Finding time for music on top of being a doctor
TEACHING AND DOCTORING FOR DUMMIES
A Few Words of Wangsdom
“How do you find time to teach piano on top of being a doctor?”
This is a question I often get asked by students, parents, teachers, and even other doctors. I’m not sure that I have a good answer, and I definitely am not qualified to give advice to anyone about time management or making good life decisions; but it is true that for the past four years I have managed to comfortably find time to teach piano on top of being a doctor. In order to tell you how I do both, I think the more important question is why I choose to do both.
Have I always wanted to be a doctor? No way, José! I spent the majority of my childhood wanting to be a hairdresser, and then a teacher, and then a ballerina. During high school I wanted to be a lawyer, and then a motorcycle racer, and then, after watching House (are any students here even old enough to remember that show?), a doctor. And so, way back in January of 2007, when the time had come to decide what to do with the rest of my life, I had no bloomin’ idea! I was sixteen, I had just started learning to drive, and the only things I was sure of were that I wanted to wear red to my Year 12 ball, my parents were incredibly uncool (duh), and that I loved music.
My parents, as Asian parents stereotypically do, discouraged me from being a musician, and encouraged me to be a doctor; not because music wasn’t a good enough career, but because in Medicine there is security – and they knew I was not hardworking or talented enough to become a pianist. Last month I read Mr Lee’s article, Glimpse of a Concert Pianist’s Life, and what he described in his essay – the long hours of solitary practice and loneliness at the piano, a life devoid of structure with no guarantee of success – these were all things that my parents had considered; things that my sixteen-year-old self had never thought of. All I had seen was the glory and success, without considering the hard work and sacrifice on the road towards becoming a performer. My parents knew me best, and for their daughter who had a mind for math and science, a work ethic that only showed itself under pressure, and a personality lacking self-discipline and motivation when left to her own devices, they foresaw a life of hardship and struggle for me if I chose to study music.
But I wanted music in my life still. I had lived and breathed music for most of my life already – my sister and I spent our childhood listening to my dad’s classical music cassettes; at school I was in choir, in orchestra, in jazz band; I was a Music Scholarship recipient and an Arts prefect; I served on the music team at church; I volunteered for choirs and performed at nursing homes; my iPod was 90% classical music (yes, it’s true – in the olden days we used iPods because phones couldn’t play music *gasp*). When I was happy I played piano; when I was sad I played piano; when I was angry I played piano; even when I was bored I played piano. So, despite ultimately choosing to study Medicine, my parents encouraged me to explore music outside of work and study – they encouraged me to teach, to compose, to perform, and to fill my life with music even if I wasn’t pursuing it as a career.
As I’m sure you’ve heard, medical school is not easy (this might be the understatement of the year). Picture this: while your non-medical friends have ten to twenty hours of class a week, you have day shifts, night shifts, and weekend shifts – often thirty to forty hours a week on top of tutorials. While your non-medical friends attend a couple of lectures each day and go out for coffee, lunch, drinks after classes; you go to your clinical placement in the morning (where you are subjected to daily public humiliation in the form of consultants grilling you on diseases you can’t even pronounce), attend lectures and tutorials in the afternoon, and then at night when you finally have free time, you go home and study. While your non-medical friends get a three-month break every summer, you return from holidays early to start clinical experience in different hospitals around Western Australia (sometimes in rural hospitals thousands of kilometres from home, where your phone has no reception and the nearest McDonalds is six hours away).
I applied for Medicine in 2007, and started my training in 2008. My first three years of Medical School felt like a slow death, and every year I told myself, “If I don’t pass my exams, it’s a sign that God wants me drop out and study music”. Sometimes I even prayed that I would fail Medicine so I could apply for music – but God had other plans for me. Despite minimal study and a few units that I barely passed (I’m pretty sure I recall a 51% from 2009 on my transcript…) I somehow managed to scrape through my pre-clinical years. By the time I started my clinical years, I had resigned myself to a medical career – and by the grace of God, I passed all six years, scored myself a couple of undeserved High Distinctions, actually started enjoying my work, and, in what felt like no time at all, found myself standing at the front of Winthrop Hall reciting the Hippocratic Oath at my dedication ceremony.
For any current or future medical students out there, let me tell you now – it doesn’t get easier. When you finish six, sometimes seven, years of medical school, you finally start your internship. You will struggle through managing sick and dying patients (often with only minimal supervision); you will struggle through long hours without food breaks or toilet breaks, fuelled only by coffee and adrenaline; you will work days on end without ever seeing the sun – perhaps seven days in a row, or twelve days in a row, or (in one of the worst months of my life) twenty-three days in a row. There will be weeks where you don’t see your family; you will miss birthdays (sometimes other people’s, sometimes your own), weddings, funerals, graduations, Easter, Christmas; you will come home at the end of a work day and find yourself studying, writing research papers, collecting data for audits – because it’s not enough to just finish medical school, you still have to get in to specialty training. And when you finally fall into bed and drift into a hard-earned sleep, you might dream of the patient who slowly drowned in their own bleeding lungs; or the patient whose ribs cracked and broke under your palms as you performed CPR; or the patient who died with their useless, failing heart literally in your gloved hand as you futilely tried to massage it back to life.
These are the days that music becomes my solace and my escape. Sometimes I need the gentle embrace of Debussy’s elegant dissonances, drawing me to a serenity carefully crafted by warm washes of cascading sevenths and ninths; sometimes I need the strict, regimented melodies of Bach’s fugues, a balanced counterpoint so unlike the chaos of hospital life; sometimes I need the emotional chords of Rachmaninoff’s second piano sonata raining down like a violent thunderstorm that grips the essence of the soul – an allegro agitato with a sense of tonal instability that mirrors my own unease after a day of difficult decisions. It doesn’t matter whether I’m performing, or teaching, or composing, or listening – the music echoes my thoughts, and expresses even my darkest moods in a way that words cannot.
I know I’m making the #DoctorLyf sound like a terrible life; but I promise you there are rewarding days too. Days when the consultant quizzes you on the topic you just happened to study last night (anyone keen to learn about haemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis?); days when a patient stands for the first time in six weeks following what should have been a non-survivable brain injury; days when you actually convince someone to quit smoking (I have about a 2% success rate with this); days when you can feel a faint pulse after the defibrillator has shocked your patient’s heart back to life. And on these days I prefer the laughing sarcasm of Mozart’s piano concertos; or the peaceful, quiet beauty of Schubert’s Impromptus, or perhaps even the dulcet tones of Justin Bieber singing Despacito.
This is why I teach and play and listen to music – because somehow over the past twenty-something years, music has become so deeply entrenched in my life that I don’t know how to survive without it. It’s become my strength in the lowest moments of my life, my support in times of stress, a crutch for me to lean on when my emotions are fractured.
Ultimately, I guess the easy answer to “how do you teach piano and be a doctor” is that I feel compelled to do it; because I love music and I can’t bear to be without it (clingy much?). But I know that when I get asked that question, the inquisitor wants a better answer than that. When Mr Lee asked me to write this article, I think he envisioned something more practical, perhaps something like “Teaching and Doctoring Concurrently for Dummies”. To be honest, I’m still not one hundred per cent sure I know how to answer how, so perhaps I’ll walk you through a fortnight in my life to give you an idea of how I manage my time.
So what exactly does an average fortnight look like for me? This is a hard question to answer – my roster changes week to week, and on top of that, every three months I change specialties, sometimes even hospitals. Imagine having to change jobs every three months, and not finding out your roster or job description until one week before you start your new job (once I received my roster only three days before I started work!) – that’s the life of a doctor in training. I can never plan my life more than three months in advance. I often get asked questions like “can you come to my wedding on July 7th next year?” or “shall we go on holiday to New Zealand next March?” and my answer is always the same – I HAVE NO IDEA. And I probably will have no idea until a few months beforehand at best, or a few days beforehand at worst. There are no “average” weeks for me because of the constant change, but here’s a sample of a fortnight of work I had earlier this year:
You may notice that over one week from Week 1 Thursday to Week 2 Wednesday, I worked a combination of two day shifts then five night shifts totalling 91 hours – in this one week I worked more than the average Australian works in a fortnight. And if I add in the 6 hours of teaching piano plus my overtime at work, I’d be well into 100 hours of work over seven days – which sounds crazy, even to me. On top of that, I sleep poorly during night shifts (sometimes I only manage 3 – 4 hours every day between shifts). Not every week is like this – some weeks I get six days off in a row (woo!), other weeks I work more than 90 hours. In the midst of this craziness I’m always thankful to have music to calm me, to soothe me and to comfort me; but to squeeze it all in, I’ve had to become very good at time management.
If I could go back to January 2007 and give my sixteen-year-old self some advice for coping with the long hours of study and work ahead of me, these are the things I would tell myself:
Good time management is crucial
This is easy to say, but hard to do. So these are the things I do to help myself make the most of my days.
Use a diary
I still use a physical diary with a daily to-do list to help me visualise my day and avoid forgetting things
This probably seems really straightforward – if you only have two hours of spare time and you have an assignment due tomorrow and an assignment due the following week, it seems obvious which one you should do (notice that “looking at memes online” is not an option here). But the hard part of prioritising is making decisions in the present that will affect your future. Will playing a few extra hours of computer games help you in the long run? Will practicing piano help you in the long run?
Group most of your work/study together
I prefer to get all my work over and done with in one go, so I usually try to schedule piano lessons or practice sessions on days that I already have piano or work, and I usually aim to get all my lessons done in a row. I find that the hardest part of work and study is just getting started; but once I’m on a roll I try to do as much as I can.
Let me tell you now - nothing in your life that is worth achieving can be done without hard work. It’s not easy to be a doctor; I’ve made a lot of sacrifices for my career – free time, sleep, health, holidays, relationships. And this doesn’t just apply to Medicine – think about the tens of thousands of hours of piano practice that Shuan Hern has to do in order to perform for twenty minutes on an international stage. Think of the immense amount of time and effort and money Mr Lee and Ivy have had to put in to travel with him, and practice with him, and support him. There is not a single career in the world that doesn’t require hard work.
Do things right the first time
I always tell my piano students this – if you are practicing your piece incorrectly, then you’re not practicing at all! It is always easier to learn something correct the first time than it is to learn it wrong, re-learn it, and try to undo all your mistakes. Get it right from the start. (This is definitely something I wish I could go back and tell myself; I have wasted a lot of time re-learning the things I should’ve studied in my first few years of medical school.)
GIVE UP FACEBOOK AND INSTAGRAM AND GAMES
I wish I could follow my own advice on this … Have you ever scrolled through Instagram or Facebook and looked up to find that three hours have passed and you have achieved nothing?? This has happened to me more than I like to admit. I have had to delete apps (RIP PokemonGO) from my phone to prevent myself from wasting more time than I already do.
Do the things you enjoy, and take time off to enjoy things
I often schedule “off days” where I plan to do absolutely nothing. I allow myself time to sleep in, lie in bed and read books or watch Netflix; I spend all day in my pyjamas and avoid study. But in order to have a day off, I have to work extra hard on other days. And honestly, work is not so bad if you enjoy what you’re doing. If you find that you aren’t enjoying a subject, a class, or even job – learn to love it (as I did with Medicine), or just change! But remember what I said before – nothing that is worth doing is easy. Don’t just quit because you’re lazy; quit if you have worked hard, given it a good go and still found that it’s not for you.
I want to finish by saying this; I am not perfect. I have made hundreds, if not thousands, of mistakes; and I will continue to make mistakes throughout my life. I’m not smarter than any of you, I’m not more hardworking than any of you, and I’m certainly not more talented than any of you! But I have learned to use my limited time wisely. I wasn’t – and I’m still not – some perfect Asian stereotype who lives to study; in fact, I am naturally very lazy, and there are days that I hate working and (occasionally) I hate teaching. There are days that my students frustrate me and my patients infuriate me. There are days (lots of them) that I want to lie in bed, forget appointments, ignore emails, and just do nothing. But you know what you get if you do nothing? Nothing.
To all the kids reading this, I know I’ve said it already but I want to reiterate it once more – there is nothing that can be achieved without hard work. No matter what career you ultimately choose – whether you want to be a doctor, an electrician, a zookeeper, an astronaut, or a concert pianist – the path to success is paved with hard work and sacrifice. We live in a country and era rich with opportunity; you have so many choices and options available to you, and, in the words our wise principal Yoon Seen Lee – the decision is yours!