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Lessons Learned: How Early Violin Lessons Made Me a Better Surgeon

I owe a lot to music.
Many of my school experiences centered around my musical education. Throughout elementary, middle and high school, I participated heavily in my New York public school’s music educational programs. Whether it was orchestra, violin lessons, chorus, band or musical theater, I was constantly involved with music. And music helped me form some of the best memories of my childhood.

Violinist’s Hands vs. Surgeon’s Hands
Today, I’m a surgeon and my job relies on my dexterity. And that dexterity relies on the discipline, practice and the principles of slow and repeated systematic improvement I developed while learning violin as a child. Practicing and playing a musical instrument presents an opportunity for dexterity challenges which translate to steadier hands for me in surgery. I think my patients appreciate that I have been obsessing over steady fine motor control since I was five years old. It makes a difference.

Complicated Surgeries, Made Possible Through Music
From music, I learned on a very deep level that practice leads to improvement and that very complicated tasks can be overcome by breaking them down into simpler components. As a young musician, I took on complicated musical passages by breaking them down into separate understandable phrases and then, once I’d mastered the part, I was better able to put the parts together. This is the approach I still take when approaching very complicated surgeries or when facing seemingly-impossible “trauma train-wrecks.” One piece at a time, anything is possible.

Learning Confidence
As I tackled and mastered increasingly difficult musical pieces as a child, I learned to have more confidence and to trust my ability to learn things that seemed impossible at first. I think this same confidence is what led me to set my sights high after high school and to apply to top-tier Universities including Harvard, Stanford, Yale and Brown. Schools where I received acceptances. And I think that my musical education was instrumental in helping me be accepted into these excellent schools.

Public Speaking vs. Playing Violin on Stage
Public speaking is one of our society’s most universal fears. In fact, some people say they are less afraid of dying than they are speaking in front of a crowd. But I think some of those early experiences on stage helped me with some of the public speaking required of me as a doctor. Playing the violin gave me an early exposure to being on stage. I still do get some butterflies when I’m up on stage, but I remember what my violin teacher told me at one of my first recitals: “it’s normal to be nervous, it just means that you care.”

Thinking Differently
Music is an art that values creativity. Through my early days with music, I’ve learned to value different interpretations, and I learned to offer my own interpretations combined with confidence. I believe that surgery is also an art, which is why I named by practice “Surgical Artistry.” I think it was a combination of confidence and creative thinking which helped me pick Modesto as a place to practice surgery. I turned down surgical positions in cities including San Diego and Los Angeles because I believed that Modesto was the right place for my wife and I to establish our practice.

The Violin Has Enriched My Life
The violin gave me an identity when I was a child, and it remains one of the ways I define myself. I am very thankful for the incredible music education and opportunity that my parents and teachers have given to me. I frequently talk with other doctors who share that a childhood grounding in music has helped them get where they are.

The gift of early exposure to music continues to give to me every day and it has allowed me to give back by making me a better surgeon.
About the Author:
Educated at Brown University and the public school systems of New York State, Calvin Lee, MD is a surgeon in Modesto, CA, who co-founded Surgical Artistry with his wife Tammy Wu, MD who is a plastic surgeon. They helped to start the Surgical Artistry Modesto Marathon, which is now in it’s fifth year. They are founders of the Gallo Center for the Arts in Modesto and founding sponsors of the Surgical Artistry Modesto Symphony Pops Series in 2007. The motivation for this article was sparked by a recent request by a New York school board member to write a letter about how music contributed to his academic success and life as a surgeon.

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