Dennis H. Novack, M.D., professor of medicine and associate dean of Medical Education at Drexel University’s College of Medicine, teaches clinical skills to the next generation of doctors, but a few musically talented students get the real Dennis Novack Experience – playing in a cover band that, alongside other Drexel Medicine musical performers, has raised over $650,000 for pediatric AIDS research and care at the Dorothy Mann Center for Pediatric and Adolescent HIV, which provides patient-centered HIV/AIDS care at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children for newborns, infants, children and teens.
The band is typically the closing act at the College of Medicine’s annual Pediatric AIDS Benefit Concert (PABC) – now in its 30th year. Novack, now on vocals, wants to use his voice to make sure his students shine in the music and in their professions.
“A great feature of the band is that I get to know students over many rehearsals, sometimes over four years, and I feel confident writing recommendations for residency for them,” said Novack. “One of the first students in my band was a virtuoso lead guitarist, so I wrote him a letter for his plastic surgery application talking about his character and dedication, but also his great fine motor skills.”
A former band member was a classically trained violinist but learned to play rock in the band.
“It turned out she was a great performer – and rapper as well – in a music video we made during the pandemic when we could only broadcast videos of our performances,” said Novack. “I wrote her a recommendation letter for residency mentioning her brilliance and warmth and also included a link to the video. She told me that all her interviewers had watched the video and were excited to talk with her about the band.”
That violin player is now in a family medicine residency in Lancaster, Pa.
“Dr. Novack continues to inspire me with his energy, determination, and desire to bring people together to make a difference in people’s lives with music,” said Ben Haslund-Gourley, a fourth-year, MD/PhD student in the College of Medicine and drummer in the band.
The band – dating back to 1986 when Novack was teaching at Brown University’s medical school (and before most or all of his current bandmates were born) – has undergone many changes. Band members chose a different name every year – “night nurses,” “Pangea,” “delirium,” and so on, until, despite Novack’s initial protests, they settled on the “Dennis Novack Experience.” The band members change every few years as students graduate and pursue residency and other training, but Novack never has a tough time recruiting new students for bandmates.
“The band has reshaped multiple times, with new students joining each year and others graduating,” said Mitchell I. Parker, an MD/PhD student at the College of Medicine who sings vocals and plays guitar in the band. “Though it all, Dennis has always made the band feel like a family. He cooks us dinner every band practice, and during the meal we all update each other on our lives. Dinner time with DNE makes band practice the highlight of my week.”
The bandmates say the relationships they developed will serve them for the rest of their lives.
“We raise funds for a great cause, but it’s more than that,” Novack said. “We have first-year through fourth-year students in the band — they share advice, mentor, grow friendships. It’s a lot of fun.”
Novack’s bandmates agree.
“The Dennis Novack Experience has been an amazing opportunity to get to know Drexel students whose paths I may never have crossed,” said Jeremy Weinberger, a PhD candidate in the College of Medicine who plays saxophone in the band. “I have made incredible friends in this group through a shared interest in music that spans beyond the seven years I have been in the band.”
Novack’s band has played every year during his tenure at Drexel—dating back to 1993. They even put on a virtual performance when the annual PABC concert was virtual only during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The band meets at Novack’s house for an annual BBQ to plan out the setlist, followed by nearly four months of weekly rehearsals – Novack brings a home-cooked meal for the band – at the College’s Queen Lane campus to prepare for the high-energy show.
“Each practice, the band gets to sit down and share how we are doing, what’s going well, and what’s been challenging us recently,” Haslund-Gourley said. “Performing in the DNE with Dr. Novak has helped to keep me grounded and focused as a medical student by forming a supportive community – it is clear that he deeply cares for the band and pushes each of us to be the best version of ourselves both inside and outside the clinic.”
This year’s setlist shows a range of music as diverse as the band itself. I’m looking forward to their take on “10th Avenue Freeze Out” by Bruce Springsteen, Lizzo’s “Good as Hell,” and “Bring Me to Life” by Evanescence. But I have questions ahead of Saturday night: Can Novack still belt out the lyrics to Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” after so many years? Will Gen-Z medical students know all the words to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” anthem like generations before them?
After decades of music, I do know the annual benefit concert will continue and shape many lives of the next generation of physicians.
“I never would have imagined being part of a rock band while pursuing my medical degree,” said Kristen Ampig, a fourth-year College of Medicine student. “I truly believe I’ll be a better doctor because of it! I’m forever thankful for our weekly rock out sessions that helped us de-stress and embrace our inner rockstars. Being a singer in the DNE band will forever be a highlight in my life. Thank you to everyone who rocked out with us for the kids at PABC!”