'There’s a strong similarity between working in an operating theatre and playing in an orchestra': revisiting the World Doctors Orchestra

Jon Tolansky
Monday, September 20, 2021

Jon Tolansky catches up with the World Doctors Orchestra as they prepare to perform at the Barbican Centre on 4 October.

© Arlindo Homem

In our time of pandemic anxiety there can hardly be a more persuasive advocacy for the return of live music-making than the words of opthalmic surgeon and musician Timothy Yap who is in the first violin section of the World Doctors Orchestra, which comes to the Barbican Centre to play an adventurous programme under its distinguished conductor and cardiologist Stefan Willich on the 4 October (www.wdolondon2021.com).

The previous day, they will have appeared at the Apex in Bury St Edmunds. Although this orchestra, which featured in a two-part Classical Music article entitled ‘Music and Medicine’ last year, is not a professional body, a substantial number of its members are professionally trained musicians who play to a very high standard, as can be seen and heard in some examples of performances on YouTube – and their very gifted principal conductor has a special conducting pedigree having studied in conducting workshops with, among others, Sergiu Celibidache and Leon Barzin.

In the present circumstances, as top skilled medical professionals, he and the orchestra are particularly concerned to perform both as public supporters of the professional musicians who have been so devastatingly hit by the consequences of Covid and also as expert testifiers to the safety of going to concerts once again. As such they are as devoted as they always are to giving their audiences experiences of high quality playing and unusual programming: their concert includes Malcolm Arnold’s zany A Grand Grand Overture replete with vacuum cleaners, floor polisher and four rifles, Michael Daugherty’s kaleidoscopic Dreamachine for a massive array of solo percussion instruments and orchestra with Dame Evelyn Glennie in the solo chair, and two classic English scores: Bax’s Tintagel and Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Unlike most non-professional orchestras, the WDO, as its title indicates, draws its personnel from doctors all around the world, and there is very formidable competition to be accepted. It has been strongly impressing international audiences since it was founded in 2008 by Stefan Willich, who as the director of the Institute for Social Medicine, Epidemiology and Health Economics in Berlin led an international team recommending safety precautions for performing musicians and audiences during the Covid-19 pandemic. How did he conceive the World Doctors Orchestra?

‘I used to separate my medical life and my musical life quite strictly,’ he told me. ‘However, in different countries I met so many doctors who were very active musicians too that I felt we should try to combine those two fields and use the powerful international language of music to make a medical impact, shedding light on certain medical projects that are needed in various locations.’

As is the case with their visit to England this year: the proceeds of the concert are to be donated to the charity Pathway that, as Timothy Yap explains, works with NHS organisations to support healthcare for the homeless.

‘Pathway co-ordinates the aftercare of homeless people that have had to go into hospital. There are homeless people that have chronic conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure who never get checked. They can’t get a GP as they have no address and there are often additional problems of drugs, alcohol and mental illness – so the matter of monitoring their condition and arranging treatment for them is a tough and vital task. For this reason we feel Pathway is a very important organisation to support through our concerts in Bury St Edmunds and London this year.’

As doctors we want to work together with the great professional orchestras to reassure the public that it is very safe to attend concerts again

As the Music and Medicine features related, it is conspicuous how so many doctors around the world have musical aspirations that they pursue with great seriousness. Stefan Willich explains correlations between the two professions.

‘There are striking parallels between the fields of medicine and music. As a doctor you have to be very meticulous in the way that you adhere to the natural sciences, and as a musician you have to be very meticulous in the way that you adhere to the exactness of the written notes – and in both fields you then have to add interpretation and subjectivity to the objectivity of your analysis and execution in order to communicate the essence of the message. Then of course music is such a rich reflection of life and all its emotional ups and downs, and for doctors who have to face human dramas all the time in their work it is particularly cathartic to be immersed in this reflective world of music and find peace of mind.’

Timothy Yap, a fully trained musician who still gives solo and chamber recitals, adds: ‘My training at the Royal Academy of Music even now benefits my work as a researcher and surgeon because these days the teaching in medical schools is often algorithmic and classified in its approach whereas for all the technical excellence a musician needs, he or she has to find their own individual feet and decide what direction they are going to take. In fact, the most highly regarded and influential people in the medical world have carved their own individual paths taking new directions, and my background as a musician has been invaluable in acclimatising me to think in an individual way as a surgeon – and of course in medicine we must constantly be exploring new perspectives to tackle the challenges we face with greater success.’

Similarly, principal viola and anaesthetist Romanie Ruggier, a former junior exhibitioner at the Royal College of Music, member of several orchestras, and a participant in 46 WDO charity concerts in 26 different countries, reveals how her work in medicine has affected her approach in orchestral playing: ‘There’s a very real and strong similarity between working in an operating theatre as a team and playing in an orchestra as a team. It may not always be well known that as an anaesthetist one knows a lot about what the surgeon and the nurses are doing, and of course in an orchestra one has to realise and understand what other people are playing. I think the necessary responsibility of awareness in my medical background has been beneficial for the awareness I need when I am playing in an orchestra.’

And, like all the WDO members, Romanie Ruggier’s awareness includes the staunch need to be as fully prepared as possible a long time in advance of each concert so as to realise everyone’s high standards.

‘People prepare individually very rigorously before rehearsals begin,’ Stefan Willich tells us. ‘Some even take lessons again with professional musicians so as to nail down their part as well as possible. Also, we have sectional rehearsals where there is coaching by some top professional musicians – and that helps a lot to enhance the quality and the sonority for really impressive playing.’

Romanie Ruggier adds: ‘People arrive very well prepared and take the rehearsals very seriously. Stefan treats us like professionals, which some of the players have been – and that includes demanding the highest standards not only of playing but also of discipline. At the same time everyone is most committed to Stefan’s standards and we value and appreciate having a conductor who is so meticulous and determined. We all want to play our very best for him, and he has an aura that exudes an atmosphere of anticipation. He also has a real sense of humour and we have great enjoyment and excitement working with him – but most importantly of all he is very deeply dedicated to what he is doing and he expects the same of us.’

Serious commitment to performance, to both the profession and the audiences of music, and to the well-being of humanity are the combined driving forces behind the World Doctors Orchestra, as Stefan Willich sums up: ‘We are very eager in performing to encourage our professional colleagues and all the audiences to feel confident that with the right safety precautions it is safe to come back to cultural life as it is so greatly needed. As doctors we of course have responsibilities to prevent the spread of Covid but we also feel a profound responsibility to help people to recover from the lockdown mode and come back to a normal action of being together and go to concerts, operas, theatres, and museums.’