Music for music's sake - art for art's sake: they're unwritten laws for many creative spirits. But the World Doctors Orchestra demonstrates what else music is capable of, including serving as a source of therapy.
Twice a year, it's out of the doctor's coat and into a tux or evening gown for roughly 100 of the members of the World Doctors Orchestra. Directed by internal medicine specialist and conductor Stefan Willich, these medical musicians from around the world perform benefit concerts, with proceeds going toward medical aid projects.
How it all began
Berlin-based physician Willich got the orchestra off the ground. A music lover at an early age, he learned to play the violin as a child, then studied piano and conducting. After graduating from high school, he even began studying music until he had a horrible epiphany: "If I have to make music every day as a professional, I'm going to lose my love of it," he recalled. So he changed his major to medicine.
Years later, an internist at Berlin's Charité hospital, he realized many of his colleagues enjoyed making music in their free time. So Willich founded a doctors' orchestra in 2007. But his vision went well beyond Berlin: a group of amateur musicians made up of physicians from around the world.
The World Doctors Orchestra performed for the first time in public in 2008 at Berlin's Philharmonie. In the following years - from 2009 to 2012 - the musicians performed in celebrated concerts in the United States, Armenia, China and South Africa. But Berlin, the orchestra's home base, saw a benefit concert nearly every year.
The body of musicians around Stefan Willich keeps charitable causes at the top of the agenda. Concert proceeds go in part to support international and regional projects. The World Doctors Orchestra also encourages its audience to donate money to improve medical care and access in developing countries.
The orchestra now consists of 700 members from over 40 nations. Around 20 percent of the musicians and medical professionals come from Germany.
Dealing with members spread around the world is a feat of planning and preparation.
"The musicians get notice well in advance of when a concert is taking place and what pieces will be played. Weeks or even months ahead of time, we send the scores to our members so that everyone, whether in Asia, Africa or the US, can rehearse on their own," said Stefan Willich.
The participants in a given performance then meet in the city where the concert will be held. Often they have just a couple of days to rehearse. No problem, though, the conductor says: "After all, doctors are accustomed to working hard. And since we all love music, the rehearsals hardly feel like work."
Music and medicine
A willingness to work hard isn't the only reason Stefan Willich sees doctors as well suited to a volunteer orchestra. Music and medicine both have to do with very nuanced structures, he says.
"In music, you have the compositions. In medicine, the natural sciences. But in both, you have to give yourself over to emotion, subjectivity and passion," he said, noting also that music can have a relaxing effect on people who spend their days confronted with illness or death.
Power to heal
Stefan Willich views music therapy as a remarkable interface between music and medicine. Although this form of therapy has often been neglected by modern medical practitioners, it's currently undergoing a renaissance. Willich offers two examples of how music has been shown to have the power to heal: "Music can lower blood pressure. And people suffering from dementia are able to use music to stay in contact with the world around them much longer, even after they've lost the ability to use language."
The musician doctor sees those facts as a strong argument for including music therapy in modern medicine.
As part of this year's Beethovenfest, the World Doctors Orchestra gave a benefit concert in Bonn, with the proceeds going in part to a project called "Dentists for Africa" that was founded by German dentists. Funds also went to the pediatric department at the University of Bonn's hospital.