Beautiful Pianist Who Gave Bedside Concerts to Isolated Covid Patients Says Music Is Medicine
FOR AWARD-WINNING concert pianist Mei Rui, who serves as an artist collaborator at Rice University, music is both an aesthetic pleasure and medicine for healing the body and mind.
“Since the pandemic, for every concert I’ve programmed, I’ve tried to focus on the element of human connection,” says Rui. She describes her upcoming Dec. 10 concert at Rice University with her friend and colleague pianist Michael Bukhman as “a feast.” There’s a selection of four-hand and two-piano pieces “for every taste bud,” including classics by Schubert and Rachmaninoff, and a brand new composition by Texas composer Till Meyn titled Ascendant Grooves.
The variety of the program reflects Rui’s research into how different styles of classical music engage different regions of the listener’s brain and provide quantifiable neurophysiological benefits. “There’s so much overlap between science, medicine, and music,” says Rui, who founded the MUSICARE (Musicians United for Service in Care) initiative with the Houston Symphony, which facilitated virtual and live bedside music performances for otherwise isolated ICU patients during the Covid-19 pandemic. In February, she will join the department of neurosurgery at MD Anderson as an assistant professor of music medicine.
Although Rui and Bukhman have known each other for 20 years, the Dec. 10 concert will be the first time they’ve played together onstage for an audience. “He’s an incredible artist, and a deep musician,” says Rui of Bukhman. Whether seated on the same bench for Schubert’s kaleidoscopic Fantasie in F Minor or seated face-to-face at dueling grands for Meyn’s driving Ascendant Grooves, an almost psychic rapport between the pianists is essential for creating a captivating performance. “You need that openness and complete flow of conversation,” says Rui. “The other person needs to be very receptive and sensitive to nuanced changes through sound, movement and subtle cues.”
Born in China, Rui majored at Yale University in music and molecular biochemistry and biophysics and remains passionate about the health benefits of listening to classical music. While at Houston Methodist, as part of her research into the impact of music intervention on acute-care surgeons’ burnout, sleep, and stress, Rui curated and recorded a Surgeons' Music Intervention on Sleep and Stress Study Playlist, a sort of mixtape for self-medication with solo piano pieces by Brahms, Bach, and Chopin. Next year, she plans to publish that study’s fMRI imaging and actigraphy results which show how music, when carefully selected for the patient by a professional musician with a thorough knowledge of classical repertoire, can be powerful modulator of the human stress response. “It’s my hope that in 10 or 20 years, instead of reaching for Ambien or Prozac, people will reach for a Chopin Nocturne,” says Rui.
And speaking as a mother, Rui notes the playlist definitely has its intended, quantifiable effect on her four-year-old daughter and six-year-old son. “It really knocks them out,” laughs Rui.