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VCU Health Orchestra returns to music after battling COVID

"Any patient or visitor can come," said Erichsen, who works in workforce development in the division of community health at VCU Health. "That's part of our mission."
Credit: AP
Will Pattie leads The VCU Health Orchestra during their reunion rehearsal on Wednesday, April 21, 2021, in Richmond, Virginia. A group of doctors, nurses, and med-students at MCV make up the orchestra. (Shaban Athuman/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP)

RICHMOND, Va. — It wasn't quite as warm as they might have hoped, and the blustery winds scattered sheet music and toppled music stands across Bruce and Margaret Swartz's front yard, but make no mistake: Members of the VCU Health Orchestra were soooooo happy to be back together making music, the weather was but a mild annoyance.

Conditions were "difficult with the wind, but we made it work," said Theresa Erichsen, the orchestra's co-founder and executive director, of the reunion rehearsal the evening of April 21. Musicians generally kept a safe distance from one another and remained masked — except for the wind-instrument players who removed their masks to play.

"So emotional to see everyone," said Erichsen, a nurse by training who also plays the French horn. "We were like giddy children."

Outdoors was the safest way to go for the orchestra's first get-together after more than a year apart because of the pandemic, so the Swartzes offered their lawn, and their neighbors in their West End neighborhood got a free concert. A few brought out lawn chairs. Children and dogs romped in nearby yards.

"It just kind of gave you a feeling of community that maybe things are going to get back to normal," said Bruce Swartz, a bass player. "Everybody had a smile on their face. It was just really good."

No group could appreciate a return to (almost) normal after the year we've been through any more than people involved in health care, and that would include the majority of the VCU Health Orchestra. Members include physicians, nurses, administrative staff, medical school students, alumni and a few nonmedical community volunteers — such as Bruce Swartz — needed to fill gaps in certain sections.

VCU Health is one of the few academic medical centers in the United States with its own symphony orchestra, which was founded in 2017. A dozen or so musicians showed up for the first rehearsal. The roster now stands at about 60, and the orchestra typically performs with about 45 to 50 on stage, Erichsen said.

The orchestra plays a wide variety of music — from pop to classical — and generally performs stand-alone concerts in the community and for department events. Its last performance was in January 2020, a concert at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, which was also the last time the orchestra was together.

The orchestra rehearses — or did, before the pandemic — on Wednesday evenings in the upstairs hall of VCU's Main Hospital cafeteria.

"Any patient or visitor can come," said Erichsen, who works in workforce development in the division of community health at VCU Health. "That's part of our mission."

The value of the relationship between music and medicine — or even music as medicine — is on full display with the orchestra, and it's not just about those listening. In addition to the benefits that research has found music has on the human brain, simply playing in the orchestra can be a great stress reliever for someone in a high-pressure job, Erichsen said.

"I have medical people who are coming right off the units, so stressed out," she said. "They come and play in scrubs and say, 'Oh, my God, I just so needed this today. I had such a difficult day.'"

Titles don't go far in the orchestra. Department chairs sit next to students, doctors beside nurses. There are only first names.

"We're all musicians when we're together, and it's all about having fun," Erichsen said. "I think that's what makes our group different. Just the camaraderie we have."

A return of that creative outlet and the musical fellowship is most welcome, particularly now, for those who have been on the front lines of the pandemic.

"I get emails from them about how much they need the music and how much they miss it," Erichsen said.

The reunion rehearsal represented "a kind of lifting of a barrier" and "a return to joy in each other's company," said Kara Dods, an M.D. and Ph.D. student in VCU's School of Medicine and Department of Chemistry who also plays French horn and manages the orchestra.

For those who have worked to keep patients alive and keep the hospital running through the pandemic, getting back together signals "we're no longer fighting every day for every small thing," said Dods, who has worked as a volunteer vaccinator with the VCU Vaccine Corps at local vaccine clinics. Erichsen also has volunteered with the vaccine corps.

"We can take time to enjoy life and play music, which is low ... in terms of our responsibilities in the health care system," Dods said, "but is still so important because it keeps us human and keeps us in touch with each other."

The orchestra's first postpandemic public concert is tentatively scheduled for Dogwood Dell on Aug. 29. Meantime, there will be more open-air rehearsals.

The Swartzes invited the orchestra back after canvassing their neighbors to see if anyone objected to the hubbub.

"They said they'd love to have us back," Swartz said.