By Julie Wood
At the beginning of the year, the Penn Med Symphony Orchestra (PMSO) was preparing for their spring concert, anticipating the day their audience would saunter into the Irvine Auditorium on the University of Pennsylvania’s campus to listen to the group’s collection of music. It would be the latest in the series of public performances each semester by the creative group of medical students, faculty, and staff since the orchestra formed in 2016. Their regular rehearsals included Elgar’s “Nimrod” from the “Enigma Variations,” a solemn yet subtly uplifting melody.
However, in March, rehearsals, and the rest of the world, came to a halt, forcing large in-person events to be cancelled or postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. To keep their performers involved, PMSO has been busy prepping for a virtual concert, allowing concertgoers to listen to the harmonious sounds of the strings and wind instruments without even leaving their house. And the performers would play from their homes, too.
“We realized things had to be a little different this year. We couldn’t do a full in-person orchestra,” said Andrea Jin, a second year medical student at the Perelman School of Medicine. “Maybe it could’ve been possible for strings to sit socially distanced with masks on, but it really wasn’t possible for wind and brass players. In that regard, we were forced to think about these virtual alternatives.” Jin is the director of finance for PMSO, joining the group in 2017 after playing the viola as an undergraduate student in the Cornell Symphony Orchestra.
PMSO primarily consists of medical students from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania along with faculty and researchers. In addition, undergraduate, postgraduate, and people in the local community are welcome to participate. Martin Baker, PhD, a post-doctoral research fellow in the department of Pharmacology, has been involved with the orchestra since its launch. A bassoon player, Baker is also the orchestra’s senior director of media and engagement. “Before COVID, the orchestra was a great place for everyone to just relax and make music,” Baker said. “We were really sad we had to stop doing rehearsals, but we hope to keep that momentum we had going in the spring and continue to create music that people will enjoy.”
Inspired by the virtual performances held by the Philadelphia Orchestra (including performances streamed for patients at Penn Medicine hospitals), PMSO began to plan their own concert created from individual performances by the musicians in front of their phones. The orchestra provided guidelines on the PMSO website, instructing the performers to record and submit a video of themselves playing their own instrument’s part of the selected piece of music they had been preparing for the spring concert: Elgar’s “Nimrod.” Musicians can follow the tempo of the piece through a conducting video featuring the PMSO conductor Daniel Zhang, a fifth year MD-PhD student.
While they’re not side by side on the Irvine stage, the orchestra members find solace in still being able to play their instruments and stay involved with the group amidst the pandemic. It’s the latest in a long line of examples, even just at Penn, from music therapists singing to soothe their colleagues to emergency physicians jamming in a rock band.
“Health care is something that is really demanding, so music has definitely been a source of healing and rest,” said Sarah Kim, a second-year medical student who plays the violin, and also PMSO’s director of engagement and communications. “We’ve been wondering if COVID will fundamentally change music forever. This concert is an opportunity for us as players, and also our audience, to see how resilient music can be.”
For Baker, playing the bassoon allowed him to have something to work towards, providing comfort in an uncertain time this spring when labs were temporarily closed. “As a researcher, I couldn’t get into the lab and there wasn’t much for me to do from home. Being able to play music during lockdown was really helpful for me,” said Baker. “We hope that in the spring we can return to the orchestra. We make the best music when we’re in the same room together.”
Submissions for videos were accepted on October 15th. The next steps include editing the submissions together into one virtual concert experience, which is expected to be posted on the PMSO website in late November. To stay updated on the release of the virtual concert, follow PMSO on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.