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The Fairfax Journal
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May 11, 1997

Singing Surgeons Take it on the Raod
By day they save lifes, but by night these medical
professionals sing a much different tune


     They´ve got rhythm. They´ve got music.
     They´ve got medical degrees. Who could ask for anything more?
      Offtrax, a local band that formed about a year and a half ago and, after several local performances, just had its first on-the-road experience in New Orleans this week, is probably one of the few bands whose members know the words to both "Mony, Mony" and the Hippocratic Oath.
      But even though they´re four cardiac surgeons strong - with a pacemaker salesman as a drummer and an insurance saleswoman as a singer - the band isn´t trying to sell itself as a gimmick with names like "The Heartbeats" or "The Singing Surgeons." Rather, the members are trying to come off as serious musicians and, from what one can see at their shows, they´re doing a good job as they tear through everything from original songs to Joan Osbourne to the Beatles.
      "Initially there was disbelief. People think you´re a joke," said drummer Glen Schuster of Gaithersburg, Md. "It was very hard to earn respect."
      But they quickly got that after a Wednesday night performance at the Vienna Grille in Virginia, which earned them an invitation to play again on a Saturday, a far more lucrative night. They´ve also performed at a few balls and other events.
      "This is easier than what we do during the day," said Aldo Esposito, guitarist and cardiac surgeon from Oakton, Va. But Ted Friehling of Great Falls Va., a surgeon and Offtrax´s lead guitarist, quickly pointed out that some effort is required.
      "This is a lot of work," Friehling said. But then added, "We´re about having fun. We love it. We don´t consider it work."
      Friehling is the center of the band. He runs a practice with keyboardist Al DelNegro of Washington. When DelNegro was approached about putting together a band for the Heart Healthy Cuisine Fair in Fairfax, Va., an event to highlight restaurants that serve healthy food, he automatically turned to his partner Friehling, who had played guitar right up through medical school.
      The two of them knew a few people, mainly Schuster, Esposito (whom DelNegro had taught when he was a professor at Georgetown and Esposito was a student) and bassist Bryan Raybuck of Potomac, Md., all of whom work in the Fairfax area, and pulled them together to form Offtrax.
      Frehling also called in Stacy Ann Choen of New York City, with whom he´d performed in bands years ago. She agreed to fly to the Washington area for shows and became the band´s singer.
      Since then they´ve done a few shows, and practice at least two times a week. Cohen flies in about twice a month to practice with the band (she said she´s become very close to all the people from United Airlines) and the rest of the time practices the songs in the band´s repertory on her own. She gets her timing in sync with the band during in-person meetings.
      The band meshed quickly. DelNegro is a classically trained musician, having performed in symphony orchestras, and needed a little time to adjust himself to the peculiarities of rock songs such "Mustang Sally" and "Knockin´ on Heaven´s Door," but his bandmates said he made the transition admirably.
      As for the rest of them, they had no problem. Most had played their instruments when younger and had even performed in bands. Friehling performed right up through medical school but then had to retire his guitar for a while.
      "It was very depressing," he said.
Raybuck quickly chimed in: "It was depressing anyway. Medical school sucked."
      "Get it straight. These people are musicians when they´re Offtrax. Sure, one of their concerts is probably one of the best places to have a heart attack (though they haven´t lost an audience member yet, DelNegro pointed out), but these are not people in white surgeon´s gowns behind their instruments. They wear jeans and T-shirts. Friehling, by his own admission, looks nothing at all like your stereotypical surgeon. With his long curly hair, he looks more like a relation to Frank Zappa than your local doctor.
      "We didn´t want to be cute about it," said Friehling of the band´s decision to play down the medical connection. "You would have no clue we were doctors [if you walked into a concert without knowing ahead of time]."
      But there are clues. In between the dancers on the floor at a concert recently at the Vienna Grille, one could see older citizens pointing excitedly at the stage, talking about their doctors on stage. DelNegro said one patient came to one of their concerts with his oxygen tank in tow. Out in the parking lot, one sees an unusually high percentage of vanity license plates with the initials "RN" (registered nurse) or "MD."
      From the audience reaction that Saturday night, it seems that the band is certainly making a good impression with its repertory of about 40 songs.
      "We like to do things that have more of a groove," said Schuster. "We´ve all got kids and they seem to like us. Heck, our kids are our roadies."
      "A lot of the stuff we do is old because we found people don´t want to dance to other stuff," Friehling said.
      "Plus, we´re old," quipped Raybuck. Indeed, most of the band members are in their 40s or 50s, but that´s not a problem for them. The problems that face them stem mostly from their professions. Trying to squeeze in practice time between the demands of a medical career and the need for a social life can trying.
      Few rehearsals are ever completed with the whole band present as one member usually is off reading a cardiogram or helping a patient. The band has to perform with buzzers set on "pulse" and members often leave in the middle of a song to check on a patient. They have to make arrangements to have someone else handle their calls during performances.
      But while they have the usual give and take that one would expect of any band, the only insurmountable challenge Offtrax has faced so far is "What´s The Frequency, Kenneth," a song fueled by distortion and loud vocals by the group R.E.M., which just didn´t sound good when Offtrax attempted it, according to Friehling.
      And they´ve had to learn to trust themselves. At their first performance at the Vienna Grille, the band played straight for three or four hours.
      "We were afraid to take a break for fear they´d all go home," Esposito said.
      But once they got requests for a CD (there are tentative plans), they were pretty sure they´d arrived. In fact, one of their biggest problems now is getting rehearsal time in Friehling´s basement, where his children, who have their own bands, have to rehearse.
      For now they´ll just keep busy making music and convincing people that, yes, they are both professionals and musicians.
      "Someone approached me a while ago and asked, ´Did you hear? Dr. Friehling is in a band,´" said Schuster. "I just said, ´I know. I´m in it too.´"

–Neils C. Sorrells, Special to The Journal




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