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Harmony and Hematology: Eleni Gavriilaki, MD, PhD

June 1, 2022

June 2022

In this edition, Eleni Gavriilaki, MD, PhD, reflects on her lifelong relationship with music and how she views playing the violoncello (aka the cello) as a mind-body experience. 

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Eleni Gavriilaki, MD, PhD

Eleni Gavriilaki, MD, PhD, is a hematologist and transplant physician at George Papanikolaou General Hospital in Thessaloniki, Greece.

 

 


When and where did you learn to play the violoncello?

I started around 9 years of age, which is not early enough if you ask a professional musician. I went to a conservatory for more than 12 years. Music schools do exist in Greece, but they place a lot of emphasis on music studies. Therefore, it is difficult to pursue another career if you go to a music school. I preferred the conservatory because it provided many more opportunities compared to private lessons. I was able to develop friendships with other students, learn from different teachers, learn more about the theory of music, and participate in choirs, orchestras, and events.

What made you choose the cello above all other instruments?

During our first year of music instruction, we were introduced to different instruments. In the conservatory, you get to see them all. The usual process when a child has not yet decided which instrument to learn is to attend classes of “candidate” instruments and then decide with the help of a teacher. Through that process, I chose the cello as the “accessible” instrument because to me it sounded very much like the human voice. Also, it is played in a very comfortable position.

Was there a particular teacher who influenced you above the others?

Although I had several teachers for my other musical lessons (theory, choirs, etc.), the teacher that stands out in my memory is my cello teacher, Angel. I spent all my cello years with him, so he was more like a father figure in the end. I really enjoyed the lessons where he brought his cello, because I could see him playing and better understand the possibilities of our instrument.

As a young student, Dr. Gavriilaki practices cello at home as her little sister, Maria, plays maestro.
As a young student, Dr. Gavriilaki practices cello at home as
her little sister, Maria, plays maestro.

Does musicianship run in your family?

The tradition that runs in my family is hematology, since my mother is also a hematologist-transplanter. Nevertheless, my parents wanted us to broaden our horizons and, therefore, prompted us to start our musical education early. I have a younger sister who is also a physician (neurology fellow), and she plays the flute. The flute and the cello make a very good combination for many musical pieces.

Now that you’re a physician, what is your practice regimen like?

Unfortunately, there is not as much time to practice as I would like to. As a result, I mostly play for fun. I have played with my friends, with a quartet, with a band, and occasionally even with orchestras. I practice occasionally, sometimes in front of my children to keep them company and to familiarize them with the instrument and the idea of making music.

I have many memorable experiences of playing and performing. As an adolescent, I played with the conservatory’s orchestra in the largest music hall in Thessaloniki, which was really inspiring. I also have very romantic memories of playing with the quartet in celebratory ceremonies, such as New Year’s Eve.

Which musical works, composers, and artists have influenced you and/or continue to inspire you?

I have a classical repertoire, so I love to play Bach’s suites for cello. The prelude of the first suite is a very popular one. It has been used in the television shows House and Smallville, and you hear it in cell phone ringtones everywhere. Other well-known concertos, like Haydn’s or Saint-Saens’ are also fun to play.

As for artists, my favorite cellist is Jacqueline du Pré. Unfortunately, I have not heard her playing live because she died young, more than 30 years ago. She was a natural talent that expressed a feminine point of view in all classical pieces, along with the required power.

How does playing affect you personally?

If you haven’t had the feeling, it is very hard to understand. Making music is a process that frees you and makes you feel alive. Especially when you’re playing the cello, you constantly feel the vibration, and it’s as if the music is coming from inside your body. Playing the cello requires skilled hands and a lot of power, so it is an exercise for the mind and the body. Violoncello is not just a musical instrument; it is not just a large violin. Violoncello has a soul that you need to hug so you can express your most sincere feelings. Think of your favorite emotional scene in a movie then watch it again and listen! A cello will almost certainly be playing in the background.

Does your love for music ever intersect with your work in hematology?

They say that music acts like a medicine, even though these two fields do not seem directly related. When I was a medical student, I thought I might follow a relatively new specialty that directly addresses the problems of the musician and music medicine. It is based on the idea that musicians face certain problems, both physical and psychological. The physical ones involve tendons and joints. I was very keen to learn more about this specialty because I had to postpone my cello diploma exam for one year to recover from tendonitis (also called tennis elbow, seen in both tennis players and musicians). Psychologically, musicians also face problems such as stage fright. Therefore, it is great to build departments in which a musician could find specialized guidance.

In the end, I didn’t follow this specialty because my love for hematology was greater. Even so, I believe that my experience as a musician has significantly improved my skills as a hematologist because of both occupations’ focus on details, skilled hands, working in a team, and overcoming “stage fright.”

How could other hematologists benefit from cultivating an artistic passion like music?

There are two ways in which other hematologists could benefit from cultivating such a passion. The first is for their own self-interest, to use art as a new means for expressing their feelings and to help forget the problems of everyday life. They would also get the chance to be a member of a different group, one that does not share the emotional and physical burden of our medical work. Learning to play music is like learning a new language, a new way of communicating with others. The second benefit is in the interest of their future generations. When music gets into the family, all members benefit, especially the children. As has been true for me, learning music during childhood gives you a real boost toward success in your adult life.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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