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News / Health / Clark County Health

Vancouver Symphony Orchestra pianist Dr. Michael Liu connects music, medicine

Physician found opportunity in young artist competitions

By James Bash for The Columbian
Published: January 18, 2024, 6:05am
8 Photos
Dr. Michael Liu works behind the scenes at PeaceHealth Family Medicine of Southwest Washington on Jan. 8.
Dr. Michael Liu works behind the scenes at PeaceHealth Family Medicine of Southwest Washington on Jan. 8. (Contributed by Vancouver Symphony Orchestra) Photo Gallery

Dr. Michael Liu, pianist for the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, sees all sorts of connections between music and medicine.

“We know that many composers based their music on physiology and how our bodies actually pace themselves,” Liu said. “An andante tempo is typically 70 beats per minute, which is very similar to an average person’s heart rate. Tempos like allegro and vivace are faster and imitate how you feel when you are excited.”

Liu, a physician specializing in family medicine at PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center, is equally at home on stage and in the operating room.

While studying for his medical degree at the Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine in Rochester, Minn., he kept his skills sharp by playing the pianos in hospital lobbies.

If You Go

What: Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Nielsen Sinfonia Espansiva featuring 2023 Young Artist Competition gold medalists

When: 7 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday

Where: Online or in person at Skyview High School Concert Hall, 1300 N.W. 139th St., Vancouver

Cost: $42 general admission, $55 premium seats, $10 for students, $15 for livestream

Information: 360-735-7278 or vancouversymphony.org

“I moonlighted in medical school by playing music,” Liu said with a laugh. “The hospitals had pianos that I could access after-hours. Every lobby in the Mayo Clinic has a terrific piano — Steinway, Bosendorfer, Fazioli. I played for the graduations for the nursing school, the physical therapy school and all the other schools. I played at service award dinners and at the music stores in town. They moved pianos for me for free — whenever I had to perform a concert.”

Most students at medical schools have to cram like crazy to get through all their studies, but Liu somehow managed to balance both worlds. This meant playing very challenging pieces.

“When I had my tonsils out at the Mayo Clinic,” Liu recalled, “they asked me what I would like to hear. I chose the Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto, because I had to play it three months later.”

That’s right: Liu played the demanding piece with the Rochester Symphony three months after surgery.

His commitment to music dates back practically to the crib. Liu grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. Liu’s father was from Taiwan and his mother from Hong Kong. His parents wanted him to learn music, although they were not musicians. So they put him and his two siblings — an older sister and a younger brother — in lessons. Liu was 4 years old when he started on the piano.

He excelled so quickly that he went to the Music Center of the North Shore (now called the Music Institute of Chicago), where he became the first child to study with George Banhalmi, a famous Hungarian pianist. Liu entered young artist competitions and won, which gave him the opportunity to perform with the Wheaton Symphony, the Sinfonia Orchestra of Chicago, the Chicago Symphony, the Taipei City Symphony, and other orchestras. He participated in music camps at Meadowmount and twice at Tanglewood.

At age 17, Liu did a lot of auditions and was accepted by the Juilliard School of Music, Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, the University of Michigan’s School of Music, but he decided on a different path.

“It dawned on me that I didn’t want to pursue life as a full-time piano soloist,” Liu said. “The competition was nerve-wracking. Someone told me to audition for Ian Hobson at the University of Illinois. My sister was going there. So I did the audition and was accepted on the spot with a full-tuition scholarship.”

At the University of Illinois, Liu pursued a pre-med major in chemistry with a music degree, graduating in 1989. Then he attended medical school at Mayo Clinic. He spent the next eight years in Minnesota, five years as an undergraduate and three years in residency.

“I was lucky that some of the professors liked music,” Liu said. “I was mentored by the wonderful hand surgeon, Dr. Allen Bishop, who is also the principal oboist in the Rochester Symphony.”

Liu specialized in family medicine, because it allowed him to live anywhere he wanted and the flexibility to cut back as needed. He also married Nien-Wei Hsiao, who wanted to live in a warmer location. So they moved to Guam, spending the next four years in the South Pacific.

Guam had a robust classical music culture. Liu played with the Guam Symphony, which was stocked with retired, top-tier Japanese musicians. When it was time to return to the States, Liu and his wife decided to move to Vancouver.

“We had spent our honeymoon in Vancouver and wanted to come back,” Liu said. “I did a lot of obstetrics, delivering babies, in Guam. That was a plus. So I delivered babies as a family doctor for 27 years. I retired from that part last year.”

Since 2006, Liu has been a professor of family medicine for a residency program at PeaceHealth. It has 24 residents in a three-year program that is part of the University of Washington and affiliated with Oregon Health & Science University.

Liu has been associated with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra since 2002 when he joined the board, but soon afterward he filled in as a substitute pianist for a concert, and the orchestra’s music director, Salvador Brotons, asked him to join the band.

At home, Liu has two grand pianos that are often used by guest artists like Orli Shaham for practice. He brings music with him to work, as well.

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“At PeaceHealth, we have an endowment for healing through music and the arts,” Liu said. “We use the endowment to pay for music therapists. They come to the hospital to play for patients and at the nursery. It is well-established in neonatal care units that gentle, slow music is calming for babies. It matches their heart rate.”

PeaceHealth Southwest has a grand piano in the lobby of the E.W. and Mary Firstenburg Tower.

“The endowment bought that piano,” Liu said. “Anyone can sign up and play.”