by Len Lear
The word “unique” is often misapplied to someone or something that is unusual, special, outstanding, etc., but it is rarely used correctly. Based on the Latin word “uni” for “one,” it means “one of a kind”— not admirable or efficient or skillful but the only one of its kind. Swimmer Michael Phelps is unique, for example, because he has won more Olympic medals than any other athlete in history.
And as far as I have been to discover, area resident Debra Lew Harder is also unique. I have spent time searching the internet, but I have not been able to find one other person in the country who is a medical doctor and also has a doctorate degree in music and is a practicing concert soloist.
Debra, 53, was born in Vermont of Korean parents but grew up in Ohio, where she was inspired by her father, a medical doctor who was also a fine singer and lover of opera. “He had a wonderful tenor voice and sang Italian opera for fun. My first performance was accompanying him at church in ‘The Old Rugged Cross’ when I was a child,” said Debra, who began playing the piano at the age of 3, made her debut with an orchestra at age 12 and was offered a scholarship at the Peabody Music Conservatory in Boston.
Debra chose instead to pursue medical studies, like her father. She entered a combined Bachelor of Science/Medical Degree program at the Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine. While studying medicine, she continued to perform in national chamber music concerts presented by the Si-Yo Young Artists Series.
After earning her medical degree, she practiced as an emergency room physician before earning a second doctorate in music from Ohio State University, where she studied with, and served as teaching assistant to, the legendary American virtuoso Earl Wild.
Since then, Debra has performed with orchestras throughout the U.S. and in solo recital at Wigmore Hall in London, The Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concert Series in Chicago and many others. She has also appeared in collaboration with many artists, including, at the Curtis Institute, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Perelman Theater of the Kimmel Center with Philadelphia Orchestra concertmaster David Kim.
Debra and her husband Tom and two children were living in Los Angeles in 2000, where Tom was training in his rheumatology fellowship at UCLA. When it came time for them to choose a place to settle, they wanted good schools for their girls, a highly cultural area and to be not too far from their families in Ohio and the eastern U.S. A position with Main Line Rheumatology was offered to Tom; they fell in love with the Philadelphia area and have been here ever since.
Debra does not practice medicine anymore, “but I often use my medical knowledge in my teaching (addressing physiological, psychological and anatomical challenges in playing the piano). Having a medical background also gives me a good perspective on life in general.”
Debra still practices several hours every day so she can play pieces that are virtually mistake-free? “I don’t actually count the hours,” she said, “but I would say that to understand and perform a piece requires preparation on many levels — studying the structure of the score, thinking about it away from the piano, analyzing all the technical challenges, and understanding the emotion and meaning that is the essence of each piece. I do have to play every day to stay sharp. I like to play some Chopin etudes and Bach to start my day, no matter what other things are on the schedule.”
Debra’s favorite composers are Chopin, Beethoven, Debussy, Ravel and Bach, but she is also very much interested in other types of music which she transcribes for solo piano — everything from medieval music and Asian music to jazz. When asked about her favorite musical experiences, she replied, “They are too numerous to recount specifically. I’m still experiencing my favorite musical moments, and hope to do so as long as I play. Collaborating with other musicians and teaching gifted young pianists is especially rewarding for me.”
It is probably fair to say that for most lay people, a performance of a particular piece of music by a great musician always sounds the same. To a professional musician, though, are there any differences when they play the same piece of music on different occasions? If so, what are they, and why are they different?
“I believe every performance SHOULD be spontaneous and different in some way from the last,” Debra insisted. “That’s what distinguishes live performance from a recording. In live performance, I become inspired by the audience, and this can propel me to try new aspects of phrasing, timing and communicating in a fresh and exciting way.”
What are Debra’s goals for the future? What would she like to accomplish that she has not already done? “I’ve enjoyed bringing classical music to audiences who are eager to learn but may not necessarily have the background to understand it, which is most of the population under the age of 70, to be honest! My first program along these lines explored the illnesses of some of the great composers, with commentary, slides and complete performances of some of the great piano works in the literature.
“That was so well-received, I’ve been asked to develop another program. I will explore the family and music of J.S. Bach, as well as the composers he influenced, as a way to explore the subject of epigenetics and giftedness in music. More on that in the fall!”
Debra and Tom have two daughters — Alysa, a lawyer who will be working in New York City next year, and Alexandra, a junior at Scripps College in Claremont, California.
Debra’s next performance will be with five other local musicians, including cellist Michal Schmidt, who was profiled in an article in the April 9 issue of the Local. They will play the five Beethoven cello sonatas on Saturday, May 16, 7:30 p.m., at the Ethical Society of Philadelphia, 1906 S. Rittenhouse Sq.