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Toronto doctor Andrew Healey, left, and Boston Philharmonic conductor Benjamin Zander at Zander’s class in Boston in February, 2020.

Paul Marotta

For doctor Andrew Healey, the week began with a brutal 12-hour overnight shift at Brampton Civic, one of the Toronto-area hospitals hit hardest by the third wave of the pandemic.

More young people were coming in with serious cases of COVID-19. Patients who could no longer draw enough breath were being put on ventilators. One man spoke with his daughters before the tube went into his airway, in case he never woke.

After grabbing an hour of sleep, Dr. Healey, 43, went straight to his day job, acting head of emergency medicine for the local health system, and fielded calls about the heartbreaking case of Emily Viegas, the 13-year-old girl who died of COVID-19 in Brampton on April 22.

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Through it all, Dr. Healey felt a bracing presence at his side. A few years ago, the music-loving doctor met the veteran orchestra conductor Benjamin Zander. They struck up a friendship. Ever since, the doctor has relied on the maestro’s inspirational words about love and leadership to pull him through.

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“Zander was with me all day today,” he texted after his shift. Mr. Zander returns the appreciation. “I feel we are a team: one musician and one medical person. It’s a beautiful relationship. I’ll do anything for Andrew,” he says.

They make an unlikely pair – a white-haired master musician and a soft-spoken man of science 40 years his junior. Mr. Zander, 82, was born in England, the youngest of four children of a Jewish lawyer who fled Hitler’s Germany before the Second World War. By the age of 9, he was composing music. He went on to study the cello in Italy.

He came to the United States on a fellowship and in 1979 founded the Boston Philharmonic, an orchestra that unites professional, amateur and student musicians. He started speaking to corporate executives about leadership, co-wrote a bestselling book, The Art of Possibility, and gave a much-watched TED Talk on the power of classical music.

Dr. Healey grew up in Grand Falls, Nfld. He took piano lessons, practising on an upright in the basement and playing the organ at church. He considered becoming a priest, but opted for medicine instead.

He and his wife, Michelle, a teacher, have four children, aged 5 to 13. All play stringed instruments. Dr. Healey sometimes plays along with them on the piano. Their home in the Toronto suburb of Oakville is full of music. When a 37-year-old woman and her three daughters were killed in a car crash in Brampton last June, the family performed at a livestreamed memorial.

It was through the children that the two men came together. Dr. Healey had seen the conductor’s popular coaching sessions online, wrote to him and took the family to Boston to watch Mr. Zander perform – the first of six trips they made there. They marvelled at how he coached more expressive performances from his pupils and how he ducked and swooped as he put his orchestra through its paces. Now, when Dr. Healey waves his hands around like the conductor, the children tell him to “stop Zandering.” They especially like Mr. Zander’s insistence on “one-buttock” playing. Truly energized performers, he says, are never still enough to rest on two.

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The friendship grew from there. Dr. Healey absorbed lessons from Mr. Zander’s conducting: Sit in the front row of life; see the possibilities, not the barriers; cherish your mistakes; fend off your doubts; find a way to get others to share your vision.

“Never doubt the capacity of the people you are leading to realize what you are dreaming,” Mr. Zander likes to say. Dr. Healey knows that one by heart. Now, he says, he tries to get his hospital team to lead “with the love of Mozart and the joy of Beethoven.”

He draws on Mr. Zander’s music, too. He once played a recording of a piece by his youth orchestra – Edward Elgar’s Nimrod, one of the composer’s famous Enigma Variations – to ease the passing of a woman with terminal cancer.

When Mr. Zander came to Toronto to give a talk, the doctor persuaded him to visit Oakville, where he coached young musicians and gave tips to a local amateur conductor. He told her that the musicians she leads should have “shining eyes” – another of Dr. Healey’s favourite Zanderisms.

Next, the doctor took his friend to talk to leaders at William Osler Health System. Playfully but firmly, Mr. Zander ordered those lingering in the back to fill the empty front row. He told them what he tells self-critical musicians to do when that little voice in their head tells them they are blowing it: Simply say, “Thank you for sharing – I’m busy right now.” And then keep on playing. Instead of berating themselves if they make a mistake, they should throw their arms up and say, “How fascinating.”

When the global health crisis hit last spring, the conductor’s example became even more important to Dr. Healey. A few weeks into the pandemic, he e-mailed Mr. Zander to say that playing the Elgar piece had helped a family say goodbye, remotely, to a fading relative – and “helped me feel okay as the tears streamed after work.”

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A year later, things are, incredibly, even worse. Hospitals are struggling every day to find the staff and the space to care for all their patients. “We have a very burned-out work force who are about to be asked to work harder than they have ever worked before,” the doctor says. “People need to know that you recognize that they are ready for it.” He must find a way to get the best from them in the worst of circumstances.

He doesn’t claim he has found the secret. “I try. I do. Hard. But I fail every day. I fail so often my arms are tired from saying, ‘How fascinating.’” But having the conductor in his head – and his heart – helps more than he can say.

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