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The Benefits of Studying Classical Music: Amir Safavi, Med Student

The Benefits of Studying Classical Music: Amir Safavi, Med Student featured image

I love writing about the “stuff you don’t think about” when it comes to life as a musician, and I also wanted to investigate something a little different: those who aren’t classical musicians, but studied it enough to reap the benefits in other aspects of lives.

The reason I chose this topic is very basic: “studying classical music is good for you” and while that’s a given, I wanted to personalize why. The other reason was to sort out my own personal experience with studying music to a certain level (Associate of the Royal Conservatory of Music and Bachelor of Music), which sometimes conflicted with my knowledge I didn’t want to be a performer. This de-motivated me now and then, and it wasn’t clear back then what the point was – if music is to be performed, why am I working so hard at performance? I didn’t realize the advantages until much later.

In this ongoing series, I’ll be speaking with doctors, lawyers, marketing professionals, accountants, actors, arts administrators, and people in all kinds of fields who studied classical music and are thankful they did. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I did. Today, let’s get to know Amir Safavi, Medical Student, Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine at McMaster University. While he’s a doctor-to-be, he also kept up his music at a very high level.

Please summarize your current career, and your duties.
I am currently a medical student at McMaster University. I am in the clerkship phase of my training, which means I am working as part of the healthcare team on various core rotations (such as internal medicine, surgery, pediatrics, emergency medicine, and psychiatry) and clinical electives (which I’ve completed in radiation oncology, surgical oncology, and palliative care). My day-to-day clinical work involves conducting histories and physical examinations when rounding on inpatients and seeing new patients in the emergency department or clinic, and using that information to formulate assessments and plans. As well, I assist the staff and resident physicians with minor procedures, surgical operations, or treatment planning. I am also working on several clinical and educational research projects, organizing some conferences, and representing my colleagues as Vice-President (Academics) on several committees.

Wow! That sounds like a lot. What instrument(s) did you study, and at what stage in your life?
The main instruments I studied were violin and piano. I began when I was five and six years old, respectively, at the Royal Conservatory of Music. I was always drawn more to the violin than piano and by 14, I decided to exclusively focus on the violin. I had my last formal violin lesson when I was 24, but the learning never stops. I also studied conducting and learned a bit of viola and recorder.

You sounded more likely to become a musician than a doctor – music wasn’t a hobby for you, was it?
Music lessons started off as a hobby, as they should for any five-year-old, but my studies were never casual. I was practicing at least three hours of violin and 30 minutes of piano every day by age seven and studying music theory for a few hours a week. I entered the Royal Conservatory of Music‘s Phil and Eli Taylor Performance Academy for Young Artists at age 11 and fast-tracked to the senior level by age 12, and it was around that time that I really fell in love with music, loving it for more reasons than just excelling at it. After several solo performances with local symphonies, I began to consider a performing career and was faced with a tough choice (almost an existential crisis) at the end of high school, whether to accept admission to a conservatory like Juilliard or New England Conservatory, or keep my studies broad at Columbia University. My mother helped me realize that I could have the best of both worlds by going to Columbia and I earned a double major in Music and Biology, with private studies in New York supplementing my ensemble, conducting, and theoretical music training at school. I’ve been lucky to perform solo with the Toronto Symphony and chamber music with pianist Menahem Pressler, play in Carnegie Hall, premiere new works and lead orchestras as guest concertmaster while working on my non-musical pursuits.

I think a lot of folks had that crisis as they graduated high school. Was quitting music lessons a welcome relief or a complete heart-wrenching moment of reckoning?
Neither; the learning never stops. Everyone stops taking lessons at some point, and I stopped at the same age I would have had I gone to graduate school for music. My last few years of lessons were very much a transition to independence, often a discussion about interpretive choices and stylistic pearls. I felt ready to continue the journey on my own.

How did your classical music studies and theory lessons impact your ability to do your job today?
Listening is perhaps the most integral part of my work and my musical background has made me very sensitive to listening in different ways and with total focus. Listening for silence and finding meaning in silence has been particularly valuable as a clinical skill. Empathy and emotional connection are other key components of my work; I draw on my years of performing chamber music and collaboratively creating expressive moments when I have only a few minutes to connect with a patient or new colleagues in a fast-paced environment. I feel I am developing a clinical gestalt, partly due to increasing confidence and comfort in clinical settings, but also because I’m feeling for the connecting thread between all the components, like I would look for the “unwritten” elements of a score through a physical or sensory way. Recently, I realized I could draw on my performance experience to manage the jarring contrasts of running between a resuscitation, then an unrelated end-of-life conversation, then a phone conversation with a consulting physician. I’ve found that consciously focusing on the “upbeat” or the breath before the new activity is key to making incisive transitions, much like when an expert recitalist transitions between disparate pieces or a great conductor manages the stark juxtapositions of tempo, orchestral texture and moods in a piece like Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

Wow. I never thought of that – quick adjustments throughout the day. Is classical or music in general a part of your life today?`
It remains an integral part of my being. I co-founded the Kandinsky Collective with some dear friends last summer and we were fortunate to sell out our debut performance at Mazzoleni Hall. My recording of Brahms’ Sonatensatz with pianist Aaron Dou was recently released as part of a CD distributed by Naxos. I continue to study scores and practice when I can, though more judiciously during my busy clerkship year. I listen to a few hours of classical music (from Bach to Adès) every day. I am an avid concert and opera goer. I’m having lots of fun and will continue to be a performer, connoisseur, and evangelist of music.

Excerpt from Brahms’ Violin Sonata in A Minor “F-A-E”: III. Scherzo in C Minor, WoO 2, performed by Amir Safavi (violin) and Aaron Dou (piano).

Want to share your experience how studying classical music shaped your life and career?
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