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The Benefits of Studying Classical Music: Christine Choi, Emergency Physician

The Benefits of Studying Classical Music: Christine Choi, Emergency Physician featured image

Christine Choi at Toronto Summer Music Festival’s master class for adult amateur musicians. Photo: Brian B. Bettencourt for the Toronto Star

I love writing about the “stuff you don’t think about” when it comes to life as a musician – the travelling woes with an instrument, the extra hours musicians put in over the holidays, or what it’s like to be stopped at airport security because your saxophone neck looks like a weapon on the x-ray. I 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.

One 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 sometimes, 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.

Now, I know that music taught me everything: how to analyze and assess; how to memorize; how to perform in the sense of being “on” when it matters; how to concentrate for a three-hour written exams years before I had to write them in high school; how to be disciplined; how to collaborate with others; how to be in the present; and how to express myself. I owe everything to my music studies.

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’ll keep this going until I run out of participants.

I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I did. Today, let’s get to know Christine Choi, Emergency Physician at  the Royal Columbian and Eagle Ridge Hospitals in the lower mainland of Vancouver.

What instrument(s) did you study, and at what stage in your life?
I started playing piano when I was four or five, then added violin when I was six. I gave up studying piano when I was about sixteen.

Were music lessons intended as a hobby or did you have a performing career in mind?
The possibility of a performing career beckoned at one point in my early teens, but I also really enjoyed school. My parents subtly (well, “subtle” to a 14-year-old) steered me away from becoming a professional musician because they felt that it could be a somewhat uncertain career.

Was quitting your music lessons a welcome relief or a complete heart-wrenching moment of reckoning?
I managed to keep up the lessons here and there through university, but they really dropped off when I entered medical school, and it was hard. It was part of the reason I took a leave of absence halfway through medical school and studied at the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto for two years. Going back to med school was *rough* 🙂

How did your classical music studies (and music theory, if you studied that too) impact your ability to do your job today?
Playing music (especially chamber music) builds a lot of skills which are all highly applicable to practising medicine. You have to work with different personalities in pursuit of a common goal. It forces you to be both detail-oriented and also to be able to see the big picture. There’s a growing body of research that suggests it enhances emotional intelligence, which is crucial when I’m dealing with patients, their families, and many other members of the healthcare team, often in stressful situations.

Is classical or music in general (playing, listening, attending concerts, getting your kids to practise) a part of your life today? If not, do you think you’ll return to it?
I actually play and perform more now than I did when I was in school. I go to Stanford University every summer for the St. Lawrence String Quartet seminar, and I’ve been taking part in the Toronto Summer Music Festival’s Community Academy now for the last three years. I’ve performed a number of concerts in Vancouver with the Vancouver Chamber Players and my own amateur quartet, and I go back to Winnipeg every year or two to perform piano trio concerts with friends who teach at the Manitoba Conservatory.

Want to share your experience how studying classical music shaped your life and career?
[email protected]

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