Retired doctor's passion for music leads to philanthropy

Nov 01, 2007, 4:00am

Dermatologist and dermatopathologist Ray A. Carlsen, M.D., discovered just how difficult it was for musically inclined families to afford cellos when he took up cello playing as an adult. The now-retired clinical professor of dermatology at the University of Washington Medical School, Seattle, found out his talent was not necessarily in playing the instrument, but rather in facilitating others' talents.

Cellos are expensive, costing thousands or tens of thousands of dollars for one suitable for a serious musical student. Famous cellists might spend up to $2 million for the instrument.

At the urging of his cello instructor, Dr. Carlsen started collecting cellos to lend them to families who could not otherwise afford the instruments. "I got the cellos through a dealer in Seattle and went to auctions in London," he says. "I would fix up the used cellos or have someone repair them, so that students would be able to use a good quality instrument."

"They take lessons every week, and they have a certain drive. They love music and are doing a wonderful job," he says. "We have to limit what we do to helping the serious cellists, because we are such a small organization."

The instruments themselves are only part of the financial equation for families who pay for their musicians to flourish. Weekly lessons can cost $40 to $80 a session, the dermatologist says.

Students who qualify for free use of the foundation's cellos can keep them for years - until the students graduate from a music school or from a university's musical program. After that, they are expected to return the instruments to the foundation.

"The students keep in touch with me every year and tell me their activities. I do not put any restrictions on them. The instrument is good enough so that it would be satisfactory through their musical training," Dr. Carlsen tells Dermatology Times.

Labor of love

Dr. Carlsen welcomes donations to help the foundation, but largely finances the nonprofit and the purchasing and refurbishing of the cellos. He says, however, that when people get wind of the foundation's work, they will often donate their old cellos.

"The instruments that I loan have a value of maybe $3,000 to $20,000," Dr. Carlsen says. "The students need a pretty good cello, and the ones that I have found most successful for the purposes of the foundation are those made 100 to 150 years ago and have been taken care of reasonably well."

Dr. Carlsen, who says he plans to retire from practicing dermatopathology in a few years so that he devote himself more to the charity, says his incentive is seeing these young musicians follow their dreams. One example: Joshua Roman, who benefited from Carlsen's cello collection, trained at the Cleveland Institute of Music - that was before being selected as first cellist for the Seattle Symphony.