Note perfect

Balance in Practice

Naomi Lawrence, MD

This month's author writes about how she makes time in her schedule for singing, and how doing so makes her a better doctor.

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From a very early age, I’ve loved singing. I started singing with my sister at Sunday Mass on the Tulane campus, where my father was a professor. After a while, people were coming out to hear us sing, and it’s from there that my passion for singing and performing began. I was around eight or nine then, and singing has been a big part of my life ever since.

As I grew, my sister and I began singing at weddings, parties, and musical theater, and these moments are just as much a part of my development as medicine has been. During medical school, I continued to train in singing, and even did regular recitals. But with internship, residency, and eventually kids, I finally had to take time off from rehearsing and performing. Over the ensuing years, life became increasingly full with my academic Mohs and cosmetic practice, and becoming a mother of three teenage boys. As a person who wants to be very involved in my family’s lives, that’s meant coming home as early as I can, making dinner, and having family time. I don’t keep any household staff, because I want to be hands-on. So time has long been at a premium.

Making time

About 10 years ago, I decided to begin incorporating singing back into my life again, and found a professor at Rutgers who agreed to train me. As my husband and I have always encouraged the three boys to participate in sports and other activities, I realized that to make this possible I’d need to be very adaptable in my training. So for example, once I know the song I’ll be working on for the week, I find videos and performance versions of the song, and put those on my MP3 player. I’ll watch or listen to a performance while I’m working out or during a couple minutes of downtime between driving the boys around town. It really helped me to hear someone else’s interpretation of a piece and build from there so that I could learn the music more quickly. I also tape every one of my lessons so that I can go back to them when I’m practicing, even in the car.[pagebreak]

Twice a year, the professor I train under will ask 16 or so of her students to participate in a spring or fall recitalthis is something that I always look forward to despite the effort required. I get tremendous satisfaction from performing and giving these recitals my best effort. Having trained for many years, it’s also great to see people of all ages singing the songs that I was learning when I was at their level. It takes dedication to embrace your avocation again while still fulfilling all your responsibilities, but with reasonable expectations and determination to incorporate it into your life, it’s not just possible but rewarding for me to balance career, family, and music.

Going public

In 2010, I gave an hour long recital at a meeting of the American Dermatologic Association, performing for my colleagues at the Ritz Carlton in New York. It was a rewarding experience seeing the combination of a career I’m passionate about with my lifelong love of music and performance. A few years ago the Department of Medicine at my university had a Medicine and Art series and I was invited to sing an aria in front of the entire department of medicine at Cooper, which revealed my semi-secret hobby to a lot of my colleagues and patients.

As a result of these performances word has gotten out, and both colleagues and patients seem to have learned of my beloved hobby. This has had pluses and minuses. On one hand, you want patients to think of you first and foremost as their doctor, and a lot of them may not have considered that we as doctors have a life and hobbies outside the office. On the other some of my patients occasionally bring it up, and seem to enjoy that I have an interest that goes beyond medicine. I don’t think I’ll be looping video of my performances in the office any time soon, but it’s nice that they recognize my life outside the office.

My observation has been that a lot of artistically inclined people end up in dermatology. We’re visual people, and naturally migrate to this visual specialty. We use all of our senses, and there are a lot of aesthetic considerations in our day-to-day. So it’s probably not surprising that so many of us are musically inclined, whether it’s playing the piano, singing, or performing violin — it all comes down to skillful appreciation of and interaction with aesthetics.[pagebreak]

Further, I believe that dermatology is a career that allows its practitioners to strike a healthier work/life balance. I have more control over my day than some of my colleagues in other specialties. I can come home at a regular time, make dinner for my family, and still have a few hours a week to sing and rehearse before getting back to my career.

Making it work

Still, you have to accept that you can’t do everything. That is the number one rule in my mind. Set your priorities and do your best, but don’t be upset with yourself when you feel that you’re always compromising somewhat. I often feel that I am leaving something undone at work, and just barely getting to pick up my kids. My house is not always as clean as I would like it to be. My big regret for my music is that I feel that I need to stick to recitals rather than performing in shows. I know that a rehearsal schedule would be a lot less flexible to juggle. It seems to me that those of us drawn to medicine are often perfectionists. Making this balance work requires letting that go a bit, and accepting that everything is not going to be perfect.

Things that take me out of my comfort zone help make me a better physician because they allow me to be more well-rounded. And things that humanize me make me a better physician.

Singing provides a physical, mental, and emotional challenge that gives me better balance as a person.