Eli Newberger: Music Maker, Medicine Man

Edward Bride By

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Such is the nature of jazz tuba that few prominent players are household names outside their genre. Can you name "the Art Tatum of the tuba" or a "the Clifford Brown of the tuba"? Many of these instrumental performers are part-timers. Only, don't tell Eli Newberger that jazz is his secondary field: it ranks solidly in a two-way tie with his role as physician, lecturer and consultant in pediatric matters.

Eli Newberger

To jazz fans, Newberger is perhaps best-known as co-founder and the original pianist, then tuba player, of the Massachusetts-based Black Eagle Jazz Band. Though no longer with that band, he is proud to have been involved in establishing it as one of the most significant exponents of traditional jazz extant.

His feet still firmly planted in the trad jazz firmament, Newberger is equally renowned in the medical community as a pediatrician who practices on the border of psychology and trauma.

When you see the term "Medical Arts" on a building, chances are you don't think about any one individual or one discipline. Certainly not about Eli Newberger. A top-tier jazz tuba player, lecturer, writer, expert witness, a pianist, and, well, the picture might be getting clearer: Eli Newberger gives new meaning to the term "medical arts."

New Englanders who know Dr. Eli Newberger through his clinical services respect him as an expert in family conflict. His face is as familiar as almost any other jazz musicians, but for a different reason: his (all-too-frequent) television appearances as an expert commentator on matters of family violence and child abuse. But if forced to make a choice between current careers, one wonders whether he could do so, as the two paths of medicine and music are so intertwined as to be one.

For icing on this musical montage, there's The Cupcake Philharmonic Orchestra, a chamber group that brings musical programming to school children. Performances of the group, which includes Eli's wife Carolyn on flute, are underwritten by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, as part of the BSO's community commitment to education. In the group, Eli switches to piano, the BSO's Mike Roylance plays the tuba and Roylance's musician wife plays trumpet. The Cupcakes also supplement their ensemble with other musicians, including Boston Symphony players.

Although it comprises a relatively small portion of their professional lives, The Cupcake Philharmonic's occasional rendition of Tubby the Tuba represents the intersection of the Newbergers' work with children and music. These concerts deliver happy moments outside the context of their clinical work, where there is so much stress, controversy, and sadness.

Is music an escape from the controversy of family violence? Not exactly, but it represents a good jumping-off point for an interview. But first, some context.

Throughout their careers, Eli and Carolyn Newberger have collaborated on both music and medicine. The two disciplines have been such an integral part of their individual lives, and are so intertwined that it is difficult to choose one starting point.

Their joint work includes research, writing various articles both for professionals and consumers, on subjects having to do with many issues concerning families: the effects of poverty on family life; malnutrition and its impact on children and their development; the causes of malnutrition from both a social/political sense, as well as a medical/physiological sense. What they may be best-known for, over their years of clinical work, may be the issues that affect children and their families: child abuse, domestic violence, and sexual abuse, where Eli is often an expert witness.

For 28 years, Eli Newberger directed the Family Development clinic at Children's Hospital in Boston, which evaluated children in the setting of divorce or conflict, particularly when there were issues of abuse of children or women. In fact, judges would often refer children to the clinic when such allegations were involved. Eventually, his expertise became nationally recognized, which brought Dr. Eli Newberger's face and persona to many a television screen when news reports were seeking independent opinions on matters of family violence.

Still active on the consulting and lecture circuit, and spending less time as a clinician, Eli writes in their Berkshires hideaway near Tanglewood, where Carolyn does her painting and practices her flute and piccolo playing.

Although it would be tempting to conjecture otherwise, music isn't an escape from all this; to describe it so would be to diminish its importance in his life, his psyche, and his work. Escapism is not the reason why both Eli and Carolyn are so deeply ensconced in both fields. Art has been part of both of their lives since their youths, even before they met in college.

That being said, does playing music put the trials and tribulations of the day aside, so he can depart that troubled work and just be creative? For Eli, there does come a point where "if you are deeply in the music, you have at least one foot in another world, and the instrument ceases to exist. There is something deep inside you. The feelings, the emotions that get expressed in sound that you share, and engage with the audience, makes a communication that transcends the boundaries between people."

Eli Newberger Butch Thompson Trio, from left: Thompson, Eli Newberger, Jimmy Mazzy

Eli says that when he is in this part of his work, "it is so richly rewarding that it has the affect of elevating your own experience, and the kind of human transaction that goes on with performance, and attentive musical response."

He can feel this both in a classical setting as well as jazz, he says. "But in jazz, there is a kind of immediacy and spontaneity, where the ideas and feelings as they unfold, especially if you are playing for a sympathetic crowd, are really quite amazing ...both transcendent and transformational. It changes you."

As co-founder of the New Black Eagle Jazz Band in 1970, he began on piano, switching to tuba in 1971, and has made over 40 recordings and hundreds of concert and festival appearances across the U.S. and Europe.

Prior to setting roots in jazz, he had an eight-year stint (1958-66) as tubaist with the New Haven Symphony, his last serious flirtation with a classical tuba career. His most recent classical foray was in March, 2007, when, with the Boston Classical Orchestra, and Mike Roylance, principal tuba of the Boston Symphony, he gave the premiere of Howard Frazin's concerto for 2 tubas and chamber orchestra. The next summer, he would be lecturing on jazz improvisation to Fellows of the Tanglewood Music Institute in Lenox, where the Boston Symphony Orchestra is in residence for 10 weeks a year.

It was with Roylance, as mentioned at the outset of this article, that he organized the Cupcake Philharmonic to perform children's classics like "Tubby the Tuba," and similar works.

But mainly, musical audiences are likely to find Eli Newberger in a jazz environment. Making music together with sympathetic jazz colleagues is very powerful, he avers. "And, it's not as simple as an experience of joy as opposed to sadness, or struggle. There is a great deal of discipline involved in playing jazz, and especially in playing traditional jazz," where there are very tight improvising rules, and where "a high premium is placed on original expression, within those rules."

In trad jazz,Newberger continues, there is a real priority given to one's emotional expression, and less concern about technical display.

Newberger offers an anecdote about how intertwined music and medicine are, for him. "I wish I had had today's clinical understanding and language back then in 1970, the same year that I organized the child protection team at Children's Hospital, and when Tommy Sancton, Tony Pringle and I formed the Black Eagle Jazz Band," he relates. "I was plunged into the trauma area; no one then appreciated what we now call the secondary trauma, on the caregivers, of their exposure to severely injured people, of the psychological impact they suffer. For me, in today's language, in retrospect I think that the music was not only therapeutic, but also enabled me to do the work in a particular and specific way."

One of the tasks resulting from trauma exposure is to be able to contend with the surges of emotion that the traumatic experience signifies, for both clinicians and victims. "The term of art today, in the trauma field, that for me was a personal task is what is called affect regulation, contending with the strong surges of emotion in response to trauma. Professionals must maintain a positive professional demeanor. For example, you have to avoid —at all costs—expressing rage against someone who has committed horrible acts against a child, because that person typically is isolated, typically needs help. This is an extremely difficult task to accomplish for most professionals, who can unwittingly mete out punishment in the guise of help.

"As I look at it in retrospect, I think it was the music, more than any other artifact of my professional training, or colleagues, or the splendid professional environment that Children's Hospital made possible, I really do think that the music enabled me to give care in a way that I would otherwise not have been able to do."

So intertwined are his interests, in fact, that a discussion of the interconnections of his two careers appears in the book Doctors Afield (Yale University Press, 1999). "My life has been a constant balancing act, music sometimes serving as the counterweight to medicine, and sometimes the reverse," he says in "The Medicine of the Tuba," his essay in that book.

Medicine of the Tuba

Music transports Carolyn to a different place, in a different way, she says. From the perspective of a painter, "art is the hardest thing I've ever done. It's harder than graduate school and writing a dissertation. Harder than double-tonguing on piccolo. In art, you're always trying to bring order out of chaos. And you are creating the order."

Eli Newberger A Girl and Her Horn by Carolyn Newberger

On the other hand, in music "there is a standard. Jazz is a little different, because it has its structure, but there is freedom on top of that structure, and you have to be able to exercise that freedom while still making sense within that structure. I work hard at my music, and hard at my art, so it's not all about transcendental or transformational experience. You have to really work hard to get to a point where sometimes that happens. And, sometimes that happens reliably."

That's when the transport occurs. She relates that she can pick up her flute or piccolo and play a Telemann Suite for Flute, "and totally be in another world. The music is so sublime. The music and I are seamless, and as Eli has said, the instrument disappears.

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