Doctor/musician alumnus takes stage in Van Cliburn competition

Whether he was taking a break from his premed classes as an undergrad, processing what he was learning in medical school or taking some down time after a stint in the emergency room, Noah DeGarmo ’00 has always turned to music as a key part of his life.

Now that he has an established career as an emergency medicine physician, DeGarmo has taken his dedication to the piano to an even greater level and will be one of 39 musicians in the Cliburn International Amateur Piano Competition Oct. 12-18 in Fort Worth, Texas. DeGarmo visited the Cornell campus in September for a public concert of his Cliburn program with Xak Bjerken, professor of music and DeGarmo’s piano teacher while at Cornell.

“For me, music has always been transcendent, it takes you out of yourself,” DeGarmo said. “My goal is not only to play perfect technically, but to touch someone in a way that they can get out of themselves during a performance.”

DeGarmo, who began as a Sukuzi violin student when he was 2½, said his lifetime goal was to become a physician who maintained an active musical life.

Following his brother, grandfather and grandmother, who were all Cornell grads, DeGarmo came to campus choosing to major in economics on the pre-med track because it gave him more time to pursue music.

“I did more music in college than I did anything else,” he said. “I would study organic chemistry late at night, then go practice a little bit, then go study again. When I mixed it up, it was pretty helpful.”

two people at pianos
Chris Kitchen Degarmo, left, and Bjerken, played together during a Sept. 13 concert in Barnes Hall.

Bjerken said DeGarmo was one of the most talented and hard-working students he’s ever worked with.

“He was one of those dream students who lives and dreams music. Noah listens so deeply and patiently that he draws in the listener into every moment,” Bjerken said. “His playing communicates calm and his sound is unusually round and beautifully shaped.  His music seems to come from a quiet place far away from his day job in an ER room.”

DeGarmo said one of his dreams was to come back to play at Cornell, so the September concert was “unbelievable.”

“I’ve never had the courage or the time to do it, but I just love Barnes Hall. And it was amazing to play with Xak. The colors and tones he creates are just beautiful.”

While a medical student, DeGarmo often played on the grand piano in his dorm. He also played during monthly concerts and gave concerts with a violinist who was also studying medicine.

“There’s been a lot written about the connections between music and medicine,” DeGarmo said. “There are a lot of people with interests in both – there are brain connections at work there.”

When he moved to Dallas, DeGarmo formed the Boulanger Piano Quintet, composed of colleagues in medicine. They have performed at the Dallas Public Library and at the Dallas Arboretum. He also offers a monthly concert for patients, families and staff on a Steinway that was donated to Arlington Memorial Hospital, where he works. And he’s set to perform Gershwin’s Second Rhapsody as a soloist with the World Doctor’s Orchestra during their October 2023 Dallas concert.

To prepare for the Cliburn competition, DeGarmo has been studying with his current teacher, Alessandro Mazzamuto, who he said has pushed him harder than he’s worked since college. He’s been playing through his entire program once a day. He also took part in the Cliburn competition in 2016, advancing to the quarterfinals at that time.

DeGarmo’s Cliburn repertoire this time includes the Bach–Siloti Prelude in B Minor, Rachmaninov’s Prelude in D Major, op. 23 No. 4 and Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 30 in E Major, op. 109, which he first played in high school. Other repertoire include Chopin Nocturne Op. 48 No. 1, Brahms Intermezzo Op. 118 No. 2, Prokofiev Sarcasms Op. 17 and Schumann Piano Concerto Op. 54 first movement.

“When I bring a piece like that back, I always find something new in the music,” he said. “The pieces I choose to perform are ones that speak to me at that time. At every point in your life, different music will speak to you in new ways.”

The prospect of playing for a large audience in such a tough competition can certainly give him a sinking feeling in his stomach, DeGarmo said, but it’s overwhelmed by so many positive feelings.

“For me, performance can be one of the greatest things ever,” he said. “Sometimes you don’t really know where your nerves are going to go, but if you can keep them in check, then something magical happens with the music every time you’re performing for an audience.

“Some of the most powerful moments when you’re performing are when you take a breath or a longer pause, and you can feel the audience catching their breath or holding it for a moment just waiting for the next note. It’s intoxicating in a way, one of the best feelings in the world.”

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