Achieving harmony

Balance in Practice

Stephen Richardson, MD

This month's author discusses how he balances his career in dermatology with his passion for collecting and playing violins.

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As dermatologists, we are drawn to notice the little differences — visual, tactile, and otherwise — that help us determine whether a patient is healthy or needs treatment. As I see patients every day, I strive to learn from each encounter to become a better doctor. I’ve approached my life with the violin in the same way, learning to appreciate the nuances, pushing myself to master new compositions, and taking time to enjoy music as a listener and performer. Constant reflection and appreciation — of my music, instruments, and work as a physician — help me to achieve balance in my career and personal life.

Learning to listen

At the urging of my sister’s piano teacher, I began playing the viola at the age of nine. She encouraged my brother and me to explore instruments that would complement her playing. My brother chose the cello and we became a family piano trio after I switched to the violin two years later.

From the beginning, I learned to appreciate the unique characteristics of the instrument in my hands, its strengths and limitations, the tension in a bow, and how small changes in the speed and pressure applied could create differences in sound. Years of dedication took me from playing in the living room of our house to performing in concert halls as a soloist and orchestral musician in the U.S. and abroad. In what’s easily the most memorable moment of my childhood, I was lucky enough to find myself as a soloist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, a pinnacle of my early performing life after years of commitment. From there my passion for music and the violin evolved.

Upon entering college I became immersed in the sciences and my focus shifted almost entirely to academic life. Although I still found moments to practice and perform, they were limited, and became even more restricted when I went off to medical school, residency, and fellowship training thereafter. As life got busier, I relished any opportunity I had to pick up the violin. One of my favorite pieces to play during those times was J.S. Bach’s Chaconne, a movement from one of his partitas for solo violin. It is a work that can be interpreted and appreciated in countless ways, depending upon the musician, listener, and the instrument upon which it is being performed — a technical masterpiece that allows the performer’s inner self to shine through. It gave me peace of mind and respite from a busy professional life. I still play it regularly. Although it may be just a few hours a week these days, I treasure the time I have to practice, engage in chamber music with friends, and play with my daughter, a budding young violinist herself.[pagebreak]

Living with history

Shortly after I began taking lessons, I became motivated to learn more about the history of the violin. This interest evolved over the years to include a mix of anthropology and organology, particularly relating to early Italian makers and their instruments. The design, sound, and craftsmanship of these violins (produced by the likes of Antonio Stradivari, among others) still set the standard for what contemporary makers aspire to achieve today. Although modern-day instruments rival those of the past in terms of beauty and sound, the “form” of the instrument has not evolved from the basic templates established centuries ago.

Advanced imaging techniques are currently being utilized to analyze specific details of some of the great instruments of the past with the hope of identifying features that might lend to their acoustic superiority. The “secrets” behind the impressive sounds they produce remain to be uncovered. The advances in design accomplished by their makers, and the consistency with which they produced instruments of superior aesthetics (sound, design, craftsmanship), have stood the test of time. It is for this reason that their instruments are so highly sought after by musicians and collectors alike.

Over the years I have become inspired to grow my own collection of instruments to study and share with others. Most recently I have taken in a wonderful 17th century Cremonese violin, an instrument whose provenance (“ownership”) has been traced back to the mid-1700s. Over the past few years I have enjoyed collecting documents relating to its history and past ownership. When I uncover concert programs in which it was played — dating back over 100 years — I can only imagine the enjoyment and solace it brought to performers and listeners of the time. Over 300 years of historical narrative and rich spectacular sound — preserved and continuing to be a source of beautiful music. I feel privileged to be a caretaker of such instruments.

I also feel that it is important for such instruments to be played, fulfilling their intended purpose. To this end, I have taken great pleasure in sharing my instruments with very talented aspiring violinists. Hearing one performed in concert, in the hands of a musician who can reveal its unique voice, is a wonderful experience. I also enjoy the opportunity to interact with, learn, and share knowledge with contemporary violin-makers and like-minded colleagues throughout the country who share my passion for music and stringed instruments. Visiting a shop, playing an instrument for the first time, and developing new ideas and interpretations based on the voice it produces reminds me of the excitement I used to get as a kid trading baseball cards![pagebreak]

Keeping tradition

For me, one of the most important aspects of collecting is to recognize and respect the history of each instrument. Holding one in my hands, looking for clues as to its origin/maker, and anticipating tonal qualities based on its construction is always a welcome challenge. Judging the workmanship and quality of materials used, and appreciating how subtle differences in the thickness of wood, arching, and size can affect the quality and robustness of the sound produced is an incredibly rewarding and ongoing experience for me. As a result, I recently started dabbling in the “process” of violin construction and restoration. I’m not anywhere near it yet, but I’d eventually like to become proficient at improving the potential of instruments that require minor adjustments or repair.

In dermatology, we continue to learn from our patients and each other. Every day presents new challenges — the same disorder may manifest itself in a multitude of ways, and treatments vary based on individual circumstances. The work of our predecessors serves as a foundation for new discoveries that will advance the field and motivate future generations to do the same. Similarly, the art of creating instruments requires patience, discipline, and a respect for knowledge passed on to us from pioneers of the past. Like music, the practice of medicine requires an open mind, creativity, and a passion for furthering one’s knowledge and teaching. It is these aspects of both that I find particularly rewarding in my professional and personal endeavors, providing balance in my life.