Jennifer May, MD, a rheumatologist with Rapid City Medical Center, South Dakota, completed her undergraduate degree at Augustana University, Sioux Falls, S.D., and earned her medical degree at the University of South Dakota School of Medicine, Vermillion. She was in the fourth grade when she first began playing the viola. Although she came to love playing the string instrument, she also remembers it wasn’t her first choice.
“I initially wanted to play the cello, but realized it would be really cumbersome to walk to school every day carrying such a large instrument,” she says with a laugh.
Strings & Horn
The viola was a good compromise. Slightly larger than a violin, yet smaller than a cello, the viola is known as the alto or middle voice of the violin family. While some people think playing the violin and viola are the same, Dr. May notes the weight, bow and size of violas make them uniquely different instruments.
Many classical music composers played the viola and wrote music for the instrument, including Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, she adds.
When she was a student at Stevens High School, Rapid City, Dr. May joined the Black Hills Symphony Orchestra, a 90-member community orchestra that offers five concerts each season. She also played the French horn.
“I began playing the French horn in fifth grade and played in the band and orchestra through high school, and then continued with it in the band and brass choir in college,” she says. “I didn’t own a French horn, so after college, I didn’t play the instrument as much. When you don’t play a horn for a while, it’s hard to start up again; it’s much easier to pick up a string instrument, like the viola.”
During her residency at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Wauwatosa, Dr. May joined a quartet, playing the viola, with three other doctors.
“It gave us the opportunity to do something different and offered a respite from our residencies, which were all-consuming,” she says.
Rejoining the Orchestra
In 2005, Dr. May returned to South Dakota with her family, and three years ago, she decided to rejoin the Black Hills Symphony Orchestra.
“I waited until my children were a little older to rejoin the orchestra,” says Dr. May, who has three teenage daughters, Sydney, Natalie and Grace, and is married to Stephan Miller, an emergency medicine physician. “My husband and daughters all play musical instruments, so sometimes we’ll enjoy goofy impromptu musical moments