D. from Howard University and had a general practice until it got crowded out by touring with Herbie Hancock, Art Blakey, and others—“all my heroes, which was like getting to play with the Yankees,” he said in a recent interview.

Paul Kwak

'I've never been so happy as being a doctor. It fulfills intellectual and technical satisfaction. But the sheer joy of playing with a singer is not equaled spiritually or emotionally in medicine. It is a gift to have both.'

—Paul Kwak

(Photo by Photo by Mark Golub)
Eddie Henderson

'Learning discipline at an early age, you can do anything. ... I know music heals me. I'm doing the things I love, that I dreamed of. And you can’t buy that at a pharmacy.'

—Eddie Henderson

(Photo by Furthermore Recordings)
Jonathan Leinbach

'When I'm on my game in therapy with someone—fully connected, involved, immersed—it feels like dance did: invigorating, connected to the way I want to live my life.'

—Jonathan Leinbach

(Photo by Jenny Leinbach)


Adrienne Stevens Zion (B.F.A.’83, dance) enjoyed a long performance career that started when she was 6, and then became interested in the physiology of dance. After studying for master’s and doctoral degrees at Columbia University, she has gone on to become a leading medical communications consultant, with numerous scientific publications in fields from cardiology to epidemiology.  

Music attracted Literature and Materials of Music faculty member Raymond Lustig (M.M. ’05, D.M.A. ’10, composition) from the time he could reach a piano keyboard, and once he started school, he became as interested in how the world works as he was about music. As a grown-up, he published research in molecular biology and composed award-winning science-inspired music. He also wrote his doctoral thesis on psychoacoustics and the communication of archetypal symbols in music.

Historical examples of the overlap between the worlds of performance and science, particularly medicine, occur as far back as the ancient Greeks and Romans. Apollo wielded unworldly powers as the god of music and medicine. He directed the Muses’ choir, cured other gods and humans, taught the art of healing, and must have played a pretty mean lyre as he even defeated Pan in musical competitions. Among mere mortals, Alexander Borodin trained first as a doctor and had a fine career as a chemist, producing internationally recognized work on aldehydes. On the side he studied composition with Mily Balakirev and then, as one of the 19th-century Russian nationalist composers known as The Five, wrote Prince Igor, an opera, and In the Steppes of Central Asia, a symphonic poem. 

Albert Schweitzer achieved wide acclaim as an organist and music scholar (he revised standards for organ-building, wrote a biography of Bach, and produced groundbreaking recordings of his chorales, preludes, and fugues). But Schweitzer didn’t stop there. He then went to medical school, became a missionary-doctor in French Equatorial Africa (now Gabon), achieved his personal ideal of philosopher-scientist, and won the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize. 

On a more prosaic, if still very impressive, level, a number of cities around the world, New York among them, have orchestras comprised just of doctors who are also trained instrumental musicians. 

Scholarly studies and popular literature trace some connections. The prolific pianist, inventor, and neurophysiologist Manfred Clynes (Diploma ’48, M.S. ’49, piano) pioneered a field he called sentics, a study of emotions based on his findings from experiments with touch, music, and physiological brainwaves. Among other work, he examined the microstructure of many compositions and discovered distinct pulses of individual composers, which became the basis of his SuperConductor software program. Oliver Sacks, a neurologist and professor, explored the power of music with case studies in his best-selling Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. The 92nd Street Y in New York City hosts a series called Music and the Brain that’s moderated by research psychologist Daniel Levitin, author most recently of The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature (the next event in the series occurs on February 9). The so-called Mozart effect—a theory that listening to Mozart (or Beethoven or Stravinsky, for that matter) may at least temporarily increase intelligence, especially in children—inspired a whole industry of books, recordings, and programs targeted at eager parents. 

Stanford-Binet I.Q. scores aside, dancers, musicians, and actors present plenty of anecdotal evidence of links: knowing and managing one’s personal physiological capabilities and limitations is part of an artist’s job description. They train to land that tour jeté safely, not to overdo keyboard finger exercises, or to project properly vocal sound for eight shows a week without ending up in treatment for laryngitis. But those whose curiosity or circumstances take them farther into the intricate intersection of art and science can arrive at a crossroads of career choice. 

We asked some of the growing number of Juilliard graduates who work in health care fields—as neuroscientists, teachers in medical schools, physical and massage therapists, anesthesiologists, emergency physicians, otolayrngologists, psychiatrists, and 9/11 counselors—about their paths. Some described an early serious interest in both medicine and performance. Others rethought their lives once they were out of school. What were the decision-making processes that took them from practice studios to operating rooms, or from Broadway’s public glare to privately helping others heal deepest human wounds? How can a life accommodate devotion to two demanding disciplines? Have they woven the two together or forsaken one for the other?

“I loved acting,” said psychotherapist Julie Spencer Rankin (Group 11, drama), who chose stage lights and makeup when growing up in West Virginia and then stayed in New York after studying at Juilliard to work in television, Off Broadway, and regional theater. “I always felt that on stage I could impact someone’s life. And that was alwaysabout communicating.” She learned to see the imaginary life of a character from a developmental point of view. “In a role you get to make up a lot of the arc of that person’s life.” But dealing with a professional performer’s reality was something else. She found she hated constantly looking for a job and the business side of performing in general. So armed with a desire to communicate in a different forum and a master’s degree in psychological services, Rankin created a new role, transforming herself into a mental health counselor.

“I remember how easy it was the first time I was a therapist,” she said. “I could step inside that other person’s world and see it through their eyes.” Why so easy? Because it built on her theater education. “Actor training teaches you nuances of communication, the layers of meaning—not just what is said, but the lilt of a voice, and the nonverbal, such as watching people walk by. And we did sense-memory work—how to calm oneself and harness the imagination which is essential for stress management.” Now a self-employed psychological trainer and executive coach, she has applied her counseling skills on the front lines with, among others, survivors of the Oklahoma City bombing and the World Trade Center attack.

Some performers, including Adrienne Zion, have rechanneled communications skills in other directions. Zion has held faculty appointments at Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons and in the Teachers College department of Biobehavioral Sciences; she has also led professional teams in medical marketing and education. “I think what distinguishes me is the way I can see what kind of communications work with what kind of audience. I’ve learned how to make a complex medical message clear to anyone.” Sometimes she finds that conveying the medical message is even easier than the more abstract expressions of art: “In science you can wrap your hands around something and say ‘I know that information.’”

Dancers, unlike actors and musicians, usually have stage careers limited to a few decades and need to prepare ahead for that fork in the road. Zion, who continues to work with dance companies in audience development and occasionally teaches dance, thinks about helping others find their own ways through change and reconnection. “I would like to work more with young dancers, to help them know that they have skills outside the studio,” she said. 

Evan Williams (B.F.A.’73) danced professionally until time caught up with her, at which point, she said, “I didn’t have a life plan. I wouldn’t trade what I did in dance for anything, but I didn’t want a studio of my own. At age 40, I went to a career counselor. She suggested I look at health care. I said, ‘What?!’ Then I took a course in anatomy and physiology and just loved it.” Williams then became a physical therapist assistant, working in that field for 10 years. Wanting more independence, she earned a license as a massage therapist, and now has an office and teaches at the University of Hartford, where she deals often with overuse issues (such as overpracticing or overusing certain fingers or muscles) among musicians at the Hartt School of Music. “Health care has been an adventure that carried over into forging my own way.” 

Dancer Jonathan Leinbach (B.F.A. ’83), permanently sidelined after several injuries and surgeries, said he found that choreography and teaching dance “didn’t float my boat.” As far back as high school he had been interested in psychology—“in people and why they do what they do”—and that interest stuck with him at Juilliard. He remembers choreographer Anna Sokolow, a faculty member from 1957 to 1993, as being “humanistic, intense, and emotionally driven.” After dancing, he knew he wanted something he could build on and that would enable him to continue learning, and after a friend suggested medical school, decided to apply. 

After completing undergraduate biology and chemistry prerequisites, Leinbach enrolled in medical school at Louisiana State University, where he taught ballet class to other medical students. “We found a large, open second-floor landing with a railing to use for a barre.” During his residencies, at Duke University in internal medicine and psychiatry, he did a research project with the American Dance Festival on the impact of psychiatric distress on performers, and he ultimately settled into private therapy practice as well as a position with the Veterans Administration. “When I’m on my game in therapy with someone—fully connected, involved, immersed—it feels like dance did: invigorating, connected to the way I want to live my life,” he said. “For dance and medicine there is a dedication above and beyond personal comfort. And there are periods when you transcend yourself.”  

Similarly, jazz trumpeter/doctor Henderson updates the mythological music/medicine equation: “I call them both divine art forms.” At one time, Henderson said, earning a steady living as a physician, as his stepfather had done, seemed just fine. “It was a perfect lifestyle. I was at a private clinic that let me take time off to go on tour.” (Touring even interrupted his residency project on the effects of music in psychiatric treatment.) Eventually, with his oversize talent in demand, being a full-time musician won out. Others have found their life course going in the opposite direction—from musician to doctor—sometimes by design, sometimes almost by accident.

“Becoming a doctor never crossed my mind until I had been playing professionally,” said Brian Benson (B.M. ’93,trumpet), a former principal trumpet in the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra and now an otolaryngologist in New Jersey. “In the symphony I felt a little bit removed from the world. And I had always wanted to take classes at Columbia.” He eased in by taking classes in the humanism in medicine program and found he liked the enthusiasm of and exchanges with fellow students. He was also able to make music with them, as Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons tries to match students with similar interests. “My Juilliard credentials enabled so much—I even got a generous grant because of my music background,” Benson said. He has enjoyed the fact that medical practice has meant lots of personal interaction, not unlike giving private lessons. And his background has also allowed him to solve a lot of voice problems for singers, since, he said, “musicians are like high-performance athletes in needing proper care.”      

Medicine is what Paul Kwak (M.M.’06, collaborative piano), now a resident in otolaryngology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, definitely had in mind for many years. Sort of. “My career has been a fortunate portrait of indecision,” Kwak said. He studied liberal arts first, graduating magna cum laude from Harvard, and then he entered Juilliard as a collaborative piano major, putting medical school on hold. “Those two years at Juilliard—that’s when it became difficult.” He felt the tug of music pulling him away from medicine, knowing that being a musician could be a viable option to being a doctor. “Juilliard changed the paradigm. Then, ironically, that’s where my career choice crystallized.” Kwak turned to Juilliard President Joseph W. Polisi for guidance. “He convinced me that making art 24 hours a day might not be the way [for me]. He was supportive of my studying medicine, that it was not only acceptable but important to do it.” Kwak, who has plunked a copy of the score of the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 on his desk, said, “Learning that piece is a goal, but I’ve never been so happy as being a doctor. It fulfills intellectual and technical satisfaction. But the sheer joy of playing with a singer is not equaled spiritually or emotionally in medicine. It is a gift to have both.”  

How individuals entwine their disciplines varies. Richard Kogan (Pre-College ’73) is a psychiatrist on the faculty at Weill Cornell Medical College and a pianist who has pursued both careers simultaneously. “The synergy between these two fields has been extremely helpful,” he said. “My involvement in music has informed my work treating patients, and my work as a psychiatrist has helped me have more insight into my patients’ creative process.”

Kogan gives 40 to 50 performance-lectures annually on the psychological factors affecting the creative process of many of the greatest composers, among them Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Schumann, Chopin, Mozart, Gershwin, and Mahler. “Musicians, writers, poets, and artists are more predisposed to mental illness than the rest of the population, but somewhat paradoxically, they’re more likely to be creative when their depression and psychotic tendencies are under control,” he said. Music, he believes, has a profound ability to reduce pain and lift anxiety, and it probably could be more frequently employed by physicians use to make their patients feel better. About a year ago, Kogan and Dr. David Shapiro founded Music and Medicine, a joint initiative of Weill Cornell and Juilliard, to allow musicians, doctors, students, and professionals to interact with each other around the complex relationship between mental illness and the creative process.

Raymond Lustig, who helped get the Music and Medicine initiative started, has decided that he can’t be a part-time scientist. That said, he noted, “my interest in science travels forward and finds its way into my music,” includingSemmelweis, his opera-theater work based on the real life of a 19th-century obstetrician. Manfred Clynes continues to give piano recitals, has developed practice exercises for improving piano technique, and has enhanced the scope of SuperConductor. Julie Rankin wouldn’t return to acting, but, she said, “I’ve woven all that into other things I love.” Jonathan Leinbach, by contrast, has started moonlighting in community theater. “On stage, having fun playing Herod in Jesus Christ Superstar, I realized I’d been missing this,” he said, adding that making art can be an antidote for “the anguish and pain in any doctor’s life.”   

Whatever their ultimate career path, all these alumni have been achievers in two highly demanding, competitive fields. And the common vehicle for success, they all say, is discipline. “My [medical school] professors realized that the focus and discipline dancers apply made me a different kind of student,” Adrienne Zion said. “That’s part of the overlap [with medicine] I see as a dancer—discipline and attention of detail, to specifics,” Leinbach said. And, Henderson noted, “Learning discipline at an early age, you can do anything.” Not only did he spend long hours practicing music, as a teenager he had trained to be a champion figure skater. “So medical school was a piece of cake.” 

All these alumni agree that the performing arts can be powerful healers. For instance, Lustig said, Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” Symphony, written near the time of the composer’s suicide, is “so, so terribly sad, but you don’t leave the concert hall wanting to kill yourself. You feel enriched having heard a reflection of deepest emotion.” In dance, “you use your full self, a mind-body continuum,” Leinbach observed. “It is also a way people engage their bodies to work out emotions; one of the ways humans have used forever to heal themselves.” And as an actor, Rankin said, “you confront your real self, the truth inside, sometimes in a painful way. Any authentic contact with yourself is ultimate for health and well being.” Henderson wrote his own prescription with his trumpet years ago: “I know music heals me. I’m doing the things I love, that I dreamed of. And you can’t buy that at a pharmacy.”


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