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A Self-Professed ‘Untalented’ Singer Performs at the Vatican and Carnegie Hall

Article In Brief

Brett Kissela, MD, discusses the happenstance that took him from his clinic and research work to touring with a community choir at the Vatican and New York City's Carnegie Hall.

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Dr. Brett Kissela in front of Carnegie Hall with his choir director Linda Gartner.

Brett Kissela, MD, considers himself an accidental singer. Mostly, he is focused on his work as the chair of the department of neurology and rehabilitation medicine at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, where he also serves as senior associate dean for clinical research.

Still, Dr. Kissela's patients and colleagues may be surprised to know that, before the COVID-19 pandemic shut things down in March, Dr. Kissela had toured Europe with a popular Cincinnati choir, and performed at the Vatican in Rome as well as at New York City's Carnegie Hall.

Neurology Today first caught up with Dr. Kissela just before COVID-19 began to take hold around the country. And as our coverage pivoted to focus on the pandemic's impact on neurology, we delayed this story about his travels around the world to sing. We share his story now to spotlight how one neurologist can find and share joy through music outside of his very busy career as a neurologist. His comments are edited and excerpted below.

Have you always loved to sing?

Not exactly! Most kids have to do musical programs in school, and I was in one of those and did have one solo at a Christmas pageant. And I took piano lessons. But I've never been all that talented as a singer.

How did you even get involved as a singer?

When my daughter Emily was doing gymnastics as a little girl, her coach encouraged her to audition for a community theater group. She was cute as could be and had a few lines. It became clear that she was pretty talented and she began doing more shows, and theater quickly became a family affair, with my wife helping out with costumes and set designs and our other daughter in smaller roles. So I ended up doing a few of the shows as well, playing a random townsperson.

We'd practice almost every night for two or three hours and do a couple of shows a year at a park near our house. I was famously one of the “Whatayatalk” salesmen in The Music Man—a riveting performance, I can tell you. But I would refuse to do a real audition, though, I'd just sing something like Happy Birthday. And then I think they took revenge on me by casting me as Andrew Carnes in Oklahoma, the guy who sings “The Farmer and the Cowman Should Be Friends.” I was director of the neurology residency program at the time and the entire cohort of residents came out to watch that one.

So how did you get involved with this choir?

When my daughter was in junior high and high school, she was very inspired by a local choral teacher who led groups of students to sing in Europe, Linda Gartner. The kids had to audition, and there was always a parent chaperone. I volunteered to chaperone my daughter's parent trip one year. I think I got picked in part because I'm a doctor—they always love having medical expertise on trips like these. So my daughter went to the first practice, and there weren't enough guys. She came home and said, “Good news, you're in!” I said, “But I can't sing!” She told me “Nope, we need more guys, you're doing it.” So they filled in with some of the fathers because there were more girls than boys.

So I go to the first practice and I'm not even sure if I'm a tenor or a bass. I say to Emily, “What am I?” She tells me to go stand in the tenor section. My vocal range is somewhere between tenor and bass, but I don't fit in well with either—I can't hit the high notes for tenor or the low notes for bass. Fortunately, there are some very talented people in the choir. Linda's husband is a fantastic tenor and he makes a point of being in the back row, singing a little louder than he needs to because he understands the vocal dynamics and how to help others. I've made it clear to him that I need him to sing in my ear so I can always hear the tenor part and go in the right direction.

How do you practice with all your other commitments?

My job is very demanding and I don't have time to go to all the practices, so they always prepare vocal tracks so I can listen in the car to just the tenor part of the song. It works out well for me to rehearse on my own. Doctors are good at memorizing, it's part of the skill set that got us here. It's how I've been carried along with the choir.

Where have you performed in Europe?

I've gone on three trips with the choir. On the first trip we went to Paris and Normandy, then to Bruges and Brussels in Belgium, and finished in London, where we performed at St. Paul's Cathedral. On our second trip, we started in Venice and performed at St. Mark's Basilica, and then went to Bled, Slovenia, which is one of the most idyllically beautiful cities I've ever seen, and then down the Dalmatian coast of Croatia to Dubrovnik. The third trip took us from the Cote d'Azur into Italy, to Florence and down to Rome, where we sang in the Vatican.

They are usually 10-14 day trips, and we do four to five performances mixed in with a lot of tourism stops. The director loves to pick out the town square and line us up to sing one or two a cappella songs while people just stop and gather and listen to the music. If there was a place she thought would have great acoustics, high traffic, or something like a stairway that lent itself to us all lining up, we'd just have spontaneous performances.

What are some of your favorite memories of these trips and performances?

For me, being able to have that father-daughter time with my musical daughter Emily—it's such a fantastic memory for us. I'm so grateful that I had the chance to do that. It was a great experience for both of us. That's a very special thing we'll have together for the rest of our lives.

After she graduated from high school, the director had a policy that if you were an adult singing with the choir already, you could continue even if your child was no longer in the choir. So for the third trip to Europe, I was able to go with my wife Lorie, which was also wonderful.

The first time we sang at St. Paul's was incredible. To sing in the largest rotunda area and you hear that echo for 15 seconds after you finish...what a treat. What an honor to sing in a place like that. The director at St. Paul's had told us we had only 15 minutes and that we had to sing a cappella, but afterward he sent us a letter apologizing, saying if he'd know how good we were he would have let us sing with the organ and for a lot longer! And there are no words to describe singing in a mass at St Peter's in the Vatican.

But as spectacular as St. Paul's and St. Mark's were, singing in the little tiny churches in Venice was just as much fun. People would walk in from off the street and we'd draw a crowd. Our performances typically lasted about an hour, and usually incorporated a religious set of songs. Some churches would just want those. Then we'd have some secular songs, including one choreographed number, believe it or not—not full dancing though. It was usually about a dozen songs, including at least a couple in Latin. Linda would pick the choir a year in advance, we'd practice for a year and then do the trip, followed by a few concerts at home.

How did you get invited to sing in these extraordinary places?

It was all Linda Gartner's reputation. She took 11 of those trips to Europe with the students, starting with a choir of 40 and ending with 110. Each time we would have tapes and videos made of our performances, and we just started getting invited to perform all over.

I had no idea that there was a tourism industry that takes choral groups to Europe. In Europe people are more interested in traveling to see live performances. It's remarkable to sing in a small town in Italy, too, and have 100 people come out, and have every one of them want to shake your hand and thank you on the way out. That's one of the best parts. People are so appreciative of performances like that, bringing smiles to the faces of complete strangers who might not speak any English.

When Linda retired from teaching, she missed being a choral director, so she formed the Sycamore Community Singers, an adult choir formed primarily of parents who had been on these trips with their kids. When we perform at home, in Sycamore Presbyterian Church, it's a fairly large church but people will still come an hour early and it's a madhouse to try to get seats.

At one of our concerts, we performed a song arranged by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and their director, Mack Wilberg, saw our video online. He invited us to be one of four choirs to perform at Carnegie Hall in New York in February 2020, singing six songs arranged by him. I'm an average to lousy singer who can be hidden in a choir of about 100 people pretty well, and somehow now I have this resume of performing in some of the largest churches in the world, and now Carnegie Hall!

How does performing with the choir help you handle the demands of your career?

I find it a nice way to unwind. I'm not thinking about medicine or neurology when I'm singing in the choir for an hour or two. There are studies that show that choral singing—singing with others—improves your quality of life and overall life expectancy, and Linda will often send me those articles when she finds them. I think it's true. But honestly, I'm a little shy about my performing. If someone asked me to sing solo I would never do it. I'm not even sure if any of my coworkers or my patients know that I do this. It's all happenstance how I got into it, but I'm grateful that I've had this opportunity, and that I was able to do it with members of my family.