I’m amazed by the overwhelming response to my asking this question: “If you studied classical music, did it positively affect your non-music career?” So many folks are still responding, wanting to sing the praises of music (see what I did there), not only in how music benefited them career-wise, but in other aspects of their lives. Most of us who studied music though, as kids, resented the practise time and argued with our parents. And that’s the catch: sometimes parents want to give up the fight and allow their kids to quit. Understandable, but I hope they encourage their children to hang in there: they WILL thank you later. Everyone I know whose parents allowed them to quit music all wished they weren’t allowed to give up. (In my family, quitting was NOT an option; get your Associate of the Royal Conservatory of Music first – THEN we’ll talk.)
In this ongoing series, posted every week or so, 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 meet Thomas Yu. He is a periodontist who kept up his piano chops to a very high level – high enough that I actually forget he’s a medical professional – I keep thinking of him as a pianist who happens to do periodontal stuff on the side.
Please summarize your current career, and your duties.
I own a periodontal practice in Calgary, specializing in dental implants and gum surgery.
What instrument(s) did you study, and at what stage in your life?
I started piano lessons at age five in Saskatoon. According to my parents, I would watch my older sisters play, and when they would finish, I would hop on and mimic what they just played. It irritated them both, but it was a sign that I should start playing too. Also, many people don’t know this, but I also played trombone in the University of Saskatchewan Jazz Ensemble.
Were music lessons intended as a hobby or did you have a performing career in mind?
I didn’t truly fall in love with playing until I was 17, when I started studying with Bonnie Nicholson. Throughout my university life, I thought about quitting my academic studies to pursue music. My struggle continued until the age of 23, when I eventually met my next piano teacher, Marc Durand. He encouraged me to finish my dental studies, and promised he would teach me thereafter in Toronto. He kept his promise and then taught me for the following eight years. I guess piano has always been a “serious” hobby.
Was quitting your music lessons a welcome relief or a complete heart-wrenching moment of reckoning?
Deciding not to become a professional pianist was a very difficult choice, and I used to fight with my parents about it. But making the transition towards being an amateur pianist has opened up opportunities that I had not dreamed of before. Competing in amateur competitions, travelling the world for music, and meeting like-minded amateur pianists has been so rewarding. It turned out to be the best musical decision ever.
How did your classical music studies (and music theory, if you studied that too) impact your ability to do your job today?
There’s almost nothing in common with having your hands in someone’s mouth versus on the piano (insert “ivories” pun here). The surgical side uses my brain, while the musical side uses my gut and soul. In a way, they allow me to use all of my body’s energy.
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?
Absolutely! I thought with every new stage of life I would change the amount of playing, but instead I find myself playing more than ever. Now, having a little boy to raise, I will see how the next chapter of playing will pan out. He’s already trying to compete for time on the piano.
Thomas is the most recent winner of the Cliburn International Amateur Piano Competition, specifically created for people like him. When you make the final round of a major competition, that’s when you pull out the big guns and play a concerto with a full orchestra. Here’s his performance of the last movement of Saint-Saens’ Piano Concerto No. 5 in F Major (“The Egyptian”).
Want to share your experience how studying classical music shaped your life and career?