Dr. Bruce Robbins: Artist, Advocate, and GITC Music Hero
If you stop at the Mission Hills Wine Cellar in San Diego one evening you may get lucky. It may be the evening that Dr. Bruce Robbins performs, playing his guitar for the patrons. From popular folk rock tunes to impressive classical pieces, Bruce uses his life-long love of music to give back. At the end of the evening, he donates the money dropped in his tip jar to Guitars in the Classroom.
It’s his way of giving the joy of music he experienced throughout his life to children of the next generation. Bruce was intent on science from a young age. He studied biochemistry at Stanford, and spent his undergraduate summers working at the Scripps Research Institute in a biochemistry lab. He chose a career in pathology because of his love for laboratory work and medical research. Bruce's credentials are impressive. He worked for 36 years as a pathologist in the Scripps Hospital system in San Diego. His work included sub-specialty expertise in immunology and leukemia/lymphoma diagnosis as well as multiple administrative roles including Medical Director of the Scripps Mercy Hospital clinical laboratory, and president of a private pathology laboratory business. He is a graduate of Stanford University and UCSD School of Medicine. He completed his anatomic and clinical pathology residency training at Mercy Hospital and Medical Center, and followed that with a fellowship in immunopathology at Scripps Clinic. He has several board certifications and is an author on many original research publications.
Bruce grew up in the Los Angeles area. Music was an important part of his life from a very early age. When he was in elementary school he took trumpet lessons and learned to read music. At age 11 his parents gave him his first guitar and he took lessons for a few months. At the time, folk songs were very popular and Bruce learned basic chords, strumming and fingerpicking by listening to Kingston Trio records. He discovered he had a gift - he could listen to a tune or composition, and was able to intuitively figure out how to play it on his instrument.
In middle school Bruce’s best friend was a very good guitar player who loved rock and folk rock. Bruce loved both those music genres too and spent many happy hours learning from his friend, listening to albums and working out how to play his favorite songs. Bruce has fond memories of jamming with his friend and his twin brother, especially around campfires during camping trips. For 25 years he played for fellow alums and their families at the annual Stanford Alumni Camp. As his three kids were growing up, music was a large part of the Robbins’ family culture. His passion for music became a family legacy. Bruce established a tradition with his kids of playing music at bath time and bedtime and they had favorite pieces they loved. All three children still have guitars, and one also plays the piano.
Music continued to be a part of his life throughout his education and career. While Bruce was in residency, he took classical guitar lessons for almost a year. For the next 15 years he focused mostly on classical music. He said his early training in finger picking and reading music came in handy during these years and he was able to refine those skills. It was a fun challenge for Bruce to teach himself complex classical guitar pieces, measure by measure. It typically took him six months to work out a new piece. By the end, he was able to play the piece from memory.
In recent years, Bruce has been learning fingerstyle arrangements of popular music, including rock, folk, country, and ragtime. He says that these are much easier for him to learn. He estimates that he learned over 80 new fingerstyle arrangements in the last five years! These arrangements are pure acoustic guitar, with melody and accompaniment. Bruce says, “I don’t sing unless other people sing with me.” (Singing has been known to break out spontaneously at the Wine Cellar, especially in the later hours….)
RETIREMENT MEANS MORE MUSIC & SERVICE
When Bruce was planning his retirement from Scripps, he started to think about how he wanted to spend his time. He and his wife Elaine feel they have been very fortunate in life, and it is their responsibility to share their good fortune. It was natural for Bruce to consider how he could give back to the two areas in his life that had the biggest impact: medicine and music. His passion for community service started in medical school when he spent a summer studying Spanish in Antigua, Guatemala and tropical medicine in Costa Rica. He returned to Guatemala the following summer to volunteer at the Behrhorst Clinic in Chimaltenango, which provides much-needed medical care for the indigenous Mayan population. In 2015 Bruce and Elaine returned to Guatemala on a tour sponsored by the Behrhorst organization (now called ALDEA- please click on the name to learn more). During the tour they visited Mayan villages and saw first hand the work that ALDEA is doing to enhance the health and well-being of Mayan families. This experience rekindled Bruce’s passion and commitment to ALDEA’s mission. He joined their Board of Directors in 2016, and now travels to Guatemala 3 times a year.
WHEN BRUCE MET GITC
Bruce turned to research to find a nonprofit that makes a difference with music. When he learned about GITC he was sold on its mission and its model. “GITC is a brilliant program,” he said. “They have a ‘big picture’ approach: they train people to train people so there is an exponential growth that doesn’t cost too much. The instruments are donated. Open tuning makes it easy for kids to learn, and it’s easy to adapt so all students can do it. The program is far-reaching and sustains itself.” The fact that GITC headquarters are in San Diego is an extra bonus for him!
Now that he is retired, Bruce’s musical goal is to keep playing and learning. He was determined to overcome his innate shyness and started performing in public. He is now a familiar figure at the Mission Hills Wine Cellar, and the more he performs, the more confident he feels. He sets up his tip jar and displays information about GITC so patrons can learn about the organization. Customers of the Wine Cellar love that he plays for a cause, and have been very generous in making contributions. All proceeds then go to GITC.
GITC’s founder and executive director, Jess Baron, is a fan. She explains, “Music is positive part of Bruce's life. He didn't want to make it his career, but it has enriched his whole life, been a treat for his family and friends, and now he uses his music to help kids. He shows us what a well-rounded life, lived in balance, can look like and how music is not, contrary to pop culture, about super stardom. For Bruce, it's about passion, endurance and using one's gifts artfully.
I also admire that even though he has a finely tuned musical ear, Bruce doesn’t solely depend on it. He has grit- that element responsible for helping us human beings achieve success. He finds the original fingerstyle arrangement to any piece he loves and takes it apart, analyzing how he will approach interpreting it. You could say he puts his clinical mind to work understanding the mechanical and musical possibilities of what his heart has fallen for. He uses a classical hand position to get around the neck on songs that are anything but classical, which he plays gently, with precision.
Bruce is also courageous. A natural introvert, he has learned to successfully navigate the social space at his gigs in a humble way to share his music. Other performers who enjoy being the center of attention will make an effort to quiet the room, but Bruce actually enjoys playing while his audience punctuates his stylings with warm conversation. So if you go to Mission Hills Wine Cellar, please say hi and tell him you read this blog, but feel free to chat during his set. He doesn't mind a bit.
GITC is deeply blessed by Bruce and his fascinating wife Elaine, as well as the crowd at the Mission Hills Wine Cellar. Thank you to each of you who donate to his San Diego tip jar so that our charity can bring musical learning to children in need in the local schools.”
Bruce has spent his life enjoying the gift of music, and is thrilled to be sharing it with others. Now, through GITC, the impact Bruce is making with his music is far-reaching. He is providing an opportunity for thousands of children to discover their own gift of music and carry it with them throughout their lives.
If you would like to be notified of Bruce’s gig dates at the Mission Hills Wine Cellar, feel free to email him at email@example.com.