Inspiration comes in various forms and at unexpected times. For me, it came recently and quite unexpectedly during a brief getaway in Prince Edward Island with three great friends. Although the trip was structured largely around golf (or a reasonable facsimile thereof), we took the opportunity one evening to attend a concert, the first in an annual series that’s known as the Indian River Festival. The festival is something of an inspiration itself. It began in 1996, initially to aid in the upkeep of St. Mary’s Church, a truly lovely example of Atlantic ecclesiastical architecture. When the local diocese decommissioned the church, it was purchased by the festival association. They collaborated with former parishioners, the Friends of St. Mary’s, to restore and preserve the building, now a historical site. The result is a truly special venue for the staging of local talent that preserves the dignity and spiritual quality of the building. In fact, it’s that “spiritual” quality that seemed to link the building, its history and the dedication of the local community in the performance we attended.
The highlighted performers were a group called The Once. I will freely admit (likely to the bemused consternation of my children) that I was not previously familiar with them. The group consists of three Newfoundland-born musicians who, in their own words, are “bridging Celtic-inspired traditional music and contemporary, original songs that spring from their friendship and shared experiences at home and on the road”. Those original songs are poems that capture the experience and struggles of small communities and the people who live or grew up in them. They’re about people who have never lost those ties, and strive to preserve the memories and the culture. Geraldine Hollett, the lead singer, combines an engaging vocal quality that some might call “haunting”, with a remarkable ability to make the lyrics of their songs come alive and reach every listener. There is a truly authentic quality to her singing. She’s not just mouthing words; she seems to be conveying deep, personal meaning. Phil Churchill and Andrew Dale provide accompaniment and vocal harmonies that combine almost seamlessly. It becomes very clear that the centre of the performance, the message, the intention, is in the song itself and something far beyond their individual parts within it. Fundamentally, they’re beyond simply trying to impress us with their considerable musical skills – it was about the stories contained in those lyrics. And powerful, poignant stories they are:
From “Town Where You Lived”, dedicated to the songwriters’ fathers:
I am drained cause it’s rained and it’s rained
For the last 20 days it won’t give
Up an inch no not one little ray from the son
On the face of the town where you lived
It’s been years I’ve got hundreds more fears
And tried not to as much as I’ve tried
Giving way to the flood of my tears in the mud
On the ground of the town where you died
From “We Are All Running”
We are all running
We are all running the same race
We are all going
We are all going to the same place
From Sonny’s Dream, by the late Ron Hynes:
Sonny, don’t go away, I’m here all alone
Daddy’s a sailor, he never comes home
And the nights are so long and the silence goes on
I’m feelin’ so tired, not all that strong
Sonny, don’t go away
They were joined that evening by an ensemble called The Atlantic String Machine, a group of talented musicians who performed Bach’s second Brandenburg concerto, as well as their own compositions and arrangements of contemporary popular music. They were dressed somewhat formally and, on the surface, one might reasonably wonder how they would combine with the folksy Newfoundlanders. Well, that wasn’t a problem. They complemented the trio beautifully, adding power and texture to the songs without in any way detracting from their essential messages. The fact that the two groups had only one practice together highlighted the incredible skill of all these musicians, mastery of their instruments and dedication to their professions.
As I watched all this in the company of three close friends and working colleagues who I admire greatly, I couldn’t help but think of the parallels between these dedicated musicians and those who accomplish great things in Medicine. Dedication to craft, mastery of skills, empathy with those in our communities and desire to reach out to promote their welfare, are the exclusive domains of no particular profession. In the end, great musicians, great doctors, great citizens, care deeply for their communities and give of themselves, going beyond the mere application of skills and knowledge.
Those qualities, fortunately, abound all around us, but are often muted by the pace of our hectic daily lives and continual, frenetic barrage of seemingly random information. Sometimes it takes an evening on an island in the right company to be reminded of what really matters. Fortunately, you know it when you hear it.
Anthony J. Sanfilippo, MD, FRCP(C)
Undergraduate Medical Education