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From Doctor to Musician; How Medical Thinking Stifled My Creativity

Candice Williams, MD shares her journey in creativity, from a physician to a musician.

I have loved music since I was a child, but honestly, I was intimidated by it.

I saw my uncles and cousins excel at it, but they were all men, except my one girl cousin who played the Hammond Organ and sang beautifully.

When I looked around the church as a kid, I noticed a pattern: the girls sang and the boys played. Even though I loved music, took piano lessons and pursued it seriously, the message sank in.

I decided early on subconsciously that I wasn’t good enough to really make it as a musician. So, like most women do with their desires, I tucked them away, but not very well. I mean, I complained most of the time while preparing to apply to medical school instead of Berklee School of Music which was my dream school. I decided I would do the predictable path, be sensible and become a doctor. Don’t get me wrong, I liked the human body, processes and science, but I LOVED music. 

 

When I looked around the church as a kid, I noticed a pattern: the girls sang and the boys played. Even though I loved music, took piano lessons and pursued it seriously, the message sank in. Click To Tweet

 

As a premedical student, I was discouraged and told multiple times that I would never get into medical school. I was the wrong gender, the wrong color, didn’t have perfect grades, was from South LA, the wrong part of town.

For some reason, these labels didn’t discourage me from medicine. It did the opposite. The flame was lit and I was going to prove them wrong.

I knew I was capable, I just had to work really hard, and work I did.

As a result, I completely buried my musical aspirations, except for playing in church on weekends. This tug of war of sorts just grew and grew in intensity as I completed my medical training. 

 

I have loved music since I was a child, but honestly, I was intimidated by it.

 

As I grew from a medical student, to intern, resident then early attending, I learned a set of behaviors to survive in medicine.

You know them intimately. They are familiar to all doctors, especially those in high risk situations. I mean we all have liability to some degree and as an Anesthesiologist, vigilance, a learned skill of heightened awareness, planning, pre-planning and prevention of catastrophes was the prime skill learned.

 

As a premedical student, I was discouraged and told multiple times that I would never get into medical school. I was the wrong gender, the wrong color, didn’t have perfect grades, was from South LA, the wrong part of town. Click To Tweet

 

This caused me to be on high alert all the time.

Then it was the skill of second guessing: I had to check my machine every morning.

Check, then double check and did I do this, or that?

In order to stay safe in medicine, I learned to question myself at every turn. Am I right? Am I sure? These are questions I asked myself 1,000 times per day. Perfection was the rule, not the exception. You had to be vigilant, perfect, and on it at all times or call for help from someone who was all of those things and calm under pressure. Fortunately, anesthesiology is a team sport when trouble arises. I also learned to ask for help, admit faults early and to be humble, because medicine humbles you each and every time. 

 

In order to stay safe in medicine, I learned to question myself at every turn. Am I right? Am I sure? These are questions I asked myself 1,000 times per day. Perfection was the rule, not the exception. Click To Tweet

 

Everything I just listed above was and is directly detrimental to cultivating creativity except for the last point.

When I decided that I was tired of stuffing myself into a medical box, I called up my hero pianist for lessons (asking for help). This was literally the last day of my residency training.

I started working with them towards a path of expressing myself more and exploring creativity.

While on this path and as an early attending, I discovered that I had deep seated fear, shame, lack of esteem and difficulty expressing myself at the piano.

I had it all the while, but I realized it was due to feeling like I didn’t measure up because I didn’t go to music school and this wasn’t my full time profession.

I felt like I spent all my time becoming a physician and not enough studying the craft I loved.

As I started to unpack the emotions, thoughts and attitudes that were holding me back, I realized something:

The way of thinking I learned in medical training caused me to be a poor musician.

 

Why is this?

It’s because I second guessed every note I played or sang every time I did it and as I was doing it. I wanted to be “perfect” at playing and things had to be “right”.

It didn’t matter if I was playing Gospel, Jazz, Fusion, Classical or any genre, bottom line I felt inept, afraid and alone as I was a middle aged woman, with children who desperately wanted a music career as this was my passion.

I felt alone because many of my colleagues didn’t understand the depth of my desire, why I had it and why music couldn’t just be a fun hobby for me.

I felt like an outsider in music as I had many musician friends who would tell me to just play. They didn’t understand why I felt so intimidated or shrank back as if music wasn’t for me.

As I really dug deep in these emotions, I realized that when I sat down to play, I had a fight or flight response like in the operating room. I was always checking, re-checking and playing timidly in fear. 

 

I felt alone because many of my colleagues didn’t understand the depth of my desire, why I had it and why music couldn’t just be a fun hobby for me.

 

 

So, how did I overcome this?

Well it took a lot of literal praying and crying and admitting where I was with things, but also, a lot of playing and messing up.

In the process, I taught myself to produce music and released songs, I asked my music colleagues plenty of questions and I tried and failed over and over again. And, truthfully, I’m still in it.

I play, perform in concerts, produce my own projects and in the process, I address my thoughts.

I check my feelings for comparison or inadequacy and remind myself that there is only one me and I have a unique purpose to spread music as healing.

Lastly, I work to unlearn the habits that made me a good anesthesiologist. I realize that if I hit the wrong note, no one is going to die….at least that’s how I think it works.

 

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