Music to his ears

After a career in medicine, Arnold Kirshenbaum dug out the old music scorebooks, found a teacher, and has now seen four of his compositions performed by local groups.
Photo by Arno Rosenfeld

Sitting in his Silver Spring dining room, Arnold Kirshenbaum can vividly recall the drives he made from his home to the FBI Academy in Quantico nearly 40 years ago. After receiving subsidized training at a military hospital in California, Kirschenbaum was assigned to the academy’s clinic.

“Anybody could walk in off the base,” Kirshenbaum said. “You could have a heart attack, a gunshot.”

But what sticks out most vividly in Kirshenbaum’s memory are the melodies that came to him on the long drives each morning and evening for four years, reminders of another path that his medical career had seemingly foreclosed upon.

Kirshenbaum, 65, grew up playing music. His parents started him on the piano in elementary school and as he got older and joined a marching band and youth orchestra, he added flute, piccolo and oboe to his repertoire.

Then he hit college.

Medicine seemed like the safe path and the rigorous coursework, first as a biology student at Providence College and then at Georgetown Medical School, left little time for the serious pursuit of music.

“You have to make a choice,” Kirshenbaum said. “And medicine, if you have the acumen to do it, you get in and go.”

There was little downtime in medical school and during his residency. But after settling in Silver Spring, where his children would have access to Jewish schools, he started the long drives to Quantico. They were quiet. Solitary. There was time to focus. And the music returned.

“Certain themes, melodies would just come to me,” he said. “And it sounded good.”

Kirshenbaum struggled to remember the snippets of music that came to him suddenly. He carried musical score books, pulling over to jot down melodies when he could and otherwise hoping he would
remember them.

Kirshenbaum’s medical career took off. After his stint at Quantico, the allergy and immunology specialist took a fellowship at the National Institutes of Health and then opened a private practice in Maryland.

Kirshenbaum still cares for patients at his Asthma and Allergy Health Care practice and publishes his NIH work, often going in on Sundays to conduct research.

But five years ago, with age 60 approaching, Kirshenbaum realized he was running out of time to act on his love of music. A longtime fan of classical music, and out of practice playing instruments, Kirshenbaum decided performance was a nonstarter. Composition was his best bet.

Arnold Kirshenbaum shows a music score book where he recorded melodies that came to him during his many years of practicing medicine.
Photo by Arno Rosenfeld

He dug out the old music scorebooks, found a teacher, and has now seen four of his compositions performed by local groups including the University of Maryland marching band and the Susquehanna Symphony Orchestra.

After decades of recording the tunes that came to him in the car or while running errands, Kirshenbaum was floored the first time he heard one of his compositions performed.

“It’s truly awesome, it’s amazing,” he said.

Kirshenbaum said that the music theory and composition work has come relatively easy. The difficulty is finding the time and he credits his wife, Vivian, for helping him carve the necessary hours out to work on his music while still maintaining a full-time medical practice.

Kirshenbaum carves out about 10 hours per week to work on his compositions, using a computer program that speeds the process by allowing him to play back the melodies as soon as he writes them.

He also works with Joshua Fishbein, a composer who teaches music theory at The Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University and Towson University. Fishbein said he has been working to fill holes in Kirshenbaum’s musical knowledge and provide him with the theoretical foundation necessary to compose.

Coming to composition later in life, Fishbein said Kirshenbaum is more diligent than many of his college-age students.

“Arnie is a very hard worker. If I say jump, he says how high,” Fishbein said. “He’ll constantly get work done and in fact I don’t know how he has time for all of it between his research and his private medical practice.”

Kirshenbaum, a kohen, or descendant of the ancient priestly class, has set music to the priestly blessing and composed a Chanukah medley last year that played off of songs like “I Have a Little Dreidel” and “Maoz Tzur.”

“Being a kohen, we’re singing all of the time and song is a big part of the life,” Kirshenbaum said.

As an Orthodox Jew, observing Shabbat, praying and studying Torah have also been a source of inspiration for Kirshenbaum’s musical writing — sometimes posing obstacles too, as when melodies come to him on Shabbat and he’s unable to record them until the evening.

While he’s thrilled to now be composing music and embracing a passion that he paused in college, Kirshenbaum has few regrets about the path that brought him here.

“I don’t know that I could have pursued it differently,” he said. “Frankly I’m just happy to see myself getting back to it.”

Arno Rosenfeld is a Washington-area writer.

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