Life Beyond Medicine | Why music is important to me

In Mentorship by Teresa ChanLeave a Comment


Medicine can be an all-consuming pursuit.

Need proof? Sit 3-4 healthcare providers together at a table, and what is the automatic reaction? They talk about work. Recognizing this, you might have noticed that we’ve started a series entitled ‘Life Beyond Medicine’ within the Mentorship section of BoringEM.

These articles have been curated or written by the BoringEM editorial team, aiming to highlight parts of our lives outside of (or at least on the fringes of) our medical personae.

The following is my offering to this series.

– Teresa


Music has always been an important part of my life – not quite an Etta James ‘At Last’ sort of love, but more of a stalwart persistent ‘Gravity’ (à la Sara Bareilles).

The beginning

I distinctly remember, at the age of 4-and-a-half, being jealous that my elder cousins were able to make amazing sounds from the big box with the black and white keys. My parents picked up on this, and being the #TigerParents they were, promptly enrolled me in piano lessons.

In two years’ time, my inattention had my mother sitting on the piano bench next to me, directing my practise. The next three years brought scolding, yelling, and disagreement, and by the next year we were at a breaking point in both my relationship with my mother and my relationship with music. Daily, I threatened to quit. Daily, my mother threatened to let me quit, but never actually did.

Then I turned 10, and my parents took me to New York City. There, I saw my first broadway musical, Les Misérables, and fell in love with music all over again. The soaring melodies of Bring Him Home, the loneliness of On My Own.: these songs reached me in a way I had never experienced before. I realized, for the first time, that music wasn’t about notes and precision. It wasn’t about rote memory or my mother sharply disciplining in my lazy practice. Music was about emotions.

A new beginning

Upon return from New York, I asked my parents if I could stop piano lessons and sing instead. After a length negotiation, we agreed that I would do both. They must have known that piano would compliment my singing, rr perhaps they felt that it would be a loss to let my piano playing skills decay.

My vocal teacher was the one who highlighted the importance of a good musical foundation and explained how crucial the piano was to my musicality. My ability to read music helped me speed through early vocal training, and I quickly learned to appreciate my piano training as a crucial adjunct to vocal music.

(*And yes, I eventually learned all my favourite ballads from Les Misérables…)

Upping the Ante

It was during high school that I began studying music history, theory, and, eventually, composition. From my music history classes, I gained a greater understanding of how connected communities of practice were built. My teacher brought dry music history to life, and described for me a PG-13 version of the Romantic era. It was full of grand love triangles (Robert Schumann, his wife Clara, and his student Johannes Brahms!), torrid complicated love affairs (Frederic Chopin and French novelist George Sand!), and circles of friends who knew and support one another’s works. From music theory classes, I learned to decipher the combinatory science that comprised the music I loved. Chord progressions, melodic riffs, counterpoint, and harmony worked together to create the brilliantly logical works of Bach, the quirky playfulness of Mozart, and the long melodic lines of Puccini.

Soon after, I decided that I should play guitar. My friends at the time were learning, and I felt it might make me seem less nerdy. (Little did I know that if I wanted to be cool, I should have picked the double bass.)

But with guitar came the idea that I might actually apply the music theory and composition skills I had only used theoretically. Guitar music, I realized, was all written as chords. I might learn to play and then sing along to these chords. Within weeks of this realization, I started writing my own pieces. I began riffing on the keyboard, the guitar, almost anything that could make a sound. I wrote lyrics, and started telling my stories via song. Song writing became an important mechanism for dealing with and processing emotions. It was just as I experienced watching Les Misérables for the first time; songs could be a way to express my darkest and deepest feelings.

Why I write music to this day

I cycle through hobbies. I will be work obsessively though a new cookbook series, only to move on to knitting an inordinate number of scarves, but I always return to song writing, Only recently have I realised that song writing is the hobby I conveniently “rediscover” each time that I find myself overwhelmed by emotion.

As a clinical clerk, I found my first clinical rotation (internal medicine) overwhelming; I was not quite ready to deal with the concept of death as a weekly occurrence. The surge of emotion I felt when my patient died during my first week, only to be followed by another in my second week hit me hard. When I realized the annual medical school talent night was upon us, I found myself drawn to my keyboard, where I sat down the night before my performance. Three hours later, with tears streaming down my face, I was able to show my roommate the final draft of a song that was emotionally authentic, and yet abstracted and fictionalized enough to maintain patient confidentiality. This song (Make things right) remains one of the most important expressions of my emotions around death and dying.

To date, this song remains the only one that purely deals with a peri-clinical experience. I have, perhaps, adapted to managing my emotions around clinical cases, and find they do not heighten my emotions in a way to now precipitate songs. My song writing now gravitates, like most other songwriters, around issues of relationships, love, and the heartbreak that comes with taking chances with those things. For me, there’s nothing like having a great, epic song writing session to sublimate and create something new from the chaos that is my life.

Tear-soaked pages filled with lyrics, haunting melodies that convey my latest yearning or ache… these are my way of releasing that which I cannot being to convey in any other way.

The lives we lead are hard… they are full of everyone else’s darkest hours – even when they are our great successes. And then we have our own trials and tribulations. Having a place to digest, consider, and process these moments… that’s what music affords me.

My music remains a very personal thing… and I think that’s the most important thing.

Teresa Chan

Senior Editor at CanadiEM
Emergency Physician. Medical Educator. #FOAMed Supporter, Producer and Researcher. Chief Strategy Officer of CanadiEM. Associate Professor, Division of Emergency Medicine, Department of Medicine, McMaster University.