As a medical student, I was often asked, “How’s medical school?” The easiest and honest answer would be, “Busy.” However, there was one special interest that I invested in medical school which I have no regrets about. After a busy day in the wards, I would take out my violin and immerse in any tune that comes to mind. Violin was the passion I cultivated, my source of joy, something to keep me sane in a demanding course of study. It also made me a better medical student in so many ways I felt it would be a pity not to let you know. So, I’ll like to share 5 Ways How Violin Spices Up Medical School for You.
- You use songs and poems in order to remember things better
It’s really handy (literally) to be able to keep to the beat. In the Emergency Department, you give your patient chest compressions to the steady tempo of “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees1. If you go just a little too fast or too slow, you risk giving the casualty a faulty compression, insufficient to return breath to the lungs. This means that no matter how much diligently you pump, you still give your patient a fraction of their optimal chance of survival. So I cultivate that inner metronome by practising my violin to …
1, 2, 3, 4; 1, 2, 3, 4; 1, 2, 3, 4; 1, 2, 3 & deep breath, and play …
That tempo sure works when you recite poems like The Heart Block Poem2. When you keep the beat, it becomes song. Music is a powerful mnemonic device. It provides an alliteration to retrieve information from two parts of your brain associated with memory, namely the hippocampus and frontal cortex3. Homer’s Illiad, Psalms in the Old Testament, your childhood ABCs, 1300 888 333 in Domino’s radio ad, … they all utilize this physiology to allow you to attain and retain knowledge, and to apply it as necessary – such as when recalling historical events, when you want to order pizza, or when you determine the kind of bradycardia your patient is suffering from.
2) Every sound your patient makes tells a story
This not only refers to their laments, their sighs of relief, their expressions of gratitude – all of which can be translated into Song of the Violin; it also refers to the change in pitch, tone and frequency of the sounds coming from your patient’s heart and lungs. Sounds lead doctors to a conclusion, and for the musical doctor, the finale of a diagnostic symphony.
Sounds communicate quality. Air particles from the atmosphere vibrate in your patient’s lungs in varying degrees depending on the amount of phlegm, blood or inflammation present. You can figure out the nature of the lungs’ contents by simply listening to their vibration during air entry, just like how you gage the quality of your violin strings from their vibration under your bow.
Heart murmurs are classified into crescendo (increasing intensity) and decrescendo (decreasing intensity)4. As a musician, you will appreciate how the lub dub resembles a percussion, and how “off” it becomes when a stenosis or regurgitation occurs in the aorta or mitral valve of the heart. Can you appreciate the low pitch moan of a rhonchi, and the high pitch squeak of a wheeze? The stridor is a cry of distress played in minor key, often in the upper airway of a young child5.
3) You appreciate the meaning of “practice makes perfect”
A student of Violin learns a technique called “vibrato” when they reach Grade 5 under the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM). The vibrato is a tool to express emotion, the character of your music6. How long does it takes to master a vibrato? My violin teacher Ms Goh replies that it can take up to 10 years. A Korean friend of mine gave that same answer when asked how long it takes to perfect the art of making kimchi.
Everyone has to be hardworking in medical school – clocking hours before and after classes, exchanging insight during bedsides and tutorials. Everyone has to put in the 99% perspiration in order to fulfill the 1% inspiration of becoming a doctor7. Everyone. Everyone including the colleague with the coveted photographic memory.
So how do you make sure every effort to perfect your vibrato pays off? The research on professional violinists by Professor K. Anders Ericsson of Florida State University suggests that in order to become an expert in your field, you have to:
- Receive continuous feedback: Ask your teacher/ expert in your field to regularly watch you perform, and to critique your performance
- Make tangible goals: Identify what are your weaknesses and practice exercises on those particular tasks. Then, work on those tasks until you become proficient at them8.
Keep doing it. Keep finding out what you can improve on as a student. Keep practising so that you don’t make that same mistake when you become a doctor. Keep going. You can do it.
4) You sometimes have to do menial work.
“Which musical instrument is the most difficult to play?” Leonard Bernstein, late conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, was asked this question. His answer: “The Second Violin.”9
In an orchestra, violinists are divided into First and Second. The First plays the main melody, the charm of the production. The First takes the spotlight.
The Second plays the accompaniment. The part could be just a repeating set of arpeggios. It’s as if the job of the Second is to make the First look impressive. It’s sometimes boring to be Second. It always rocks to be First. Bernstein acknowledges how difficult it is to find a violinist who picks up role of Second with enthusiasm.
Yet, without the Second, there is no harmony. The First, as glorious as they stand alone, will never become the Philharmonic without the Second.
Likewise, in med school, sometimes you get asked to prop a patient up, to feed a patient, etc while your classmate is called aside to discuss and interpret the chest X-ray with the specialist based on well versed medical head knowledge and literature. If you become Second, be thankful for the opportunity to prop and feed, because your patient isn’t any better after ten X-rays if he keeps getting aspirations in hospital due to poor posture during feeding! You can always come back to look at the X-ray later. Also, if you get to be a First, kindly share your knowledge with the Second?
And the most memorable of all……………………
5) As a musician, you reach your patients’ hearts without using a stethoscope
Throughout my final year, I brought my violin with me to every hospital I was posted to as a medical student. With permission from my Head of Department and Monash University, I would come to the wards outside work hours to perform for the patients as a form of charity.
When a person is sad or worried over their medical condition, sometimes they have little heart and little patience to listen to the reasoning of Medicine, but they often won’t mind some music (unless they want to sleep).
Performing for my patients allowed me to understand their social histories. I would often try to play something relating to the culture of the patient I am playing for. Hence, in Australia, all the Irish patients can sing along to me playing “Danny Boy” and the German-born ones recognize “Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken” as having the same melody as the German national anthem.
One of the patients I played for in Melbourne was a Greek lady. Since I didn’t know any Greek songs, I asked her to teach me one. She taught me a folk song that translates into English as “Love Me Now”. I asked her who she sang that song to. She answers, everyone. She sings it to her husband, to her children, her friends, her neighbours. It’s not a demand, as the name suggests, but a call by the singer to her listeners to return the love she has already given them so freely.
I’d always remember that song “Love Me Now”, because it reminds me of everything I’ve been given in abundance – the company of my patients, the opportunity to study Medicine and Music… Now how do I give it back?
By giving to others in abundance, of course. By caring for patients and colleagues the best I can. By acknowledging my violin teacher, all my medical lecturers and tutors, and all my colleagues. By taking care of my parents who supported my medical education and violin classes. By encouraging others in this newly launched blog.
There are so many ways being a violinist can enhance your experience as a medical student. I truly enjoyed my journey, and wish the same for you too – the one who is reading this.
Do you have a passion you would like to nurture? How would you like to use it to encourage others? Do share your thoughts in the comments section below.
- Gannett A. The Creative Curve: How to Develop the Right Idea, at the Right Time. United Kingdom: Penguin; 2018.
Credits for valuable feedback from: My Papa and Mama; my med school classmates Pearl Hoo and Joshua Wong