| The Columbus Dispatch
Scrubs may not seem like typical concert attire for a member of an orchestra.
But that’s exactly what some members of the National Virtual Medical Orchestra can be seen wearing during their third and most recent performance, released Sept. 11 on YouTube.
The group, which came together about a month into the pandemic, features health care professionals and medical students from around the country. Many of them are on the front lines treating patients with COVID-19, and two of the roughly 70 members are Ohio State University medical students: Matt Lordo and Akila Venkataramany.
Both are MD-PhD candidates and members of Ohio State’s Professional School Orchestra, one of a growing number of medical school orchestras that have popped up nationwide over the past two decades.
“Playing music recharges me,” said Lordo, 26, who grew up in Worthington playing the euphonium. “It helps me prevent burnout, even in graduate school, which is such a mentally taxing time.”
When the coronavirus cancelled his weekly rehearsals, Lordo said a main source of stress relief was taken away during a very anxiety-filled time.
John Masko, music director for the Providence Medical Orchestra based in Rhode Island, said he heard early on in the pandemic from many health care professionals and students like Lordo, who use musical performance as a mental break from their demanding industry. They lamented the loss of rehearsal time and postponed concerts.
“Music exercises a different part of the brain than they use at their job,” Masko said. “As their careers were all getting a ton more stressful at once, this valuable release was gone.”
As someone who has spent many years conducting a variety of groups, including several medical orchestras, Masko said he felt called to do something to unite these professionals, who in many cases were struggling. He began emailing connections he had at other universities and hospitals, and within a few days, he filled out an orchestra roster. Its next YouTube performance will be Monday.
Venkataramany, 24, a violinist, jumped at the chance to participate; rehearsing with the OSU medical orchestra had been the highlight of her busy week.
“When it was all taken away, especially when we were so close to our concert (in March), I was sad,” said Venkataramany, who has played her instrument since she was in elementary school in Ashland. “Orchestra is such a stress relief. To not be able to do that — when I heard about the virtual orchestra, I thought, ‘Oh, I just want to play again.’”
Though virtual performing has its challenges and isn’t an exact substitute for playing together in person, Venkataramany said figuring out necessary technology, learning new pieces and perfecting each recording have been welcome distractions from life as a medical student during a pandemic.
After Masko sends out music for each month’s performance — plus a track to play along with that includes a metronome keeping time and conductor cues — the musicians have two weeks to practice and record their parts. Most of them use only an iPhone or computer to record video and audio.
“If we need any help with interpretation, we can consult with him,” Venkataramany said. “Once we send in the recordings, they go through a high-quality production process to synch them.”
Masko said the group has used fundraising to hire top-notch audio and video companies to mesh together the dozens of recordings just perfectly. He added, though, that the post-production work used to help make an engaging and beautiful video shouldn’t take away from the musician’s dedication to their craft outside the hospitals.
“It’s an extraordinarily talented orchestra, so it’s not difficult to turn it into something great,” Masko said.
The group’s next YouTube performance will be an aria in which they will be accompanied by a nurse and tenor from Virginia, followed by another on Oct. 12.
Lordo said he’s thankful to be a part of such a unique endeavor.
“It’s been really helpful for me,” he said. “It breaks up the monotony of the routine we’re all in.”