A Voice in the Crowd: Cynthia Dunbar, MD

Senior Investigator in the Molecular Hematopoiesis Section at the National Institutes of Health's National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute

Have you always been interested in music and singing?

I grew up performing music – playing flute, playing piano, singing – and when I started college, I probably focused more on singing than going to class. While I was at Harvard, I sang every morning in the Harvard Chapel as part of a paid choir, and I was also a founding member of the Radcliffe Pitches, the first female a capella group at Harvard. I also sang in many musical theater productions there, as well.

When I started medical school, I scaled down a bit, obviously. During my internship and residency in Boston, I kept doing small paid gigs. One of the perks of being a resident in Boston was getting to attend Boston Symphony concerts for free as part of their “doctor-in-the-house” program. So, I got called when women in the audience went into labor, or performers were having chest pains, and I got to see many great performances!

I grew up in the late 1960s and 70s, so my first love was singing folk and rock music with my guitar, performing in coffee houses and bars. I wanted to be Joni Mitchell or Joan Baez.

What drew you to choral singing, and how did you become part of the Choral Arts Society of Washington?

The sense of community associated with choral singing is one of its great benefits; I’m an extrovert and a very social person, and I am just happier when I am involved in a more social hobby, like singing in a choir with 150 other people as opposed to going home and playing the piano.

I joined the Choral Arts Society in 1987 when I moved to Washington, DC, to start working at the National Institutes of Health. As much as I love my work and my colleagues, it’s healthy to have a social outlet with people who are not doing the same things that you do. That was a definite switch when I moved from Boston, where so many people – including the ones I sang with – were involved in medicine and science.

Also, performing music at this level is intellectually and physically challenging, but the “upside” to that is that, when you’re performing, there is not much room for any other worries besides the music you are singing.

And, for me, it’s also been a way to actually get to see my husband!

He sings in Choral Arts with you?

Yes, we’ve sung together quite a bit. Actually, I met him within a month or two of living in Washington, DC, and joining the Choral Arts Society. When we had our children, and when I became with more involved with Blood and ASH, I took a sabbatical from regular singing for almost 15 years, because the performance and rehearsal schedule was just too time-intensive. I wasn’t completely detached from Choral Arts at that time – I came back for one-time performances or rehearsals, like singing with the National Symphony Orchestra’s “A Capitol Fourth” concert and at the Kennedy Center Honors.

So, during that break, I was able to participate as an audience member. Eventually, my children also became pretty involved in music so I went to a lot of performances.

Of the spaces you have performed, do you have any favorite venues?

The group has toured around the world and I’ve had the opportunity to sing in some great places. The Spoleto Festival in Italy was fantastic – we sang outside in this medieval square with the audience arrayed out in this giant outdoor amphitheater.

Had you ever thought of pursuing music instead of medicine?

As a full-time performing musician? No, I was too practical to consider that route. I am a perfectly competent musician, so I could have probably gone to music school and become a music teacher or somehow made a life in music. For me, music has always been a pressure-free hobby, which has made it more enjoyable. I mean, in medicine, if you think you have to constantly prove yourself by writing grants, imagine having to constantly audition!

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