Finding My ‘Balance’ in Music

Anyone who has treaded the career path of Medicine and Surgery will tell you –  It is a way of life. As all of us try to find the balance between work and living, we ultimately find ourselves juggling between our responsibilities to our patients and our desires to spend more time on our families and ourselves. Some manage to fit their work around their personal lives, whilst others devote their life to their work. One way or another, everyone is continually trying to reach that personal ‘perfect balance’.

Everyone has a Fork in their Life – the moment when they had to make a decision and chose a certain path – mine was between Medicine and Music. I chose Medicine because I wanted to ‘help people’. Unfortunately I found that my music was only helping little kids who didn’t want to practice before they came to their piano lessons. At the time, my very realistic pragmatic parents also had a favourite saying – ‘Music is not a real job, Music is something you do when you are pregnant, barefoot and stuck at home’. I found out that I was as pragmatic as them when, at the age of 17, I relinquished my hard-earned scholarship to the Julliard School in New York. Even though it took six rounds of being the local, state, national and regional finalists and over two years of preparation to win that scholarship, it was surprisingly easy for me to hand it back when it was pointed out to me (by my parents of course) that the only way I could have a regular income in music was to be a teacher – a lot less glamorous than my dream of becoming a performing star. The only regret I had was that my decision broke my piano teacher’s heart.

So since I started my life on the path of Medicine, I have not looked back. Like so many others on this similar path, I made sacrifices – one of which was giving up music, something that I have had since I was six years old. It was a severe case of withdrawal – from juggling piano, flute, cello and singing lessons, regular practice and numerous ensemble rehearsals, to nothing. Nothing but studying, lectures, labs, ward rounds and libraries.

I ploughed my way through medical school with four part-time jobs, and then did the obligatory overtime as a junior doctor to get onto a surgical training program. During which I was overdosed on fluorescent lights within hospitals and LED lights in operating rooms. After that, setting up private practice and running between public hospitals consumed my so-called ‘spare-time’. There weren’t enough hours in the day for my work – let alone for myself. People often asked about my hobbies – and my standard answer was: Eating, Sleeping and Remembering to Breathe. Did someone say Balance? What Balance?

One of my favourite times in the day had always been early morning – while I drove between hospital ward rounds. I often listened to Classic FM in the car, and as I drove past our local performance arts centre on the way, I often allowed myself to pretend that instead of being a surgeon going to hospitals (and listen to my patient complain), I really was a musician going to rehearsals (not that I knew of any musicians who went to work at 6am).

For me, ever since I started medical school, apart from going to the occasional concert, and tinkling on the piano at home occasionally, music hasn’t really been part of my Life.

Just me…. tinkling…..

And I missed it. Everyday.

Then I decided to join our local Medical Orchestra (MO).

Two years ago, after doing another 7-day-80-hour week, I decided that it was time I put time aside for myself. It came at the same time when our local MO was recruiting players for their next concert. My love for making music had always been very personal to me, so joining an orchestra was naturally ‘doing something for myself’. During my first rehearsal, I was pretty nervous – I didn’t know anyone, I hadn’t read music for years, and the last time I touched my flute was before Medical School! Not to mention the embarrassing condition my flute was in – it was so black that I had to spend an hour before the first rehearsal cleaning my flute with a silver polishing clothe, and then trying to explain the friction burns on my hand from doing it too vigorously…..

American Pieband camp

Ok – enough with the flute jokes.

I could not believe the buzz I got during that first rehearsal – for once, I wasn’t pretending I was a musician going to a rehearsal – because I was a musician in a rehearsal. It didn’t matter that I finished a bar earlier than everyone else (hey, haven’t we finished that movement already?) and that I was playing in a different key to everyone else (with our conductor screeching ‘G sharp!!!’ at me across the orchestra).

I was making music.

The first concert I was involved in was both exciting and nerve-wrecking for me – not having performed in public for over ten years. The Orchestra made a magnificent sound at the sold-out concert. I have to admit that it helped that it was held in an old museum, so the acoustic was like singing in the shower – nothing could actually sound bad. I even had to congrat myself that I finished the last note at the same time as everyone else.

It was then I realised that in the last twenty years of immersing myself in Medicine, I had forgotten how much I loved making music. The exhilarating feeling of finding an old love totally took me by surprise. It was an indescribable feeling. The amazing thing is that, even after two years, I still relive it every time I play my flute in the orchestra.

So for all of you out there who have forgotten how much you loved doing something before your career took over your life, maybe it’s time you do something for yourself.