By Stephanie Chase
Guest Columnist
New York, NY, USA

To play chamber music with previously unfamiliar musicians is usually a pleasure but occasionally a challenge. A chamber music group generally does not have a conductor and is an excellent model for combining leadership with cooperation to get the best result: a unified and cogent interpretation of a piece of music that allows for individual personalities to emerge. In my experience, through hundreds of chamber music performances with assorted individuals, it also represents an opportunity to learn from others' ideas and skills. Only when collaborators are unwilling to fully invest themselves, or allow others to share their thoughts, is the process – and concert – unfulfilling.

A few years ago, I was engaged to perform the first violin part of the Souvenir de Florence sextet by Tchaikovsky and was familiar only with the first cellist, who is a longtime friend. Although it is a well-known and beloved work, the sextet requires greater skills and group cooperation than many other chamber music works, in part because there are six players. Within minutes of starting our first rehearsal it became clear that the other musicians were not only skilled but also supportive and empathetic collaborators. 

Tchaikovsky's sextet prominently features the first viola in music that is especially challenging in both technique and collaboration, and it soon became clear that the violist, Robin Fay Massie, was not only up to the task but a radiant and charismatic musician. I spent some time outside rehearsal with her and learned that she was training to become an emergency room nurse, which surprised me because she is such a gifted violist. We have remained friends through social media and, when the pandemic struck, my thoughts turned to her and what we can learn from her experiences in the ER. Here, too, she remains a great inspiration and reveals how musical skills align with those of critical care.

Tchaikovsky's Sextet: Stephanie Chase, Benjamin Shute, Michael Cameron, Cheung Chau,
Daniel Brye and Robin Fay Massie

Our Conversation began in mid-May, as hospitalizations from COVID-19 were then waning, and continued through the first week of June, as mass international protests arose from the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Robin Fay Massie is a professional violist and violinist in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C. area, who has performed with The Philadelphia Orchestra, National Symphony Orchestra, as Assistant Principal Viola with the Delaware Symphony Orchestra, and as Principal Viola with the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra in Philadelphia. She has appeared in concert, both live and on television, with notable popular artists that include Jill Scott, Clay Aiken, Aretha Franklin, Tye Tribbett, Earth Wind & Fire, Ruben Studdard, Phillip Phillips, Maysa Leak, and Stevie Wonder. Recent backup performances include live appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon with tenor Alfie Boe and Pete Townshend of The Who, appearances with Eminem and Lauryn Hill, and on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. She has also performed on NPR's "Tiny Desk" series. In 2010, Ms. Massie founded Musicians of Mercy (MOM), which is a collective of musicians and artists that produces benefit concerts to raise funds for humanitarian causes and serves as its Executive Director. In addition to her concerts as chamber musician and soloist, she maintains a private teaching studio.

Robin Fay Massie in Concert

Ms. Massie was born in Pittsburgh, PA, and educated in Viola Performance at the University of Maryland in College Park, New England Conservatory, and the Peabody Institute of The Johns Hopkins University.  Since 2018, she is also an emergency department registered nurse and now works at a hospital in Baltimore, MD.  

STEPHANIE CHASE: Several years ago, it was my pleasure and privilege to play Tchaikovsky's sextet, Souvenir de Florence, with you and four other colleagues at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. The program was entitled "Prayers and Souvenirs," which seems especially appropriate for these days, and we spent a bit of free time together during the rehearsal period, which was delightful for me.

ROBIN FAY MASSIE: Oh, dear Stephanie, it was indeed a pleasure! Reflecting on that beautiful performance makes me even more incredibly grateful for the gift and calling of music. It is so emotionally satisfying to create art with your friends! As artists, we are blessed to find compatibility with others of singular talents as we aim for self-mastery through sacrifice; as we tailor our inner voice and acknowledge our frailties with transparency. These are what I call "Love Notes from God."

STEPHANIE CHASE: That is a beautiful statement! What are some of your most recent – and I wish I could say "current," but there are none for most of us – musical activities?

ROBIN FAY MASSIE: Like most of us, this period of quarantine due to COVID-19 has thrust me into a time of incubation and reflection. Finding new ways to connect with other artists presents its joys and challenges. Through the Zoom format, I was invited to address two undergraduate music classes as a guest artist: one at The Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University, the other for Virginia State University. I have also been working on recording viola parts for various duos and other works for online "distance" collaborations. I even performed at a socially-distanced funeral – my first-time playing viola while wearing a mask – and it definitely felt wonderful to improvise in person with the church organist after months of isolation. Surely, it is an interesting time to make music!

Robin Fay Massie

STEPHANIE CHASE: What led you to pursue studies in classical music? Did you start when you were very young?

ROBIN FAY MASSIE: I began piano lessons at age five. During frequent visits with a family friend, my parents noticed my gravitation to their old Wurlitzer piano. Thank God, my parents heard my "tinkering" as musical interest rather than noise – though they are not musicians – and that beautiful instrument became my first upright piano.

STEPHANIE CHASE: You are an exceptional violist and musician, and I was, frankly, quite stunned to learn that you were also embarking on a career as an emergency room nurse. What led to this?

ROBIN FAY MASSIE: Thank you, Stephanie! That means a lot coming from you. Interestingly enough, at age four, I first declared that I wanted to be a nurse. Lord knows I had no clue what that would entail! The next year, I began my endless love affair with music. Through musical study and performance, I discovered my passion for communication and human connection. Yet, I fully realize the power of human touch, healing, and wellness through nursing.

My foray into nursing came from a place of marital brokenness and I soon recognized that there was still a part of me that felt unfulfilled since childhood. With the advice of my parents, I decided there was no better time to consider returning to school to become a nurse. As I was both a biology and viola performance major during my undergraduate years, I only had a few outstanding prerequisites required to enter a nursing program. Quietly and progressively, I tackled one course at a time until I had the necessary credits. I applied and started nursing school in May 2016, renewed with a new zest for life. I burned the candle at both ends while working as a musician and being a daytime nursing student while my daughter was in school. Finally, in May 2018, I skipped across the graduation stage, my first time on a stage without my viola in years! Ah, the years of sacrifice and tears, (but) I have no regrets.

For the past year and a half, I have been blessed to juggle dual careers in viola and violin performance and as a registered nurse in a bustling Baltimore emergency room. It is worth every bit of the sacrifice to nurture those in distress, whether with my viola or by holding my patients' hands at the bedside. I am grateful for these opportunities.

STEPHANIE CHASE: What kind of work schedule do you have at the hospital?

ROBIN FAY MASSIE: I work full-time, my shifts being twelve and a half hours overnight, 7:00 p.m. to 7:30 a.m., three nights per week.

STEPHANIE CHASE: That length for a shift alone sounds like a challenge.

ROBIN FAY MASSIE: Living never gets easier, we just become more conditioned for battle. When I started my nursing career, I hardly envisioned myself in emergency medicine, let alone during an international pandemic! I don't feel like a hero. I simply don my scrubs, slather on my lip gloss, sling my stethoscope around my neck, and pray that I can be a representation of grace and love for my patients.

Robin Fay Massie in the ER

STEPHANIE CHASE: As musicians, we ideally need to be cooperative, prepared, and focus well under stress – have these traits helped you in nursing?

ROBIN FAY MASSIE: An emergency room is, at best, an environment of "organized chaos," not dissimilar to life itself. The arsenal of skills upon which I draw in a musical setting – both innate and cultivated – serve me well within the critical care setting.

I have always been somewhat of a perfectionist and yet, realize that real music occurs in the gray spaces between the notes. In practicing, I prepare to shape a phrase to my design; in performance, however, I must be flexible to invite the inevitable and allow for nuance and responsiveness to both my musical colleagues and the audience. As a nurse, I arm myself with faith, integrity and preparedness prior to each hospital shift. Even when working independently, I try to assist my teammates – especially being on night shift – and I am not afraid to seek assistance when needed. There is strength and satisfaction in medical collaboration.

STEPHANIE CHASE: What other attributes are helpful in an emergency room setting?

ROBIN FAY MASSIE: Whereas music is an art and science of precision, so is nursing, where the outcome tows the line between life and death. I have utilized my steady hands and sense of rhythm to perform life-saving compressions during cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Empathy, compassion, space, patience, humility, and active listening are vital when communicating with those in distress. No two patients are alike in personality and medical condition, and I choose to see the person before the pathology. For me, music and nursing share similarities – the common denominator being the human connection.

STEPHANIE CHASE: You are on the frontline of saving lives, and I had a close call with anaphylaxis a couple of summers ago, following several wasp stings. I am grateful that the local Emergency Room was but a four-minute drive away and that I was treated immediately, because my lips were becoming numb – along with severe hives and other symptoms – and knew that my ability to breathe would soon suffer. The teamwork of the nurses, attending doctor and emergency medical technician, who set me up with an intravenous line, was efficient and comforting, and I recovered well. So, I have a profound appreciation for the ER staff based on this personal experience alone.

In the ER, you must be prepared to act immediately to incoming patients with all kinds of medical crises. As a nurse, how independent are you?

ROBIN FAY MASSIE: A nurse's first responsibility is to assess his or her patients. We are trained to respond quickly and rely upon that "nurse's instinct" when something just doesn't appear right. Within the emergency room, particularly during night shift, I have been very fortunate to work closely with several doctors who are not only willing to share their insights and knowledge, but trust that I will keep them informed and always act in the patient's best interest.

STEPHANIE CHASE: What kinds of protocols do you perform that are not ordered by an attending physician?

ROBIN FAY MASSIE: There are certain evidence-based protocols; some are standards of care, while others are hospital-specific. For example: imagine that a woman arrives on a stretcher, audibly wheezing and leaning forward in an attempt to catch her breath. Even before the doctor arrives, I will raise the head of her bed and attempt to keep her calm. Using my stethoscope to listen to her lungs, I apply a pulse oximeter to her finger or earlobe to quantify the oxygen saturation in her blood. If the reading is less than 94%, I will immediately give her one to two liters of oxygen via nasal cannula to improve her respiration and reduce anxiety.

So, as a nurse, I have the professional autonomy to give compassionate and prudent care based upon my patient's presentation. This allows me to act quickly and effectively as a frontline member of the medical team.

STEPHANIE CHASE: Before the pandemic struck, what would a normal shift have been like?

ROBIN FAY MASSIE: There is no such word as "normal" in the emergency department! However, COVID-19 has changed the world as we once knew it. Prior to February, it was not unusual for the ratio to be three to four patients to one nurse. The first four to seven hours of every shift always feel like I am running on a hamster wheel, playing catch-up. I not only inherit patients from the previous shift, but I am also discharging and welcoming new patients. It is typical that one patient will be more critical, one will be moderately so, and the third or final two will be less so. I consider 4 a.m. as my "golden hour" when the pace slows, and I can have a coffee break just before the morning rush starts again. I very rarely sit except to document information on each patient, and I'm usually on my feet, bopping about between rooms.

Robin Fay Massie with her viola

STEPHANIE CHASE: What has it been like since? I understand that some patients' systems can collapse rapidly due to a COVID-19 infection. Have there been numerous deaths in the emergency room due to this, or have these mostly occurred in the intensive care unit?

ROBIN FAY MASSIE: Governor Larry Hogan's issuance of the stay-at-home order brought about a change in the flow. Now, I typically see two to three patients at once. It has been a trade-off, as sometimes one or two patients may be very ill. When a patient presents with the classic symptoms – fever, cough, shortness of breath – it requires us to "rule-out" or determine if they are COVID-19 positive through testing. With the rise in rule-out COVID-19 patients, there are daily updates in hospital-wide policy. I have seen several such patients who appeared well at the start of my shift, only to rapidly decline over the course of one to two hours. Such patients do not always present with the typical symptoms and there have been some coronavirus-related deaths in the emergency room. However, as you mentioned, our ICU has seen increasing numbers as well. I remember transferring a very critical coronavirus patient to the ICU and praying, as I pushed her stretcher, "Oh God, please don't let her die before I get her upstairs to a higher level of care!"

STEPHANIE CHASE: Your hospital is in Baltimore. What has the infection rate been like there, compared with other parts of the country, and have there been problems with obtaining enough personal protective equipment?

ROBIN FAY MASSIE: For many of our area hospitals, personal protective equipment is at a premium. Never did I foresee that we would be expected to reuse N-95 masks for multiple shifts. However, I was so delighted when one of the music organizations with which I perform, Maryland Lyric Opera, donated 30,000 N-95 masks to my hospital. It was the ultimate act of sacrificial love and display of support from my musical family, and I am so grateful to Executive Director Brad Clark and my MLO family.

Thankfully, we have seen a decline in hospital admissions since March and April. An increase in testing capacity has resulted in more positive confirmed cases. As our nursing home residents and elderly have been heavily impacted, it has also been noted that minority populations are disproportionately affected.

STEPHANIE CHASE: Do you know why this is the case?

ROBIN FAY MASSIE: Unfortunately, the Center for Disease Control and other sources maintain that the majority of black and Latino COVID-19 hospital patients suffer from the worst outcomes, in contrast to white patients. A few factors which certainly influence the spread of the virus among minority populations include close and multi-generational living conditions. Such residences may be in lower-income areas with less access to adequate nutrition. I may add that such conditions may make it more difficult to access healthcare services, insurance, or even paid sick leave which prevents those who may be ill from staying home. These are just some of the many reasons why minority populations are adversely affected.

STEPHANIE CHASE: The impact of a COVID-19 infection seems to be all over the map, with asymptomatic carriers to persons who die within days of the first symptoms. Is there such a thing as a typical incoming COVID patient?

ROBIN FAY MASSIE: Symptoms ranging from abdominal pain to low blood glucose, altered mentation to the expected shortness of breath that accompanies pneumonia – there are differences in presentation among COVID patients. We know that coronavirus accompanies other acute and chronic illnesses and comorbidities. At this point, it is wise to assume that all patients may have been exposed or are potential carriers.

STEPHANIE CHASE: I am wearing a mask whenever I go out in public because I assume that many people are carriers, perhaps unknowingly.

You are a loving, generous person, and you strike me as someone who is profoundly optimistic and spiritual. Have these traits helped you face difficult – and probably frightening – days?

ROBIN FAY MASSIE: I appreciate your kind words, Stephanie. I am an empathetic idealist, sometimes to my own detriment! My faith in God is the foundation of my peace and the loving place from which I try to approach all contacts with people. These are uncertain times, and everyone responds differently to pain and distress. I am known to cry alongside my patients, to pray with and for families and value silence and presence during critical moments. While some may view my vulnerability as a weakness, I believe it allows me to connect with my patients.

STEPHANIE CHASE: Even in the best of times, a trip to the ER is frightening, and the current inability of families and friends to remain with the patient makes your role all the more crucial and appreciated. I know you must be a great comfort to many people in distress.

As a devoted single mother to your daughter, Samara, how has your home life been affected by your work? Have you been self-isolating?

ROBIN FAY MASSIE: I am not alone in that all nurses and healthcare workers carry a certain amount of fear when going between work and home. Am I being thorough enough to stay healthy and to keep my family safe? As my community engages in self-isolation, I carefully navigate between patient contact and abiding by the quarantine orders while at home. It is, admittedly, an odd dichotomy. Thankfully, my daughter and I have remained healthy and free of symptoms. She certainly complains about the shift in our society. Nonetheless, I try to remain hopeful as I believe that positivity is a key element to good health.

STEPHANIE CHASE: It is late May as we are starting this conversation. The numbers of COVID patients entering your hospital are now declining, but are you concerned that "social distancing" is being relaxed prematurely in many places?

ROBIN FAY MASSIE: I believe that maintaining physical distance and taking other standard precautions, like hand washing and, now, masks, has aided in our declining numbers. As unnatural as it feels, I would like to see these measures continue.

STEPHANIE CHASE: To change the subject: You are in amazing physical shape, and I see from your older publicity photos that you underwent an inspiring transformation.

ROBIN FAY MASSIE: Thank you, Stephanie, I appreciate your affirming words. I have been on what I consider a wellness journey for the past six years. In 2014, as my marriage began to crumble, I felt the need to reevaluate my health. At my maximum weight, I feared succumbing to my family history for hypertension and diabetes. I wanted to be able to run and play with my daughter and to grow with her. While I may not have had money for a gym membership, I had a pair of sneakers and determination! That was all I needed to get started.

I devoted myself to walking for twenty minutes each day. Over the course of four years, I fell in love with the joy I experienced in movement. Walking turned to jogging, jogging to high intensity interval training and basic calisthenics, and now, yoga. Through nutritional modification and devotion to daily activity, I lost 100 pounds in four years.

Robin Fay Massie - Yoga

STEPHANIE CHASE: Has your stronger, fitter body helped you in your work as a nurse?

ROBIN FAY MASSIE: Physical and mental strength and endurance are assets, especially as a night shift nurse. Attention to proper body mechanics is important in repositioning my patients. Furthermore, I hope to redefine and celebrate what my body can do, even as I get older.

STEPHANIE CHASE: Are you able to take some time off and recharge? What do you do to relax?

ROBIN FAY MASSIE: Learning to balance the many facets of my life is an ongoing journey. Sometimes, simply taking a moment to breathe and meditate can help me to rest my mind. I enjoy practicing yoga and spending time out in the sun, playing cards with my daughter while laying outside on our picnic blanket. I also value making time to write letters and engage in phone conversations with family and close friends.

STEPHANIE CHASE: As someone on the frontlines of this pandemic, do you have advice for the rest of us in terms of what appears to be safe behavior and what is not? I am grateful for the advice of the epidemiologists and would rather err on the side of being too cautious.

ROBIN FAY MASSIE: As we have been hearing, honestly, the best defenses are frequent and careful handwashing while maintaining a safe distance from others. I would like to add that it is vital that we focus on wellness; adequate nutrition, rest – including quality sleep, my weakness! – and daily physical activity. It is important to note that our lifestyle, notwithstanding emotional and mental health, creates the foundation for our immunity.

STEPHANIE CHASE: I think we all are hopeful that this pandemic will pass, sooner than later. What are some of the "normal" things that you look forward to, eventually?

ROBIN FAY MASSIE: Two of my favorite pastimes are salsa dancing and frequenting new restaurants with my daughter. I also miss spending hours seated in or outside of a cafe, reading or writing with a cup of coffee at my side; overhearing sounds of chatter, teased by the aroma of those fresh grounds. I believe we will experience these things again.

STEPHANIE CHASE: Has music been of solace for you?

ROBIN FAY MASSIE: Music has always and will ever be a source of comfort and inspiration for me.

STEPHANIE CHASE: Since we began this conversation, in addition to the pandemic there have been many national and international protests over the killing of George Floyd and the racial inequities – especially towards black people – that still exist.

ROBIN FAY MASSIE: As we face the COVID-19 pandemic, we must also address the worldwide sickness resulting from generations of institutional racism. I was proud to march with my daughter in Washington, D.C. in early June; to stand up for justice in the wake of the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many other black people. As a black woman, as a healthcare provider, as a musician and as a mother, my presence and my voice matter.

Robin Fay Massie - ER

STEPHANIE CHASE: I have been learning about the pernicious effects of racism against my black and Asian friends, including verbal assaults for even wearing masks in public. It is distressing that our federal agencies have not provided stronger leadership – for the pandemic and now the protest marches – as the public seems at greater risk than ever. From your perspective, what kinds of actions, large and small, will help to repair these injustices?

ROBIN FAY MASSIE: From my perspective, racism and social injustice were penned in within the fabric of our U.S. Constitution. However, this is not solely an American sickness; rather, it is a grave illness of humanity. History is always written from the perspective of the conquerors. Until we begin to see God in everyone we meet – to see the value in human life, to view everyone as a brother and sister with a family, with dignity and beauty and potential – nothing will change. Taking down statues, making hurried public relations statements, encouraging the vote: these are all positive symbols. However, we need and deserve more than symbolism. We need action in the form of legislative change. All parties must be invited to the proverbial table with open ears for real discussion.

STEPHANIE CHASE: I am struck by your comment about history being recorded from the perspective of the conquerors, and it really does seem like we must truly listen to – and respect – each other before any meaningful changes can take place. We should all resolve to do so.

Finally, do you have a personal motto?

ROBIN FAY MASSIE: My personal motto has become, "be gentle with yourself." Peace is priceless.

STEPHANIE CHASE: On behalf of the Stay Thirsty readers, I want to express our deep admiration and gratitude to you and the many brave healthcare workers who are sacrificing so much on our behalf. Thank you and stay healthy!



Stephanie Chase

Stephanie Chase is internationally recognized as “one of the violin greats of our era” (Newhouse Newspapers) through solo appearances with 200 orchestras that include the New York and Hong Kong Philharmonics and the Chicago, San Francisco, Atlanta and London Symphony Orchestras. Her interpretations are acclaimed for their “elegance, dexterity, rhythmic vitality and great imagination” (Boston Globe), “stunning power” (Louisville Courier-Journal), “matchless technique” (BBC Music Magazine), and “virtuosity galore” (Gramophone), and she is a top medalist of the prestigious International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. Recent concert appearances include music festivals in Newport, RI, Mt. Desert, ME, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, Bargemusic, Music in Context (Houston), and as soloist with the New York Scandia Symphony.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.