Staging a hidden talent

Jan. 19, 2011, 3:02 a.m.
Staging a hidden talent
ERIC KOFMAN/The Stanford Daily

Outside the operating room, Stanford doctors find new gig

Music can have a powerful effect on our brains, recent research has shown, and it doesn’t take a professor to prove it. But, as the “HyperTonics”–a rock band composed entirely of members of the School of Medicine’s neurology department–know, sometimes even researchers have to set down their lab notebooks, shed the white coats, pick up guitars and learn from experience.

Neurology and neurological sciences professor and HyperTonics lead singer Christanne Wijman said the idea for the band first occurred to her when she saw a group of neurocritical care doctors playing music at a medical conference. She thought, “I could get away with that kind of stuff. It would be so cool to have a band.”

It just so happened that Wijman had colleagues who were also musicians, and gatherings at her house tended to culminate in spontaneous jam sessions.

“I happened to be over here anyway and there was a keyboard, so I’d start playing and she’d start singing and Greg would play the guitar,” said neurology and neurological sciences professor Frank Longo, referring to colleague Greg Albers.

Now, the HyperTonics are the ones playing at neurology conferences. They will also be performing as the opening event for the Caregivers Concert series, a project funded by an anonymous donor where nurses, therapists and physicians and other caregivers will perform live music. The first show will take place Thursday at 7:30 p.m. in the Arrillaga Alumni Center.

Wijman saw this as the “perfect opportunity for us to play here at Stanford, because we had not played at Stanford itself.”

Despite its seemingly natural beginnings about two and a half years ago, the band took its current form piece by piece. The original three members–Wijman, Albers and Longo–convinced neurocritical care fellow Charlene Chen, a classically trained violinist, to join them, even though “she’s way out of our league,” Albers said.

“I call her our secret weapon because she makes our band so different, different than anybody else’s band,” Wijman said.

To incorporate the electric violin and put their own spin on classic songs, the HyperTonics often substitute a violin solo for the traditional electric guitar solo.

“It’s one of the reasons ‘Ants Marching’ just kind of fell into our lap,” said drummer and professor of medicine Paul Singh, the newest member of the group. “It’s a great violin part. It’s a good band song.”

After Chen, clinical assistant professor Viet Nguyen joined. Nguyen plays electric guitar, trades off playing bass with Albers and sometimes sings for the group. He’s also part of a local band called “Robustitron,” for which he writes original songs.

Nguyen “got sucked in gradually over time. Initially he was only going to play for our gigs, and then he started practicing with us, and then we started doing new songs and now he’s running the whole band,” Wijman laughed.

Singh completed the group. After playing drums with a series of bands in high school and college, he switched gears and began to write songs for guitar and bass.

“I did the singer-songwriter thing for four years or so,” Singh said. “And then I never thought I was going to play again. Then, they had a group, and the opportunity presented itself.”

Finding Singh was a fortuitous event for the HyperTonics, who had embarked on an agonizing search for a drummer.

“It was really like a miracle,” Wijman said. “So [you have] the three younger kids in the band, who are really talented and actually musically trained, and then you have the three older people. We’re somewhat trained, but we’re sort of the homegrown part of the band.”

This age discrepancy contributed to a shift in repertoire for the group.

“We were doing ‘Hotel California,’ The Who, Creedence, but now we do some more modern things,” Albers said. “We did more faculty parties or birthday parties. We didn’t have the bass, we didn’t have the drums, so we were doing light rock, mellow stuff. But now it’s different.”

Their program for the Caregivers Concert still includes classics like “Behind Blue Eyes,” but added to those are contemporary hits like “Apologize” and “Hey There Delilah.”

The addition of the newer members also meant a change of venue.

“We’ve outgrown birthday parties. We don’t fit in the house anymore,” Wijman said. “We’re too loud and too big. Now we’re playing at conferences.”

Their first big show took place in September at a club in San Francisco as part of a neurocritical care meeting. They are also scheduled for gigs at two upcoming conferences, Los Angeles in February and Honolulu in April.

Professional to Personal

A group of neurologists might not be the first thing that comes to mind at the mention of the words “rock band,” but all of the HyperTonics agree that playing music together has strengthened their formerly professional relationships.

“It’s something completely different than what we do at work,” Longo said. “It’s more expressive and artistic. Although in research you try to be creative, this is sort of a different outlet for being creative.”

“It’s nice to leave work behind and have something that’s a diversion,” Albers added. “Work is really busy. We have fairly demanding jobs, particularly these guys [Chen and Singh]. They’re on call almost every other night. We always have somebody in the band on call. Often two people at once. We’re trying to practice and the beepers are going off–we lose our drummer for a couple songs because he’s dealing with a stroke code.”

But the experience of playing music together is more than worth the struggle to fit band practice into the members’ hectic schedules.

“My father’s not a musician himself, but he always said, ‘What’s better than playing in a band with your friends?’” Wijman said. “He said it many times. He never did it himself. But now I’m doing it, and it’s too bad he’s not around to watch it, because he would have loved it.”

If band practice could be considered research, the HyperTonics have made some important discoveries.

“Making music puts me in a totally different mental state,” Wijman said. “Truly. It’s like a drug, almost. A good drug.”

If happiness can be found anywhere, it’s here in the ambient glow of Wijman’s living room, where Singh’s drum set replaces a coffee table on the alphabet-patterned rug, the laughter of some of the members’ children bubbles in from an adjacent room and, amid the sporadic piano chords and cymbal taps, Albers’s guitar riff from “All Right Now” carries through the glass walls and winds down Mayfield Ave.

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