First-year Feinberg students launch Northwestern Medical Orchestra as downtown instrumental music outlet


Source: Elliot Abel

The Northwestern Medical Orchestra performs at its inaugural concert in the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab on May 1. The orchestra features everyone from Feinberg students and postdocs to faculty, staff and local alumni.

Troy Closson, Print Managing Editor

Even before arriving on campus, first-year medical students Bettina Cheung and Michael Wang noticed the Feinberg School of Medicine didn’t have its own “instrumental music scene” — and were determined to change that.

It’s easy “to get absorbed in the bubble created by the environment” at Feinberg, Cheung said. So she and Wang, who attended Yale University together and were involved in a student-run orchestra there, were eager to bring musicians on the Chicago campus together to focus on something unrelated to medicine, she said.

After a few months of rehearsals, the Northwestern Medical Orchestra held its inaugural concert Tuesday in the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab downtown and looks ahead to another on Friday. While Tuesday’s performance was held for patients, families and faculty in the AbilityLab as a “thank you” for allowing them to practice in the space, Cheung said the upcoming concert at Thorne Auditorium is more targeted to the general public.

While NMO’s board consists entirely of first-year medical students, Cheung said the orchestra features everyone from Feinberg students and postdocs to faculty, staff and local alumni.

“It’s just been really cool to me, to see that no matter what stage of your career you’re in, people are still excited to play music and you can make time for it if you want,” Cheung said.

Matt Heffernan, NMO’s manager, said the group currently has about 60 members and continues to grow.

After playing in an orchestra since his freshman year of high school, Heffernan, also the second violin section leader, said he was grateful for the opportunity to continue in NMO.

“I just wanted to keep playing violin,” Heffernan said. “When I was starting medical school, I thought that there was a chance that I wasn’t going to be able to continue. So when this chance to start something came about, I was really excited.”

NMO was connected to its current artistic director and principal conductor, Taichi Fukumura, through the group’s faculty adviser, and Heffernan said the orchestra immediately benefited from having a professional musician involved.

Fukumura — a Bienen School of Music doctoral student — said he is passionate about contributing to a project that “actually benefits the people (he’s) working with.”

Fukumura said he was initially worried whether students would be able to commit to the orchestra. But despite many students having exams around the same times as one another, he said he hasn’t seen many challenges for them in balancing their schedules.

“I’m amazed that … people will still show up just for that two-hour break,” Fukumura said. “I don’t know how, but they still come. They may look half-dead, but it’s so worth it to them that they actually show up to rehearsal.”

At Friday’s concert, he said NMO will reprise the repertoire — consisting of works by Beethoven, Ravel, Williams and Dvořák — from its AbilityLab concert, a mixture of genres they decided upon as a group.

Because the orchestra is the only instrumental music group on campus, Fukumura said the Chicago medical community has taken notice. NMO has been invited to perform at a number of events downtown, he said, including an upcoming event in Millennium Park sponsored by the National Institutes of Health.

Although the orchestra only began rehearsing in February, Fukumura said it is “already such a different group” talent-wise. Looking forward, both he and the first-year medical students said they hope NMO remains around for years to come and continues to provide a musical outlet for Feinberg.

“It’s such an enrichment for people’s lives,” Fukumura said. “To get to come together and just make music is something really important to them. … For them to be able to then share that music with their friends in the medical community is a wonderful thing.”

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