Steve Goodman (R) performing in a Baltimore production of Massenet’s Werther, with Chris Austin, MD, currently director of the NIH’s NCATS

Photo by Cory Weaver

Steve Goodman, MD, MHS, PhD, Baritone

Steve Goodman is equally at home in the worlds of academic medicine and opera.

Making a mid-career move is often difficult. There are friends and family to consider, the loss of familiarity, the whole matter of uprooting. For some, there are passions that must be put aside, as in a move from ski country to the deep South or from a vibrant social scene to a cultural desert. Luckily for Steven Goodman, MD, MHS, PhD (professor of medicine and of health research & policy and associate dean of clinical and translational research), there are opportunities to pursue his passion for singing at Stanford and in the Bay Area even though they’re somewhat different from performing with the Baltimore Opera Company.

Although his singing talents are known to his friends, most in the department were surprised to see a recent Department of Medicine newsletter linking to his performance of the national anthem for the San Francisco Giants this last August. Five years into his Stanford career he agreed to look back at how he learned to unlock his rich, resonant baritone and what he then did with it.

From Clarinet to Opera

Steve Goodman started out as “a moderately serious clarinetist first, not a singer. The problem with the clarinet is that, to be in an orchestra, you have to be one of the top two wherever you are, and I wasn’t.  So I joined the Harvard Glee Club, which was a serious musical group, but I wasn’t that serious about singing.”

What changed Goodman’s trajectory was hearing a college production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute in English when, “for the first time I understood the theater part of opera. Once I made the connection between the music and the meaning, I became an opera fan.” Although he couldn’t sing serious opera, in his final semester at Harvard he sang in a Gilbert & Sullivan comic opera, The Yeoman of the Guard. Despite that, he says, “If anyone asked me if I was a musician I would say ‘yes, a clarinetist,’ but never  ‘yes, I’m a singer.’”

And then came medical school in New York at NYU, where there was no time to sing but lots of opportunity to hear more opera. That was followed by pediatrics residency at Washington University in St. Louis.

Then he went to Johns Hopkins to get a masters in biostatistics and a PhD in epidemiology. And there, he says, “I got more and more interested in singing seriously. They had a medical campus chorus, and I heard one terrific student who was taking singing lessons, so I decided to take lessons with her teacher to see what would happen. My goal was just to sing in an opera workshop or something.”

Goodman (left) recently performed in a comic opera by Gilbert & Sullivan  

Photo by David M. Allen                              

Refining His Talent at the Peabody Conservatory

One of the nice things about Hopkins is its Peabody Conservatory, and Goodman decided to try to take advantage of its offerings. “I called to see if I could get into the opera workshop. And they mentioned that there was a production of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, and I could audition for that, too. I had no operatic repertoire, so I auditioned with the Pirate King song from Pirates of Penzance, which in retrospect was ludicrous. But they were nice, and I was cast, as a doctor, appropriately.” (The pompous Dr. Bartolo.)

“To start singing opera by doing Marriage of Figaro was a dream. It is very human, funny and poignant. The first rehearsal is still burned into my brain; I couldn’t believe I was being given the privilege of hearing and singing that glorious music, for  hours at a time, with such a supremely talented cast; I was the only one not enrolled in the conservatory. The score felt to me like a bible.  But the lead soprano, who later became a friend, kept telling me, ‘you don’t know what you’re doing. You have no idea how to sing.’ She was right; I was singing with very little attention to vocal production and consistency of sound, things that opera singers are very conscious of."

“After that I found a teacher at Peabody, a famous baritone,” he says, “and he somehow got through to me that the voice that sounded good to me in my head sounded bad outside, and the voice that sounded bad to me in my head sounded good outside. When I finally sang with the voice he wanted, he shouted, ‘That’s money!’ And he was right, literally; just weeks later I auditioned for small solo roles at the Baltimore Opera, who had turned me down for a place in the chorus just months before.” After hearing his new voice, Goodman reports, “they gave me the choice of any role I wanted.”

He chose a role as Lady Macbeth’s doctor, and while he didn’t cure her, his opera career had started. He sang in multiple productions over the ensuing years, often side by side with major stars, like the Metropolitan Opera’s James Morris and Jerome Hines. “I sang either big roles with small companies or small roles with big companies. I also performed virtually every baritone role that Gilbert and Sullivan wrote, and did a fair amount of concertizing as well. I sang twice on Baltimore Symphony programs, and I did some national anthems for the Baltimore Orioles.”

Concerts and National Anthems

For one of those, the Orioles called him in his office one morning around 11am to say they had a cancellation, and could he make it to the ballpark by noon to sing the anthem? He told his secretary to move things around, went out in a jacket and tie, sang the anthem, and was back by 1pm for a meeting to design a cancer trial.

He describes the experience of going back and forth between the worlds of academic medicine and opera singing as being intensely rewarding but extraordinarily difficult. “I would go from an environment where I was conditioned to act in a buttoned-up, formal manner (it was Hopkins), not revealing what you really think, and then drive directly to a rehearsal where I had to not only get in touch with suppressed feelings, but find the courage to emotionally expose myself to strangers. Because the person I was on stage was so different from the one at work, I often tried to keep my musical and professional worlds separate, particularly from my students.”

He felt this ultimately made him a better at dealing with patients and people in general: “you touch people by sharing your common humanity, and that means not being afraid to find it in yourself, and to display it to others. There is no question that this aspect of my singing life kept part of me alive that made me a better doctor, friend, and parent.”

Satirical Songs

Another sidelight of his was writing and performing satirical songs, both in the school and as part of political satire groups in Baltimore and Washington, DC. He founded a short-lived political troupe in Baltimore, whose most long-lasting product was a prop: a replica of a Baltimore city bench adorned with its then-motto, “The City That Reads.” He notes that it didn’t say at what grade level. It now sits in front of his California home, and everyone who visits ask how he managed to steal a city bench.

He became a person often asked to provide some musical entertainment at various celebratory events at Johns Hopkins. He recalls an event to thank Michael Bloomberg for his $100 million school gift as a favorite. “I wrote a song called “Mike’s Way” to the tune of “My Way,” where I portrayed Bloomberg, with him sitting directly in front of me, and told a mock-autobiographical story of his rise from Hopkins undergrad to New York mayor and public health advocate. I don’t know for sure if he liked it, but he thanked me and didn’t rescind the contribution. He added a few more $100 millions in the following years, so it wasn’t too big a disaster.”

And then came 2011 and a big move across the country for a new position at Stanford, not only a new academic environment, but one without the decades of connections he had developed in his east coast musical community.  That has diminished his performing opportunities, but he still finds ones occasionally. For instance:

“The first year I performed in a Stanford Bach B minor mass at Memorial Church and also a Beethoven mass at the Bing. But most of my opportunities are national anthems for a lot of the Stanford games: soccer, gymnastics, wrestling, basketball, volleyball. I am still working on the SF Warriors, but they are a tough nut to crack.
“I performed the role of the Police Sergeant in a SF Lamplighters production of Pirates of Penzance last year, and that was great.
“I do a lot of cantoring for Jewish services at the Stanford Hillel for High Holy Days. I like that forum because it’s very meaningful to people, and of course that’s the reason to perform – to touch people when they want and need to be moved. So that’s very satisfying.
“I wrote a song for Mark Cullen’s departure from the Division of General Medical Disciplines, “New Mark, New Mark,” which was fun and still makes me laugh; Michele Barry, his wife, liked it, and the words are on his office wall, so he apparently didn’t mind it too much.

Goodman sings in a production of Jules Massenet’s Werther in Baltimore

Photo by Cory Weaver

Goodman in a comic opera

Photo by David M. Allen

To help others with a medical bent find an outlet for expressing their musical talent, Goodman helped start up in 2014 the Stanford Medical Music Network (SMMN, called summon). He explains the thinking behind the new organization: “There was no entity in Stanford Medicine to organize people who do music, the kind of group that actually first got me singing. So together with Audrey Shafer, Jackie Genovese, and medical student Ben Robison, in the Medicine and the Muse Program, and the support of Dean Lloyd Minor, who is a highly trained cellist, we launched the SMMN. We had an inaugural concert with some unbelievably talented faculty, students, and staff that also celebrated the donation by med student Kenrick Tam of the grand piano in Li Ka Shing that he won in an international competition! There’s a huge number of very accomplished musicians in the medical school, and now there’s a website where musicians can sign up and see what other musicians are around. If this can help Stanford musicians nurture that side of their character, I will consider it a great success.”

Steve Goodman sounds at home at Stanford.