The Medicine of Music: Fort Worth healthcare professionals, musicians find expressive outlet in the Fort Worth Medical Orchestra
By Charlotte Settle
Photos by Olaf Growald
The pairing of healthcare and music seems to defy professional norms, yet symphonies of medical professionals everywhere are finding solace in orchestral sounds.
Last year, the Fort Worth Medical Orchestra joined the ranks of roughly 40 organizations nationwide whose members harness musical prowess and medicinal expertise. Founded by physical therapist and flutist Susan Fain, the local orchestra continues to grow and achieve exciting new milestones.
The idea for a medical orchestra came to Fain years ago, when she heard a New York orchestra perform Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” on the radio. She was blown away by the quality of the performance and was shocked to learn the symphony was composed entirely of doctors.
“I had never heard of such a thing before,” she says. “In the back of my mind, I thought, ‘I would really love to play in something like that.’”
Fain holds a Doctor of Musical Arts in flute performance and a clinical doctorate in physical therapy. Her DMA dissertation — “An Application of Anatomy, Physiology, and Neurology to the Balancing and Playing of the Flute” — combined her interests in music and science and won the National Flute Association’s 2010 Dissertation Competition.
Throughout her career, Fain has performed with numerous musical ensembles while also working in orthopedic physical therapy outpatient clinics. “I’ve done both, but I prefer music,” she says. “I’m a flutist at heart.”
In 2020, Fain began sending out emails to all of her connections in the Fort Worth music community to gauge interest in forming a medical orchestra in Cowtown.
Dr. Germán Gutiérrez, professor of Orchestral Studies at TCU and music director of the Fort Worth Youth Orchestra, loved the idea so much that he offered Fain the Youth Orchestra’s rehearsal space and performance hall for a discounted rate.
Dr. Matthew Lovelace, a student of Gutiérrez and the director of orchestras at The Colony High School, eagerly agreed to come on board as the orchestra’s music director and conductor.
The Fort Worth Medical Orchestra hosted its first official rehearsal in October 2022 and secured its 501(c) (3) nonprofit status this September, enabling it to raise money.
The organization has three main goals: provide a creative outlet to local healthcare workers and musicians; raise funds for medical and education related charities at each concert; and make orchestral music more accessible to the DFW community at large.
“We want to engage with audiences who might not be able to go to Bass Hall but who would come to something smaller and cheaper that’s not downtown,” Fain says.
The orchestra’s inaugural concert in May this year attracted an audience of roughly 150 people, including the former music director of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, Miguel Harth-Bedoya.
“It was so exciting,” Fain says. “I was just hoping that anybody would come, but it was electric.”
The orchestra’s Nov. 9 concert to commemorate Veterans Day, which falls on Nov. 11, will benefit the Wounded Warrior Project — a nonprofit organization that provides holistic aid to veterans and active-duty service members. The concert will feature patriotic vocal and orchestral music, including a piece titled “Armed Forces Medley,” during which veterans will be invited to stand when their service’s theme song is played.
With the orchestra’s new nonprofit status, Fain hopes more patrons will make donations, as they now will be tax-deductible. A higher volume of contributions would allow the organization not only to participate in more charitable initiatives but also expand its repertoire of music, increase marketing efforts and cover the expenses that keep the orchestra afloat.
What initially started as a group of four violinists has grown into an ensemble of roughly 25 volunteer musicians. While the orchestra was initially intended to include only medical professionals, Fain decided to open it up to all local musicians to fill the spots necessary to play quality repertoire.
“We’re open to anybody now,” Fain says. “So if you’re a competent musician that plays an orchestral instrument, this would be a good time to get in the door.”
Right now, the orchestra consists of nurses, dentists, doctors, medical students, kids from the Youth Orchestra and TCU students.
Gutiérrez recruited his dentist, Johnny Cheng, to join the orchestra. A self-described music enthusiast, Cheng has played the violin for 40 years and joined the ensemble in January. “I didn’t really know what to expect, but it’s been a great experience,” he says.
Cheng’s ability to balance art and science dates back to college, when he was both a biology major and a member of the orchestra at Baylor University. For a few hours out of each week, he relishes in the opportunity to get lost in music and let everything else melt away.
“Work is work, but this is a time where you get to do something that very few people have the opportunity to do,” he says.
He notes this is a great way for local recreational musicians to put their talents to use. “There are a lot of people out there who have their instruments just sitting in their closet, and this is a great reason for them to play,” he says.
Jack May, a former member of the Fort Worth Youth Orchestra, responded to an email from Fain last fall.
“She was looking for musicians and it looked interesting, so I signed up,” he says. May, a cellist of nine years, is a first-year music major at the University of Texas at Arlington — and is one of the few orchestra members who is not involved in the medical field.
May has aspirations to join a professional orchestra one day, but he is keenly aware of the challenges that come with that pursuit. He notes it takes an average of 27 auditions to get into a professional or semi-professional orchestra — and a master’s degree to even get an audition.
“When you consider that the barrier of entry to the classical world is so high, having a community orchestra just for enjoyment is so important,” he says.
The Fort Worth Medical Orchestra allows May to do what he loves outside the confines of his academic requirements.
“I still take it seriously and play the music well, but it’s a little more stress-free,” he says. “It’s really special when musicians come together to make music.”
May also hopes the orchestra will be able to recruit more players moving forward. “We are relatively new and it’s somewhat of a niche industry, so we need some more musicians,” he says.
Fain has big dreams for the orchestra’s future. She envisions a five- or six-concert season, including a July 4 show and a “Nutcracker” performance in collaboration with a local ballet company.
“I want to get the whole orchestra seated,” she says. “I would like to have a 55-to-60-piece symphony.”
Though she is specifically seeking musicians who play the French horn, trumpet, trombone or bassoon, Fain also emphasizes that an orchestra can never have too many strings.
The Fort Worth Medical Orchestra offers a space for musicians of all backgrounds to enjoy the healing properties of music — and an accessible way for Fort Worth audiences to do the same.
“There’s something unique and special about the orchestra,” Fain says. “In the world of pain and hurt these people see every day, creating beauty and being part of something greater than themselves can be fulfilling.”