Enlighten Without Violating: A Common Thread For Classical Piano and Cardiology

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to attend the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. As I listened to some of the most virtuosic concertos by the leading musicians of our time, I couldn’t help but reflect on my own journey through medicine and cardiology. It reminds me of the magic that happens when a group of artists come together – beyond differences, boundaries, and borders – to advance classical piano.

Every four years, the Cliburn Competition draws the world’s top pianists, judges, and enthusiasts of classical piano to an unlikely destination: Fort Worth, Texas. During the Cold War, Van Cliburn, an American concert pianist, travelled to Moscow to compete in the inaugural International Tchaikovsky Competition. In a field dominated by top Russian pianists, Cliburn dazzled the judges with Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 1. Despite geopolitical tensions, Cliburn won the competition, as well as the hearts of many Russians. In order to advance classical music in the United States and continue cultural exchange, the Van Cliburn Foundation was established, and shortly after the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition was inaugurated in Cliburn’s hometown.

This year, the Sixteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition was especially meaningful, being held in the midst of a pandemic and geopolitical conflict. A controversial decision, the Cliburn, while condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, allowed Russian-born pianists to compete in the competition in the spirit of supporting young artists without regard to politics.

What does it mean to be a musician (or a physician)? Musicians choose classical piano not for fame and fortune, but because they are truly passionate about music, as demonstrated by the young artists in the competition. While many of the competitors choose the same concertos to perform in the finals, the artists elevate musical interpretation to a different level. Gold medalist Yunchan Lim’s rendition of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 3, transformed one of the most difficult piano pieces ever written into a different piece of music altogether. Transcending geopolitical tensions, silver and bronze medalists Anna Geniushene of Russia and Dmytro Choni of Ukraine embraced each other at the awards ceremony, showing how music and peace can transcend politics.

One of the judges summarized the spirit of the competition the best. The goal is to “enlighten without violating,” referring to the fact that the values and foundation of classical music shouldn’t be violated but transcended to the next level. He poignantly stated that a judge may not agree with the interpretation of a competitor, but we should hear the message loudly, and they should be committed to interpret the music in a new way. That is the spirit of the true winner of the competition.

It can be easy in medicine to forget the calling of the profession. Rigorous training, varying demands of different hospital stakeholders, and never-ending pressure for efficiency and volume can sap the joy and passion from even the noblest of professions. Today, as medicine and health care are being increasingly transformed from a scientific endeavor, the Cliburn analogy reminds us that the ultimate goal of medicine and cardiology should be to advance the scientific field and cure human suffering. Furthermore, collaboration among scientists of different backgrounds is essential in developing cures and treating disease. In an age where cardiology and medicine are becoming increasingly complex, no single person cares for the patient in a vacuum. Research requires collaboration. Patient care requires teamwork across the health care space. As there are increasing disparities in care, both within the field of cardiology and beyond, the values of selflessness and altruism as the foundation must be preserved, even as we seek to innovate.

Attending the Cliburn Competition gave me a renewed sense of purpose as a member of the scientific and cardiology community. As part of the Early Career section of the American College of Cardiology, it reminded me of why all of us chose medicine and cardiology in the first place. Often, it is easy to forget the foundation and values of cardiology while being mired in the daily grind, with risk of erosion of empathy. That is why I hope that the motto of “enlighten without violating” ring true in cardiology just as much as it does in classical music.

This article was written by Siu-Hin Wan, MD, FACC, Director of Outpatient Heart Failure at the Minneapolis Heart Institute.

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