What I Learnt from Music

I remember vividly, the frustration and confusion I felt as a 17-year-old when I was told by my parents to forget about my beloved music scholarship, one that I won after 7 grueling rounds of competition and 2 years of preparation. Instead, they made me put in my application for Medical School.

A couple of months ago, recalling the tears, tantrums, and sacrifices I had made for music during my childhood, I asked my mother, ‘Why did you spend all that money and effort on our musical education, when at the end, you didn’t want us to do music at all?’ She smiled at me, the way most mothers smile when a child asks them a silly question. ‘Where would you be today, if you hadn’t learnt music?’

It all started when I began piano lessons. At the time, practice was the last thing I wanted to do after school each day. I wanted to play, like the other kids in the playground outside our apartment. But I learnt, at the age of 6, after multiple tantrums, and spending half of my piano lessons facing the wall in the naughty corner, that sometimes, there are things that I had to do even if I didn’t feel like it.

Before my 4th Grade exam, I was told to learn my music theory; to know everything about the pieces I was playing: the composers, the compositions, and the period they represented. With the conceit of a 9-year-old, I decided that I didn’t need to know anything in detail, because my playing would speak for itself, demonstrating my immense talent as a musician. Needless to say, when I received the report, I learnt that the difference between a Distinction and a Credit was knowing the details and understanding the basic foundations.

The pinnacle of my performance catastrophe happened when I was 12. I was invited to play in a recital at the City Hall. Because I had already performed these same pieces numerous times by memory, I left my music book at home. Half way through my performance on stage, I looked down at the keyboard; suddenly, everything looked foreign. It was as if my fingers didn’t belong to me. My mind went blank and I could not recall what notes came next. The music came to a dead stop. Mid-phrase. I searched frantically in my memory but there was nothing. I could not continue.

I paid for my arrogance that day, as I stood up from the piano, in the middle of a Bach Fugue, bowed to a silent audience and walked off the stage.

The story did not finish there, because I was also scheduled to perform in the second half of the concert program. During intermission, my piano teacher found me curled up in a corner back-stage, willing myself to be invisible. She gave me the option of leaving the concert. She also told me that if I didn’t have the courage to stand up in front of those people again, then I might as well retire from my performance career at the grand old age of 12. My inner stubbornness was put to good use that day – I got up from the floor, straightened my little red dress, walked back on stage and played a complete Mozart Sonata from start to finish. Without music.

It was my first standing ovation.

I was introduced to the concept of a public piano masterclass at a most unfortunate time, when I was a belligerent 14 year-old. The workshop was with a world-famous pianist from Europe who shared a first name and hairdo with Einstein and was infamous for his bad temper. After the first ten minutes, I was getting very frustrated with ‘Albert’, as he was stopping me every second bar to correct what I considered to be minor points. He sensed my attitude, which was an insult to his pride, so the masterclass ended up with me slamming the piano lid, and him announcing to the public observers that he has never heard anyone massacre Chopin as brutally I have done in my performance.

Two weeks later, I learnt two things. I found out that my piano teacher had called in favours to get me into the masterclass as they did not accept anyone under 16; and that my shameful behaviour was viewed as a reflection of her as a teacher. I also found out that my mother recorded the session, and when I listened to it, I realised that all those little changes he made me do to my playing, completely transformed my performance.

When I was 17, I had to perform music by Rachmaninov as part of a national competition. He was a composer who was not only famous for his compositions, but also his abnormally large hands. For my size 6 surgical-glove hands, playing his music was physically impossible. But this was when I discovered that ‘impossible’ could be overcome by finding alternative ways of playing 8 notes concurrently over four octaves. I also realised that the only way to perfect a technique was with hours of practice. As I passed through each round of the competition, I learnt that there were no short-cuts, and ‘winging-it’ was not an option because the unexpected can happen when performing under pressure. I knew that the only way to ensure predictability of my performance standard was to know my piece so well, that I could play it in my sleep.

At the end, it was nothing else but hard-work, determination and tenacity that got me the dream scholarship that I never thought was within my reach.

Growing up with music had been more than just reading black dots on lines and using my fingers to play keys on a piano. Music has taught me discipline, humility, diligence, insight, initiative, integrity, and perspective, to name just a few. These are qualities that has guided me throughout my surgical training and career. I am also pretty sure it is not a coincidence that I was drawn to plastic & reconstructive surgery, one the most creative and artistic specialty of Surgery.  After all, I am really just an artist, perfecting my technique and practicing my craft in an attempt to improve people’s lives.

If I hadn’t learnt music, I would not be where I am today.

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