Delivers Music as Medicine

VA National Medical Musical Group

“Article appeared in the Veterans Health System Journal in March 2001, pages 24-27.  Courtesy VHSJ,  Posted by permission. VHSJ may be accessed at”

Delivers Music as Medicine

Deb Rollison

“Five minutes, ladies and gentlemen,” the concertmaster warns backstage. One of the singers smoothes her skirt, softly humming the tricky harmony in the fourth measure of “God Bless the USA.” A cellist sights along her instrurment, then runs her bow over the strings. A violinist follows suit, tuning each string.

The Performers

The only surprise about any of these pre-performance rituals is the common denominator of the performers. In their day jobs, the concertmaster is Chief of Anesthesia Services at a major VAMC, the singer is Director of another VAMC, the cellist is Director and CEO of a major healthcare organization, and the violinist is an intensive care nurse. Their love of music and desire to share it have brought them together to create a concert honoring our nation’s veterans.

These performers join their fellow singers and musicians in the largest medical orchestra-chorus in America, the VA-National Medical Musical Group (mmg). This unique 300-strong choral and symphony is make of of musically gifted doctors, nurses, scientists, other healthcare professionals, veterans, community musicians, and volunteers.

Roughly half of the members come from VA and the rest are from other US healthcare institutions. The members practice individually for months, then take personal vacation and travel at their own expense to give the performances. They rehearse together as much as 12 hours a day before a performance.

The Perfomances

Musical selections feature seasonal and patriotic favorites such as “Old Man River” and “America the Beautiful.” Audience menbers usually jump to their feet, enthusiastically applauding and jumming along with the orchestra and chorus for John Pilip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever,” a signature piece for mmg.

mmg has graced many well known stages. It has performed at the White House during the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton administrations, the US Congress, the United Nations, the Vatican for Pope John Paull II, Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, Constitution Hall, Chicago’s Symphony Center, the Las Vegas Hilton Theater, and many cultural and humanitarian events. Concerts usually end with enthusiastic standing ovations and media reviewers, such as The Washington Post, have praised the musical interpretations of Dr. Victor Wahby, the Gr4oup’s founding Director and Conductor.

In recent years, the group has gone global, sharing it’s “music with a message” as international ambassadors of goodwill. The morning after each Veterans Day concert, the group travels abroad to perform in other countries. mmg has performed in Australia, China, The Czech Republic, Denmark, France, England, Hungary, Italy, New Zealand, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Sweden, and Wales.

Last year, mmg was invited to present its annual Veterans Day concert event at the Association of Military Surgeons of the Untied States (AMSUS) Convention. From the Las Vegas Hilton Theater stage on November 6, 2000, the orchestra and chorus performed for a capacity crowd. The program theme, “Welcome Home Veterans All~”, was echoed in a “Hymn for Veterans,” written by Dr. Wahby with his brother Wafeek.

You who bore battle’s strife, fire and plight
You who fought for a dawn e’er so bright
Welcome home, veterans all, welcome home
Your grateful nation stretches out its open arms.

Honoring Veterans

At mmg concerts, the choice seats are always reserved for veterans and their families, especially blinded or disabled veterans, and Gold Star Mothers. It’s a small way to express appreciation “For him who has borne the battle, and for his widow and orphan.”. The veterans at mmg concerts stand proudly to acknowledge their own branch of service hymn as the “Armed Forces Medley” is performed.

A 77-year-young veteran of World War II named Charlie stood up twice during a recent concert. “I was in both the Army and Air Force,” he explained, a twinkle in his Santa-blue eyes. “This is a real celebration…a salute and a thank-you that included all the veterans. It gave me a new perspective on these people (the VA performers.) More people should know about this group. And they will.

Spreading the Message

Last December and in January 2001, VA broadcast the concert via its satellite network to veterans and employees nationwide. Many thousands more veterans will enjoy the concert videotapes distributed to VAMCs. “Our veterans get a real kick out of seeing their own cardiologist or nurse performing on the TV,” one of the physician-performers said, smiling. At the time of this writing, DoD’s Armed Forces TV Service was considering a broadcast of mmg’s programs to its worldwide audience of US military personnel.

So what do you do after playing Carnegie Hall or the White House? What’s left after Las Vegas? How about a unique program that creates unity on Capitol Hill? With support from Democrat and Republican leaders in the House and Senate, Dr. Wahby and mmg established the Congressional Flag Day “Prayer Concerts.”

Sponsored by the House and Senate Prayer Groups, these nonsectarian inspirational and patriotic programs have been held every year since 1996 on or around Flag Day (June 14) at the Cannon Caucus Room on Capitol Hill. These free concerts, open to the public, combine music, patriotism, and spirtuality, and emphasize national healing and unity as they honor America’s veterans.

It is not uncommon to see leaders of avowed contradictory political positions literally holding hands and singing together “God Bless America” and similar songs in these concerts. Here a a few of the kudos attesting to the powerful and positive impact of these programs:

“To host an event like this, where the lions symbolically lie with the lambs, is news… Prime Time Live News!!”  -Sam Donaldson, ABC News

“The Cannon Caucus Room will never be the same again after this performance.”  – Tim Russert, NBC News

“The song says ‘mine eyes have seen the glory’. I can truthfully say today that our eyes have seen and our ears have heard the glory.”  – Susan Dentzer, Medical Correspondent, the Leher News Hour

“The program emphasizes national healing and unity on Capitol Hill.”  – Bob Abernathy, PBS Program Hour

“This is a tradition that we want to preserve for years to come.”  – Senator Bob Bennet, R-UT

“I hope that you will all listen to the music, but also the message of this program.”  – Representative Bobby Scott, D-VA

In addition to the inspirational themes of national healing and unity, these congression programs also focus on health causes and concerns.  Each of these annual events highlights a particular medical issue or illness, focusing on progress made and support needed for research. Highlighted causes have included arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, post-tramatic stree disorder, depression, nutrition, wellness, and fitness.

The Future

What else is in store for mmg? “Our primary goal is to reach even more veterans and others with our music,” Dr. Wahby replied, when asked about his vision for the group. mmg already ahs been invited back to be the featured performers at the Sixth Congressional Flag Day Concert on Thursday, June 14, 2001, from 12:30 to 2:00 p.m. in the Caucus Room of the Cannon House Office Building in Washington, DC. The group will again perform during this year’s AMSUS meeting in San Antonio, TX on November 6, 2001.

Plans are in the works for real-time satellite broadcasts of concerts and musical downloads of concerts via mmg’s website ( Gourp members are already busy organizing their next international destinations: Ireland and Scotland. No matter what the venue, these artists will continue to find ways to transfer the healing power of their day jobs into extraordinary music.

About the Author:

Deb Rollison is a trainer/consultant, freelance writer, second soprano, and a member of VA-National Medical Group since 1989