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When music and medicine unite

Dr Neil Black and Mr Brian MacKay of the Irish Doctors Choir speak to Clíona Hughes about the sense of achievement and fun generated by their rehearsals and performances

Music and medicine may not be commonly associated, but the Irish Doctors Choir is changing that. The choir, which comprises doctors from all over Ireland, performs classical works and frequently does ‘pop-up’ performances in healthcare settings, as well as raising money for charity.

The choir was conceived when the European Doctors Orchestra (EDO) started planning for a performance of Mahler’s Symphony No 2 (Resurrection) at the Ulster Hall, Belfast, in November 2017. The EDO required a large chorus for its performance, and thus, the Irish Doctors Choir was born.

Dr Neil Black, Public Relations Officer, and Mr Brian MacKay, Musical Director, spoke with the Medical Independent (MI) about the choir’s current activities and what it has achieved in its short lifespan to date.

Mr MacKay, a highly accomplished conductor, explained to MI how he came to be involved.

‘Fantastic challenge’

“Mahler’s Symphony No 2 (Resurrection) is a great orchestral work in which a choir sings at the last section,” according to Mr MacKay. “It was a fantastic challenge for anyone who is interested in that kind of music. I was contacted about taking on the task of forming a choir out of doctors for that one event. That was a ‘no-brainer’ request; it was such an exciting idea… It’s a piece that you don’t get to do very often, and it brought [together] 120 singers from all around the island.”

The choir has continued to grow as doctors enjoy the community spirit and hard work it encapsulates.

“The Irish Doctors Choir has a very different model,” Dr Black, Consultant Physician, Endocrinologist and Diabetologist at Altnagelvin Hospital, Derry, told MI. “We are from all across Ireland. The idea was to concentrate the activity into a number of weekends that we could focus on.” This is important as it enables doctors to plan ahead

“In many ways, the most important experience is getting together and our time in rehearsals,” added Mr MacKay, reflecting on the social aspect the choir encompasses. “I work with people who are very committed to music, despite their very busy professional lives. You get quite a potent combination of there being a very strong social reason for getting together without the pressure of daily working life, but also the ability to get together without the hierarchy of the medical profession. At the same time, doctors are prepared to work hard in a professional way to achieve good standards in their music-making. That is quite an exciting and special combination.”

Dr Black illustrated what makes the Irish Doctors Choir special, referring to the sense of community it fosters and the pride in those who partake. “It’s amazing; during work, people go on about their business and they may not interact with each other at all. They may just say ‘hello’ in the corridor. You don’t have very much contact, if any, with doctors from other hospitals. There is an even wider gulf between those who work in Northern Ireland in the NHS and those who work within the HSE. We have different specialties throughout the country… The choir helps to join us together.

“We gather together and go for lunch or tea at our rehearsal events, so there is a social component as well as the hard work,” continued Dr Black. “It’s important for medical professionals to understand that the social element is a recurring one that is important to us. We enjoy it. We raise money for charity and of course we share music. We normally perform in a hospital or somewhere public. There is a bit of giving back here too.”

Work schedules

Each member of the choir has a demanding and complicated work schedule and this needs to be accounted for when planning events and rehearsals. The choir has adapted and evolved to work in a way where everyone can be involved and achieve a work-life balance at the same time.

“We do two rehearsal weekends with a performance at the end of it,” said Dr Black. “It’s really intense, so you need to do your homework … and take advantage of all the aids to support you while you’re working. It is intense. It’s like the saying, ‘you don’t play rugby to get fit, you get fit to play rugby’. We are there to do a job and we know that we can achieve something quite complex and amazing.”

It is impressive that doctors in the choir can set aside the time to tackle such musical masterpieces as Mahler’s Symphony No 2 (Resurrection) and do so in such a condensed period of time. Dr Black and Mr MacKay elucidated on what is required to rise to the challenge. “It means co-ordination, but I can plan ahead with the Irish Doctors Choir,” explained Dr Black.

Mr MacKay added: “I think that you need a different kind of drive to tackle the big pieces that we do in such a short period of time. There has to be a willingness to pre-prepare and to work, in spite of the fact that this weekend is meant to be a ‘weekend off’ and it’s not easy nor without its pressure.

“One of things that we have been learning throughout the process is how to handle the challenge we are taking on in the amount of time we have and to strike a balance that doesn’t cause unnecessary pressure in terms of doing what is required to present ourselves to the public. That’s part of the process and it leads to fascinating conversations about the parallels between professional musicians and healthcare workers and how people react to different types of situations. The shortness of time is part of the nature of how this group works.”

“It is feasible,” Dr Black underlined. “The choir is designed to be feasible for us. We plan a year ahead so that people can slip that into their schedules and can dedicate the time. If we didn’t do that, it would be impossible to run the choir. It is designed to allow people to fit it into some fairly committed schedules and you would be surprised at the people who are able to participate.”

In the short time that the choir has been on the scene, it has achieved a lot and has great plans for the future. “Hearing them sing Mahler in the Ulster Hall in Belfast was something quite extraordinary,” Mr MacKay recalled.

“This year we are going to Cork for the first time and we are going to sing a programme that has a set of Russian songs by Rachmaninov and we are doing it with a choral suite from West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein. It’s a programme for both the singers and the audience. We are hoping to attract new doctors from the Cork area and increase membership. We are always looking to get more medical students involved and to keep the younger generation of singers interested. That is an exciting project for this year.”

Looking forward, there is a lot to come for the choir. “Next year is a big Beethoven [birthday] anniversary, 250 years, so we are going to spend the year celebrating him. We have had an invite to go to Madeira, where they have a resident professional orchestra and we are going to be the chorus, along with one or two other choirs. We will be performing the chorus for the ninth symphony. A big choral event like that with such an amazing piece of music will be a main focus for us in 2020,” Mr MacKay said.

New members

The Irish Doctors Choir is always open to accepting new members and Mr MacKay said there is a strong connection between healthcare professionals and music. “There are many parallels between professional musicians and healthcare workers; if you enjoy singing and music-making, just come and sing with us for a weekend and then see if you even need to ask whether or not you should join.

“If you can sight-read and have some musical singing experience, then you would probably cope very well with the Irish Doctors Choir,” added Dr Black. “We’ve been using our Instagram page to contact medical student groups. We’re open to all doctors and medical students anywhere across Ireland, but we also accept applications from outside Ireland. Our choir also includes singers who aren’t doctors but are associated in one way or another with the health service, at the Musical Director’s discretion, to help to ensure balance in the choir…

“There is a feeling of community, of sharing something, of working hard and achieving something together. Even if it’s only in the hall with just ourselves, hearing that our work is good is extremely satisfying,” he concluded.

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