WAKEFIELD — Jessica Means had practically grown up on a piano bench in her hometown of Wakefield, and at Harvard, she became the first female conductor of the famed Hasty Pudding Theatricals. But in her freshman year, she took a class in evolutionary biology and loved it. In 2009, she graduated cum laude with a biology degree and thoughts of medical school.
At Harvard, professors kept telling her that she’d have to give up music if she went into medicine; she couldn’t do both. But she couldn’t imagine not playing the piano. “To me, it’s like breathing,” she says.
Medicine or music? Her heart told her music, her head medicine. It was a decision she couldn’t make, and ultimately didn’t have to. But it took a while to get there.
“I graduated confused and in limbo,” she says. She’d won a yearlong fellowship working at a health-care nonprofit in Times Square. On lunch breaks, she’d go online looking for gigs for musical sight-readers, those who specialize in being able to pick up and play pieces cold. At night, she’d knock on Broadway doors. “I’m a pianist, and I’ll play for free,” she’d say.
In November of 2009, she saw the musical “Next to Normal” on Broadway, starring Alice Ripley, who won a Tony Award for her portrayal of a bipolar mother. “I knew I had to work with her,” Means says. “Something about the emotional quality of it made me feel that what she was doing on stage was what I was doing on the piano.”
After the show, Means stood with other fans behind the police barriers. When her turn came, she thrust out her Playbill for Ripley to sign and said: “Hi, I’m Jessica. I’m your new accompanist.” She was 23 years old. “What did I have to lose?” she says with a smile and shrug.
The next day, Ripley hired her. “I remember thinking if she plays piano with as much musical swagger and plaintive verve as she showed in coming up with that introduction, she most definitely is my new accompanist,” Ripley said in an e-mail. “Happily, it turned out that every word was true.”
Since then, the two have been performing together in Ripley’s solo concerts. Their usual haunt these days is 54 Below, a Manhattan night club in the cellar of the old Studio 54. One critic has called their show “an almost unbearably intense union of lyrics and music.” Saturday and Sunday, they will be at the Art House in Provincetown.
Not long after she was hired by Ripley, fate stepped in. Means got an urgent call from a friend: A pianist had called in sick about 30 minutes before a Broadway benefit. Could she possibly fill in?
“I got dressed fast and ran,” Means recalls.
A neurosurgeon was throwing an event for Broadway in South Africa, which funds arts programs for children in that country. There were Broadway performers and a wealthy audience. “They put the music in front of me,” says Means, 27. “I thought this was going to be a total disaster. But I played, and it went well.”
Dr. Lauren Schwartz was the host, and she remembers her own acute anxiety. “I thought we were going to have to cancel until my friend said he knew a girl who was incredible on piano. I said, ‘I don’t know anyone who can learn this music that fast.’ And he said that she could sight- read.”
Schwartz’s angst only increased when Means arrived. “She looked like she was about 12. She had these headphones on. I said this is never going to work. But it was just incredible. She played everything flawlessly. We made a lot of money for the program.”
During the event, Schwartz, a pediatric neurosurgeon, made a speech about her work and the healing power of music. Means approached Schwartz after the concert. “I’m interested in medicine, and I loved what you just said,” she told her. “I wonder if I could come to the hospital and shadow you?”
Schwartz made her a deal. “My dream has been to play the piano. If you can teach me how to play, you can shadow me.”
So Means shadowed Schwartz at Lincoln Memorial Hospital in the Bronx, between her health-care job and her work with Ripley. After her first day in the operating room, she was hooked.
“Some doctors find it difficult to connect with patients and their families, but with Lauren, it was so effortless,” Means says. “She was explaining a son’s gunshot wound to his family, and she broke it down so they could understand. Her patients were never confused, and it’s brain surgery.
“In the OR, she was so masterful and confident. I thought immediately, ‘I have to do this.’ That you can use your hands like that to heal somebody.”
Schwartz saw something in Means, too. “What kind of touched me is that with the gunshot wound, as I was taking the dressing off, Jessica got a little queasy. I like to see that there’s compassion. Nowadays you see so many people in medicine who forget that under the bandages is a human,” says Schwartz, who took piano lessons from Means, and now is studying at Juilliard night school, while maintaining her medical practice.
Though Means seems to blend medicine and music seamlessly, it hasn’t been easy. At first, she wasn’t sure she could get into medical school. “We don’t have any doctors in the family, no connections,” she says.
In addition, she’d need to complete a yearlong post-baccalaureate premedical program to get the required courses she needed. And how would she pay for it all?
Means applied to Harvard extension school for her post-baccalaureate: “I’d read where if you work at Harvard, courses would only cost $40 each.” Her New York fellowship completed, the former valedictorian and senior class president at Wakefield High School moved home in 2011 and took a job helping plan Harvard’s 375th anniversary. She enrolled in night classes and commuted to New York on weekends to play for Ripley.
She did that for four semesters, took the MCAT, and applied to med schools. Columbia was her first choice, and not just because it was in New York, where her piano gigs were. “My entire interview at Columbia was about playing for Alice,” Means says. “The other schools all asked, ‘Why are you playing music?’ ”
Means has just finished her first year at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. At her white-coat ceremony on the first day, Schwartz and Ripley both showed up, in addition to Means’s parents and brother.
Shortly before she started medical school, she was one of 10 aspiring musical theater conductors selected to attend a four-day Broadway Conductors Program sponsored by Marvin Hamlisch’s estate and the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. At the end, she had to conduct the “Wicked” orchestra before several Broadway conductors.
“It was a mix of terrifying and exhilarating,” she says. “I love that feeling.”
At Columbia, Means is co-president of the medical school’s drama club, heads Physicians and Surgeons for the Arts, and plays in a med school cover band. She’s a student rep for the university’s arts initiative. And she plays for rehab patients. Then there are the gigs with Ripley.
She’s also on the leadership boards for the Association of Women Surgeons and the American Medical Student Association. She’s interested in pediatric reconstructive surgery and thinks music and medicine complement each other beautifully.
“You’re always part of a team with both,” she says. “I’ve spent 20 years getting my hands to be where they are, and I think that dexterity and delicate touch suits you very well in surgery, too.”
Means’s hands aren’t large (she is 5-feet-2 and slight), but they are expressive and in frequent motion; she complements words with gestures. Her fingers glide fluidly over the keys of the Yamaha baby grand piano that dominates a room in her parents’ home. She leans into the music as she plays an arrangement that she wrote for Ripley from “Side Show,” a Broadway production about conjoined twins.
Nearby, her parents have placed her framed Harvard diploma and her medical school acceptance letter, and family photos abound. Her father listens as she plays. “I remember her climbing on the bench and playing when she was about 6,” says Warren Means. “Whatever Jessica does, she does full-tilt. She worked very hard at Harvard and throughout school.”
Is there anything their daughter isn’t good at? Janet Means, Jessica’s mother, pauses a long moment. “She definitely didn’t play sports.”
Because she stretches so much to reach all the piano keys, Jessica has at times developed carpal tunnel symptoms in her hands. Her mother worries. “She does have to protect her hands if she goes into surgery. But music always has to be in her life.”
It’s a close-knit family. Jessica’s 87-year-old grandmother, Rose Liotine, has lived in an apartment in the family’s split-level house since Jessica was in kindergarten, and still makes biscotti and cookies for the others. Janet Means is administrative director of clinical laboratory services at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute; Warren is program manager for Goodrich. Her older brother, also named Warren, works for a biotech company. They plan to be in the audience on Saturday night.
On Aug. 25, Means will be back at medical school, taking a class called “The Body in Health and in Disease,” and another in foundations of clinical medicine. Then there are the hospital tutorials, where she’ll practice taking patient histories and doing physical exams.
“It’s a lot of information, but it’s not hard because it’s a joy to study,” she says. “It’s about the body. What could be more relevant or interesting? Unlike high school, it’s never felt like work.”
Besides, whenever she needs a break from her labors, Means knows she can do what she‘s always done: play.
Bella English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.