From healing the body to soothing the soul

By Pat Summers, Special Writer
   For a keynote address at a leadership conference in March, Rosanne Vita Nahass mined her own life experience to talk about how nothing is impossible and how one decisive move here can be a total life changer there.
   Her audience of about 300 high school girls could not have wished for a better speaker on the importance of women carving out their own paths in life. Ms. Nahass, the pianist, was for many years before that “Dr.” Nahass, the physician. Her transition from internal medicine to a music career was fraught with uncertainty, especially since she had originally chosen med school over the piano playing she loved.
   Now, about a decade after switching careers, Ms. Nahass (NAY-hass) is pianist in residence at the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers, the Stare University of New Jersey. Through its “Art of Music” series, she presents lecture-recitals that meld piano music with visual arts and her research findings.
   Long in agreement with composer Bèla Bartók’s observation that “You hear only as well as you listen,” Ms. Nahass says many of her musical activities aim to make better listeners of those for whom she plays. For instance, she frequently offers “Music Makes Sense,” a course she developed for the Princeton Adult School, to help non-musicians enhance their listening skills through music demonstrations and lectures.
   Last year, Ms. Nahass added “CD producer” to her credentials. Over months of intense work, she recorded piano compositions by Charles Ives and Bèla Bartók and then step by careful step, carried out all the tasks necessary to make the CD a beautiful reality.
   Currently preparing for a Zimmerli recital in November, she says, “I’m researching him now and falling in love – of course I’m always falling in love!”
   The man she refers to is Charles Tomlinson Griffes (1884-1920), one of three composers in her program designed to accompany and enrich the Zimmerli’s “Mary Cassatt” exhibition that opens in September. The others are Amy Beach (1867-1944), considered America’s first true professional female composer, and Maurice Ravel (1875-1937).
   For her lecture-recitals, Ms. Nahass’ usual approach is to move away from the piano to talk about the period and what else was happening in the arts during the time of the museum’s featured artist(s). Naturally, her overview features music, which she then performs. She also suggests what her audience might listen for as she plays each piece.
   If by now you’re thinking of descriptors like “intense,” “gifted” or “dynamo,” you might add “enthusiast” and “perfectionist” to the list. As she gathers information for her Zimmerli performances, for instance, Ms. Nahass becomes visibly and audibly excited about the interdisciplinary connections she finds. It could accurately be said that her “enthusiasm is infectious” – apropos for this doctor turned pianist.
   But Ms. Nahass was actually a pianist turned doctor – who then returned to piano. Playing the instrument from age 3, she gave her first recital at 6.
   ”I could read music before I read books,” she says. “It came easily to me. I loved it and it was no chore to practice.”
   As much as music was part of her life, including her music major at Rutgers, she says she always wanted to be a doctor. That explains her concurrent chemistry minor. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa with high honors, earning her bachelor’s in piano performance.
   Even though the Paterson, native says, “I just kind of breathed music all the time” – her mother sang and played the piano – in 1980 she entered Robert Wood Johnson Medical School at UMDNJ. For nearly 20 years after that, Ms. Nahass ignored the piano, except when she played carols on her father’s Christmas Eve birthday.
   Part way through med school, she married Ronald Nahass, now an infectious disease specialist, and she began practicing as a board certified internist in 1987. A Montgomery Township resident since then, she also raised two sons and a daughter. It was only when her daughter needed a new piano teacher and Ms. Nahass began looking around that the idea of returning to the piano occurred to her.
   She spoke with Ena Bronstein Barton, who had studied with the renowned Chilean pianist Claudio Arrou, and who now heads the Conservatory of Music piano department at Westminster Choir College of Rider University. Ms. Nahass mentioned her own music background and in short order, she became Barton’s piano student.
   Claiming, “You never really leave medicine,” she had already been cutting back on her private practice. Yet since leaving medicine altogether, she has kept up with reading and continuing medical education, and “could re-start on a month’s notice” – although that possibility seems far from her mind these days.
   Before long, Ms. Nahass was performing again. Things started happening when a college friend who worked at the Zimmerli heard her play. Soon afterward, she was invited to fill in there for a scheduled guest performer with a lecture on Beethoven and a performance of his Piano Sonata Op.31, No.2 – “The Tempest.”
   ”I prepared the lecture and brought up the sonata,” she says, and that 2004 engagement marked the beginning of her working relationship with Alfredo Franco, the museum’s curator of education. He began inviting her to give lectures and perform.
   Typically, after talking about each recital piece, Nahass sits down at the piano and pauses in a noticeable way before beginning to play. She explains that speaking is a cognitive, left-side of the brain activity, while playing is right-side.
   ”I collect myself to make that transition. It’s a matter of centering myself to get into what I need to do – to open myself up to the sound, to hear . . . ,” she says
   Both word of mouth about her piano performances and her own initiative have expanded Ms. Nahass’ reach. Increasingly, she’s invited to lecture and play in college classes and conferences – and at least one other museum, Connecticut’s New Britain Museum of American Art. After researching Charles Ives there, she returned to talk about and perform his Piano Sonata No. 2, “Concord, Mass., 1840-1860.”
   ”Music is a healing art and is essential to our humanity,” Ms. Nahass says. To the physical healing skills she practiced earlier in her career, now add her ability to soothe the spirit and touch the soul.
To learn more about Rosanne Vita Nahass, including her CD and Zimmerli recitals: http://rosannevitanahass.wordpress.com. For information about the Zimmerli Art Museum, including the “Art of Music” series: www.ZimmerliMuseum.Rutgers.edu. For the Princeton Adult School’s fall course offerings: www.princetonadultschool.org.