Lift Every Voice: Tamara Dunn, MD

Tamara Dunn, MD
Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine and Director of the Hematology Fellowship Program, Stanford University School of Medicine

In this edition, Tamara Dunn, MD, sings the praises of singing. Dr. Dunn has been using her voice to bring smiles to patients’ faces and, recently, as a form of activism.

When was your first musical performance?

My first role was as Amahl in Amahl and the Night Visitors at my church when I was 9 years old. Music and performing have always been a part of my life. I drew a lot of inspiration from my mother, who passed away when I was a teenager. She was not a professional singer, but she had an incredible voice. When I was growing up in Kansas City, she would sing in our church; I followed suit and was active in the church choir.

My love of performing was truly cultivated at school. I was fortunate to attend a school that valued the arts, so I started learning about music and performing in shows at a very young age.

That early experience in the arts shaped a lot of who I became. I wish I had been more cognizant of Kansas City’s rich musical history when I was younger, particularly the jazz history there.

Did you play an instrument as well?

No, I just sang. I tried the clarinet once, but that didn’t last long.

Did you ever consider pursuing music as a career?

Growing up, I always knew I wanted to be a doctor. However, in college it became quite clear that I had caught the performing bug: I was in an a cappella group called Talisman that focused on world music and music from the African-American diaspora, and I was the lead singer in a band during all 4 years at Stanford.

“The mood in our country is somber right now. … One of the most incredible things about music is that it unites us. We are living through a divisive time, but music is universal and can bring us together.”

Those college experiences solidified my love of performing and inspired me to pursue music as a career. After returning from a short time in Paris and performing in venues around New York, I attended the American Musical and Dramatic Academy (AMDA), a college conservatory for the performing arts in New York.

I had taken some voice lessons when I was younger, but that was my first formal training in vocals, musical theater, acting, and dance. I am not a dancer per se, but I had a knack for picking up choreography and took tap, jazz, and ballet.

After my time at AMDA, I performed in some off-off-off-Broadway shows and sang in a funk band that mostly performed covers. I also performed at quite a few venues on the Lower East Side with a few bands and recorded some demos. These were funk bands with a horn section so, as you can imagine, after we split up any payment for gigs, there wasn’t much to live on. I learned why musicians have day jobs …

I returned to my goal of becoming a doctor and went to medical school at SUNY Downstate College of Medicine. Surprisingly, I blossomed even more as a performer during medical school, when I took voice lessons from a teacher who developed my voice in a completely new way. I entered a medical school talent show and won, and that win opened many doors. Once people knew I could sing, I started getting invitations to perform at various events.

I got to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at a Brooklyn Cyclones baseball game (a minor league team affiliated with the New York Mets), which led to me singing the anthem in a Kansas City Royals game.

After medical school during my Stanford training, I hooked up with some local seasoned jazz musicians, and we performed in local community events and our hospital atrium several times. Performing for patients and their families gave me a real sense of fulfillment.

What is your favorite style of music to sing? Do you have a specialty?

It’s tough to choose because I’ve sung all types of music, from classical to funk to musical theater, and performed in all types of shows. But I would say the jazz/acid jazz, pop, and soul genres are usually where I land. I have become more of a ballad singer, as well. The fact of the matter is, I believe music is unifying and I have come to appreciate good music in every genre.

What has been your proudest accomplishment as a vocalist?

I was asked to sing at my medical school graduation, which was at Carnegie Hall. Carnegie Hall! It’s hard to beat that!

How often do you get to perform nowadays? Is it something you wish you had more time for?

Of course! As a vocalist, you have to keep practicing to stay vocally “in shape,” and I’ll admit that I don’t get enough time to do so. During the pandemic, I started doing “Songbird Sundays,” singing a different song every Sunday and posting it on social media (@TamaraDunnMD on Twitter). It’s been cathartic for me and has kept me musically active.

I’ve sung everything from Jamiroquai to jazz standards to musical theater. One of my favorite recent performances was “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which is the Black National Anthem. I sang it not too long after the murder of George Floyd. I also sang a tribute to Breonna Taylor on her birthday. I was so spent and exhausted watching all the racial injustice that I found solace in being able to express myself through song. I was asked to participate in a virtual Voices in Action concert to raise money for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Singing as activism is new for me, and it’s been great.

Dr. Dunn performing in a Cole Porter revue in 2019.

I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback about Songbird Sunday songs – people telling me the performances made them feel good, and that’s exactly what they’re meant to do. I feel better when I’m singing, and I was honored to hear that people were touched. Between racial injustice and the pandemic, the mood in our country is somber right now. Expressing myself through music has helped me, and I decided I wanted to share that with others to try to put a smile on someone’s face. There is so much power in music to move people and to entertain them.

One of the most incredible things about music is that it unites us. We are living through a divisive time, but music is universal and can bring us together.

Do your love for singing and your career as a hematologist ever collide?

I’ve been invited to perform at various events related to my career in hematology. When former American Society of Hematology President and emeritus Stanford University faculty member Stanley Schrier, MD, passed away last year, I was asked to sing at his memorial service at Stanford. If I notice that my patient’s birthday is anywhere near our visit, I sing “Happy Birthday” – that’s something I’ve always done and many of them come to expect it. It puts a huge smile on their face, which then puts a smile on mine. Opportunities come up here and there. I wish there were more, though. Singing brings me true joy.