Clara Yang, harmonizing medicine and music

April 1, 2011
Music in the air: Yang conducts the Duke Chamber Players during a rehearsal


Music in the air: Yang conducts the Duke Chamber Players during a rehearsal at Bone Hall in the Mary Duke Biddle Music Building.

Megan Morr

In the future, if all goes according to plan, senior Clara Yang will be the head of a new kind of pediatric clinic. There will be white walls, soft sofas in the waiting room, and, to the right, a row of music practice rooms. In one, there’s a piano; in another, a xylophone or a drum set. Each is staffed by a professional musician ready to give short lessons to patients while they wait to be seen.

Those first brief encounters will be the gateway to music for children who might not otherwise have it, Yang says. The idea is to impart not just an interest in performance but also a healthier approach to life. It’s “holistic patient care,” she says, and it hinges on the powerful ways music can affect people.

Music has always figured heavily in Yang’s own life. She is in her thirteenth year of flute lessons and is a music and biology double-major who plans to attend medical school. She’s also conductor of the Duke Chamber Players, a student-run chamber orchestra.

But for her first three years of college, she wasn’t at all sure how music would figure into her future. Senior year, she says, was “a huge wake-up call.” Over the fall semester, she finally came to terms with the fact that playing music professionally wasn’t what she actually wanted. “It’s what music can do for other people, seeing how music can transform other people, that brings me joy,” she says. “What I value in music is the community that comes from it.”

On Saturdays, Yang volunteers at KidZNotes in Durham. Like its parent organization, Venezuela’s El Sistema, KidZNotes teaches underprivileged children to play musical instruments through afterschool practices five times a week. But, Yang says, “It’s not a music program. It’s a social-work program.”

KidZNotes uses music to teach lessons important to succeeding in life, Yang says. Playing music encourages an attention to order, to rhythm, and to written notes. And, she adds, playing in an ensemble teaches focus, discipline, and working in harmony with others toward a common goal.

More important, Yang trusts music’s ability to transform and inspire. The parents who used to struggle to get their children to school now say they have no problems at all because their children can’t wait for their music lessons. And Yang says there was one student who was so shy at first he wouldn’t speak a word. A couple of weeks of KidZNotes later, he was one of the most
enthusiastic in the class.

Yang believes music can change a child’s life. “Nothing can take it away—not poverty, not illness, not family issues. If you love something that much—something larger than yourself—it’s empowering.”

She thinks the lessons of El Sistema can be applied on a larger scale through operations such as her dream clinic. By extension, she imagines a youth ensemble composed of her patients that would give them a support network and a community they might otherwise lack.

Yang knows that hers is an ambitious and difficult dream, yet she’s undeterred. “I’m not going to go halfway. I’m going to go all the way.” She pauses a moment, then continues. “This is going to happen.”