THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

An Unusual Composer in Residence

In case you have not noticed, 2009 has been The Year of Sputtering Rage. Talk radio lives on it. The evening news seems calculated to foment it. The Senate Republicans would be utterly lost without it. Sputtering rage is "pure" and is alleged to embody "common sense" at high volume. It requires no thinking; in fact it is the polar opposite of thought. And the one thing that all of the sputtering rage has in common is the belief that any idea that is different, unconventional or creative must of necessity have been propounded by an idiot.

When I first heard the news that the Florence Nightingale School of Nursing and Midwifery (a part of King's College, London) had engaged the Irish composer John Browne to serve as composer in residence for a year, sputtering rage did go through my mind for a fleeting moment. But it did not take long for "What lunacy!" to transform itself into "What a wonderful idea!" I obviously have no future in talk radio.

The idea of a composer in residence at a school of nursing and midwifery has nothing whatsoever to do with the selection of appropriate music to play in birthing rooms, operatoria or nurseries. Rather, as the news report had it, the school's "Culture in Care programme aims to explore the role that the arts - and especially music - can play in the professional development of staff and students..." The target audience, thus, is not the patient or the patient's bouncing baby offspring, it is the staff and students.

Unfortunately, the professional press release writers managed to muddy things by noting that "Browne's task will be to 'explore the nature of care in clinical environments through music,' and compose a new work to reflect upon his experience in the school by the end of the year." This high-sounding piffle is somewhat leavened by the information that Browne will create a songbook for nurses to use in children's wards and that he will be composing choral pieces for the Florence Nightingale Memorial Service to be held in Westminster Abbey in June of 2010.

One hardly needs to be a composer in residence to create a songbook for use in children's hospital wards or to write choral pieces for a Memorial Service. And the notion of a programmatic work on nursing and midwifery strikes me as vaguely Soviet.

I shudder to think of the outline for such a work in several interconnected tableaux: "The All Night Shift" (Adagio insomniatico), "The Overly Demanding Obstetrician" (Allegro primativo), "Finding a Vein" (Pizzicato energetico), "The Anesthetic" (Largo molto) and "The Miracle of Birth" (Molto aggitato con exclamatico primativo) and so on. Feh!

But to the extent that the news of John Browne's residence attracts any attention at all, it will likely be faintly mocking in tone or cited as an example of those slightly off-center Brits.

There are major medical schools that have well established, highly respected programs dealing with the humanities in medicine, founded on the principle that better, more thoughtful, more informed practitioners make for better doctors and health care professionals. And we need more of these programs, not fewer. In recent decades we have done a magnificent job of churning out doctors who know everything there is to know about a well-defined corner of medical science, but who are stunningly inept in their actual dealings with patients. The doctor who can treat a disease but who has the professional demeanor of a dead haddock is unlikely to be my first choice when the need arises for medical care.

Even if Mr. Browne's task is merely to encourage attendance at musical performances it is meritorious. Little clears the mind like a bracing dose of mid-day Haydn. But beyond attendance is involvement, and the doctor who plays chamber music with his friend, family and/or colleagues is a physician who understands the importance of shared vision and openness to ideas. The woman who insists "the phrase MUST be played this way" is not going to get very far in a collaborative venture such as a Mozart string quartet. If you have any brains at all, you play music with people you like and respect - people who will listen to your views as you listen to theirs. And if the second violin suggests to you, the cellist, that perhaps the phrase is best played in such-and-such a manner, the suggestion is not rejected on the grounds that the cello is not his specialty.

Doctors will, of course, tell you that teamwork is an essential part of their job and that they practice it hundreds of times a day in every conceivable context. Which is true, but does not take into account the rigid stratifications that medical bureaucracy creates. Music encourages creative teamwork without regard to lines of authority. In music, sometimes you think and work inside the box, other times you don't.

Without programs such as Culture in Care, nurses, nursing students, practitioners of midwifery and would-be midwives are not likely to come into close contact with composers of musical works. We have no idea of where such contact may lead, if it leads anywhere at all. But anything geared to helping make medical practitioners more caring, sensitive and culturally aware deserves commendation. Best to leave the sputtering rage to Mitch McConnell and the Just Say No Boy Band.