Michael Savilla, DO, took a piano class in college and bought his first keyboard when he began medical school. He played the piano regularly during his first year of school as a way to relieve stress. While completing rotations in hospitals during his third and fourth years of medical school, he played piano during his breaks. The songs eventually caught the ears of nearby patients.
“I wasn’t sure if the piano was just for presentation or if people were allowed to play it,” says Dr. Savilla, who graduated from the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine (WVSOM) in Lewisburg in 2018 and is now an anesthesiology resident. “I had a break and I saw there were a lot of patients coming through, so I sat down and started to play.”
Dr. Savilla is one of many people in the medical field who use music as a creative outlet to relieve the stress of an intense and rigorous career. Like Dr. Savilla, many musically inclined medical professionals also use music as a tool to help patients. The soothing sounds can lift the spirits of those in hospitals and clinics.
‘It’s basic human nature’
When playing piano for patients during his rotations, Dr. Savilla chose songs that ran the gamut of genres, from Beyonce to Ludovico Einaudi, a modern classical composer. His favorite tune to play for patients was the Christmas classic “Carol of the Bells.” No matter the song, Dr. Savilla said, he takes pride in being able to offer an outlet that makes others feel better.
“It’s basic human nature. Being a health care provider and caring for people are not mutually exclusive. We can all find ways to show love and care,” he said. “Pain comes in different forms, and music can impact how patients respond to it. For the most part, people respond positively to music.”
Music for stress reduction in med school
Stress reduction is the main reason students Nick Bennett, OMS III, and Amanda Buzzetta, OMS III, sing and play instruments. Bennett is from Hinton, West Virginia, and plays guitar while Buzzetta is from Orlando, Florida, and plays trombone. The two students, who attend WVSOM, found a common interest in music while searching for other musicians during their first year in medical school. Their first performance was at an open mic night and since then they have performed duets at various WVSOM events.
“I thought about our combination of instruments and vocals and tried to imagine what it would sound like,” Buzzetta said. “As soon as we rehearsed together, we just played off each other and tried to incorporate each other’s sounds.”
Bennett is a self-taught guitar player who picked up the instrument as a bored 13-year-old. In college, he started learning classical guitar along with singing and songwriting. He dabbled in learning to play other instruments, such as the banjo, mandolin, bass, drums, Dobro and ukulele. He said he has found that music helps exercise his whole brain.
“People who enjoy medicine are people who like academic challenges but who also enjoy people and interacting. Playing music is a similar experience for the brain,” he said.
Buzzetta has been juggling two passions since high school. That’s when she thought she wanted to pursue music education as a career but discovered her additional interest in anatomy and physiology.
“I decided to look into medicine but wasn’t ready to let go of music, so in college I pursued a double major in music and biomedical sciences,” she said. “I tried to continue both as long as I could, but after college I pursued music as a career, teaching in public school and being a freelance musician.”
While trombone is her primary instrument, she has also played euphonium. As much as she loved music, Buzzetta took the path that is leading her to become a doctor. She said she has recognized many parallels between medicine and music ever since beginning medical school.
“I find myself writing musical notations for heart sounds, and I never thought I’d be exercising that knowledge,” she said.
Another way to connect with people
Alex Bingcang, DO, a 2006 WVSOM graduate and a family medicine physician in Cincinnati, played cello throughout his time in medical school. He returned to Lewisburg, West Virginia, for the 2019 Alumni Weekend to play with his musical group B-Bams at the Ivy Terrace, a free outdoor concert series that takes place each summer.
Dr. Bingcang has played at awareness events such as the Sept. 11 15-year commemoration and a fundraiser after the 2016 West Virginia floods.
“It’s nice to be able to share with the community and connect with people not through the healing arts but through music,” he said. “In Cincinnati, my wife Sarah and I play music with a retired physician and we play trios in the area. We’ve played at hospitals and fundraisers for things like melanoma awareness.”
One of the senses that many patients continue to possess when they are ill or dying is their sense of hearing, Dr. Bingcang said.
“There’s an interesting sense of hearing that continues when a person might not be able to speak but responds physiologically to sounds,” he said. “There are studies that show the benefits of people hearing music. Music improves people’s moods. You see this in the nursing home or in those with dementia. When I play for people who have dementia, they seem to liven up. It’s uplifting to hear music.”
Bennett said one thing good doctors and good musicians have in common is that they’re good collaborators.
“Playing instruments with other people means you have to listen to them and incorporate their ideas, and that’s true of medicine as well. It takes everyone’s strengths brought together to find the best path to care for patients,” he said.