Playing Music in Medical School
Joseph Park is a second-year medical school student at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania as part of the Medical Scientist Training Program, where he is planning on pursuing his graduate study in Genomics and Computational Biology. He is a Juilliard-trained classical violinist, and currently plays in a funk rock band called “Trisomy Rescue” with fellow medical school classmates.
Joe graduated magna cum laude with highest honors from Harvard University, where he studied Biomedical Engineering and Global Health and Health Policy. He is interested in a career as a physician-scientist combining biomedical research, clinical practice, and teaching.
What inspired your initial interest in music?
My mother, now a retired opera singer, had a dream as a young girl to become a world-renowned pianist. But due to her father’s poor cardiovascular health, she made the decision to give up her dreams, which required a significant financial investment to not only maintain piano lessons but also to pay off the cost of a grand piano. While she decided to become an opera singer instead, she encouraged me to pick up her dream and play the piano. However, being the rebellious child I was, at the age of three I chose the violin after jealously watching a girl play Vivaldi’s Concerto in A minor on TV.
My family moved to New York City when I was 10 years old for a variety of reasons, including the opportunity for me to attend the Juilliard School. After working with various teachers, each pulling me in a different direction, I finally auditioned for the school and was accepted when I was 14. Over the next four years at Juilliard, I became absolutely addicted to the ecstasy that came with performance. This was, to be honest, expected – after all, the reason why I came to the school was to prosper as a performing violinist. (Ironically, my move to New York corrupted my classical music background, once my friends introduced me to classic and alternative rock). But something unexpected also happened. I found that I had a knack and interest for the two courses that most of the students hated: music theory and ear training. These courses would spark the skills that allowed me to find a home in music arrangement and composition.
Throughout college, I kept up with violin as a member of the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra, performing throughout the school year and going on tour to Israel and Jordan in 2013, then the Philippines and South Korea in 2015. Chamber music, which was also a favorite from my Juilliard days, continued to provide an avenue for me to temporarily forget all stressors. But I also started to take music arrangement and composition more seriously, using the skills I learned from music theory and ear training to arrange old songs using modern sounds, perform K-pop songs in jazz and funk arrangements, and get into the habit of listening to any vocal part in 3-part harmonies.
How have you managed to balance your interests in music and medicine?
Lately, there has been a push for the use of music as therapy in the medical setting, but this incentive has still not gained as much traction as it deserves, in my opinion. There were many students at Juilliard who were also interested in going into medicine, but there weren’t any platforms that existed for us to perform at hospitals or other medical centers in New York City. So, a couple of classmates and I created a group at Juilliard called ‘Apollo Ensembles’, named after the god of both music and medicine. Through the few connections I had formed with the Beth Israel Medical Center through shadowing and research internships, we were able to start performing in the ICU at Beth Israel, before expanding our performances to other medical locations over time. At Harvard, I joined Music In Hospitals and Nursing homes Using Entertainment as Therapy (MIHNUET), an organization that performs at medical centers and senior homes throughout the Boston area. In addition to playing in the university orchestra, performing with MIHNUET helped me to continue tying together my interests in music and medicine.
How did you end up forming a band in medical school?
It really wasn’t an avidly active process on any of the members’ parts, but somehow it happened. My classmate Claire Hirschmann was actually the main figure who identified classmates Daniel Gratch and myself as guitar players who might be interested in forming a band. This was really the only starting point, and from then on, another classmate Peter Schwab, Dan and I started talking about forming a band. Jon Peterson, David Kersen, and Mike Randazzo joined immediately afterward, and we all agreed that this band would be a great way for us to take our minds off of medical school. Our first goal was to perform at the Music On Call winter concert. Meanwhile, discussions started brewing about a song that I had been writing for a couple months regarding a breakup…
What was the motivation for writing “Schistocyte”?
The initial motivation for writing “Schistocyte” was actually quite ill-tempered. I have to say, I’ve been quite unlucky in my personal life with regard to how relationships have ended, and unnecessarily exacerbated heartbreaks were a common theme. Without explaining all of the details, let’s just say there were substantial reasons for me to be angry with my ex-girlfriend, and my frustration got to a point where I wanted to spill my emotions into a song and write a nasty song just for her. Somehow, as I was caught up in the moment and in my emotions, the song almost magically wrote itself, the Korean lyrics for which would find themselves in the last cathartic letter I would send to her. It gave me much more satisfaction than I had imagined and saved me a whole lot of heartache.
When I shared both my story and this song with Dan and Peter, they were excited about the tune and said it could be something we could work on as a band. For the next couple months, I continued crafting the song, this time seriously considering music theory, so to make the song as catchy as possible for the public ear, and translating the lyrics to English. This is when Peter came up with the brilliant idea of symbolizing heartache with a schistocyte, and that was the final spark that helped me get the song to its final stage. Armed with “Schistocyte” as our first single, we began performing as Trisomy Rescue for our medical school classmates and garnered attention for the song. Finally, this past summer, we recorded the song and posted it on SoundCloud.
What are some other projects you are working on?
We are trying to put together an album of some kind. Whether it will be an EP, LP or full album, we have no idea. But we do have a handful of new songs that are coming together, and it’s just a matter of which ones finish up first and which ones we like the most for putting together this album. We also plan on continuing to perform for our medical school classmates by holding parties at Nu Sigma Nu, the medical school fraternity, but we are trying to expand our goals by performing at other venues and releasing recordings online to garner some more attention from the general public.
How do you hope to keep your musical alive in the future?
Music has always been an essential part of me and I cannot imagine a life without my serious investment in music. It has always been this way, and I hope that I will always be involved in music somehow. I also hope that Trisomy Rescue will have a long future, even if we will be encountering various obstacles in the clinic along the way. I also don’t want to lose my roots in classical music, which is why I joined the recently founded Penn Med Orchestra in hopes of establishing a strong orchestral culture in the Philadelphia medical community, just as the Longwood Symphony has done throughout decades in Boston. While the orchestra is just in its beginning stages, I am hoping that the many years I have left in Philly as an MD-PhD student will allow me to invest significant energy and effort as the orchestra’s concertmaster to see the community develop over the years.
Joe and the band, Trisomy Rescue, will be featured in the soon-to-be-released Episode 1 of the Doctors Who Create podcast, which will be on musicians in medical school. Follow us on twitter for its release to hear the stories of all the band members and listen to them rehearse and perform.