A musician’s guide to medical training


Recently, I have been reflecting more about my musical journey as an organist over the past 15 years. It has been great to learn how to continue my medical training to the best of my ability while still trying to keep my musical interests alive. Despite the busyness of medical training, I have thankfully had opportunities to perform publicly, as well as meet other musicians.

I began to realize that musical training has many parallels to medical training. If one looks hard enough at the journey of a musician, there are insights about medical training that physicians could learn.

1. Medical school. When you start to learn an instrument, initially there is a lot of excitement. You imagine yourself playing pieces that you grow up hearing on the radio and you think that you’ll be given pieces to learn right away. However, instead of music, your teachers just give you exercises. You’re asked to practice your scales, learn music theory and develop proper technique for months on end. This is different from what you imagined when you signed up for this. At first, these exercises seem repetitive, boring and difficult. At moments, you consider quitting since these exercises aren’t fun. But over time, the exercises become easier with more practice. Proper technique starts to become second nature, and you get to the point where learning music will become much easier.

2. Intern year. After you’ve spent a few lessons learning the fundamentals, you’re ready to start learning music, but the music is not as exciting as what you have heard on the radio. It is just basic music to solidify the fundamentals. At this point, your teacher is emphasizing accuracy. You’re focusing on getting the notes right on the page, playing the piece at the right tempo, and maintaining the right type of dynamics. There may be a temptation to deviate from what is on the page or to learn harder music than you’re ready for, but an early deviation from the original lesson plan will lead to missing out on learning how to apply the fundamentals correctly, and ultimately you’ll start to learn the music the wrong way. This is a period of crucial formation as a musician, since you are forming practicing habits that will ultimately stick with you, and it is the time to receive feedback in terms of improving your technique with particular areas of focus. It may seem mechanical at times, but to get to the next level as a musician, this stage has to be mastered.

3. Residency. Now you’re at the next level of being a musician; you’ve learned the fundamentals and have mastered the simple pieces. Now your teacher thinks you’re ready to play full pieces by different composers. You’re beginning to learn some of the classical pieces you have heard on the radio, but there’s a slight change: your teacher is giving you more freedom. Your teacher is not focused on you getting the notes right since it is assumed you’ll get them right, but now, he is asking you to think musically and to look beyond the page of notes. You’re expected to use your creativity to bring life to the music, and you will be expected to draw upon previous lessons to figure out what to do with the music in front of you. Your teacher will help you if you need it, but your goal now is to think about how you would interpret the music.

You may come across beginning musicians who will ask your advice about interpreting pieces since you have more experience. The goal is for you to become an independent musician, and you’ll start to figure out which direction you want to take your musical career. Periodically there are recitals, initially with other students of your teacher, but the goal is for you to give solo recitals, since you’ll be doing that more as your career progresses.

4. Fellowship. If you decide to focus more on a particular composer or period of music, there are opportunities to do so. However, before anyone takes you under their wing, you have to demonstrate competency in general music training. If you want to focus on improvisation, you will have to demonstrate an understanding of music theory and have a good amount of music under your belt. If you want to focus on Bach exclusively, you will have to have played a certain number of pieces by him that demonstrate a general understanding of his pieces. This is the time to learn the nuances of a certain type of music that few people truly understand. You may have to travel to a different country to learn from the experts, since the number of people at this level are few and far between. You will continue to give solo recitals and will likely have students of your own, but there is an expectation that you will be able to talk more intelligently about the music you are focusing on.

5. The beginning attending. Finally, you’ve finished your musical training after many years and you’re ready to take the world by storm. You bring your own flavor to the pieces that you’re now interpreting, drawing upon advice given by your teachers and other musicians you have met over the years. You start to realize that other musicians will interpret the same piece differently, reflecting the influence of their particular teachers. There is a temptation to be bold and interpret pieces in a new way, but you have to keep in mind that as you perform your recitals, your playing is subjectively being analyzed by other musicians, some of whom will have a particular way of interpreting the same pieces that you have played.

You will be held to a higher standard of musical interpretation since you have so many years of experience behind you. Solo recitals will continue at larger venues with more feedback from the public. It may be overwhelming (especially if the criticism isn’t so great), but trust your instincts and the teachers who have guided you. You have your own students who are looking to you for guidance, and you realize that after learning music for so long, you actually have something to teach.

6. The veteran attending. You’ve seen it all (or at least you think you have). You have been playing for many years and have traveled around the world to demonstrate your interpretation of pieces. Whether you like to admit it or not, you have your favorite pieces that you interpret in a certain way. There is not as much time to learn new pieces as before, so you’re drawing upon your musical experiences from the past couple of decades. You may be focusing on education or performance at this point, or maybe a bit of both.

Inevitably, you’ll come across a musician that is beginning on his own, coming from one of the top musical conservatories in the country. You’re intrigued and you listen to him, realizing that he is playing a piece that you have played years ago. Initially, you notice how different the interpretation is, and the temptation is to tell the musician to change the interpretation of the piece to make it sound as if you were playing it.

But then you step back and really listen, and you find that it is beautiful, but in a different way. You just learned something new about a piece that you thought you knew. The new musician hears about your experience and asks you what you think about how he interpreted the piece, since he knows that you have a reputation of playing this piece incredibly in the past. It is at that point that you realize that no matter how long you have been playing music, you realize that every musician has something to learn from one another.


Chiduzie Madubata is an internal medicine physician.

Image copyright: Marcelo Campi, flickr, CC BY-SA

Article last time updated on 26.04.2016.

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