Dr. Pei-Li Huang won the creative writing exposition hosted by the Massachusetts Medical Society. Dr. Huang is a talented physician, writer and pianist, and in the piece, she describes her experiences in each. Congratulations!
The Piano Competition
“There are no competitions in medicine.” This thought comforts me as I pace back and forth in the vestibule of the Western Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. one humid July morning, waiting to walk “on stage” as the first performer in the 2009 Washington International Piano Amateurs Competition.
It doesn’t take exceptional talent to practice medicine. I have fine motor skills that allow me to handle delicate surgical instruments, and a talent for being a good listener, but I have never deluded myself that I was the best doctor in my field. For me it’s enough to be the best doctor I know how to be, the kind of doctor that patients like and colleagues respect. Why then would I and my fellow performers– who are doctors, engineers, lawyers, financial analysts, professors and software programmers, but definitely not professional pianists–voluntarily subject ourselves to a competition in which there are only a few winners and many losers?
I suspect it is the same reason why every year there are thousands of runners in the Boston Marathon. There are the elite runners and there are all the rest of us. I’ve seen many of these runners toiling up the concrete hills by my house every chilly, freezing weekend in the winter months before the marathon. Some of them run in the darkest hours before sunrise or after sunset. Most of these “amateur” athletes will never win any medals. Why do they do this, train all winter to run 26.2 draining, exhausting miles? What will they have to show for it after they cross the finish line besides a silver mylar blanket, and perhaps a free water bottle? I believe that these runners train for the same reason that I have practiced my piano nearly every day for the past nine years. To get a little stronger and go a little further every day. Sometimes, the training is its own reward, allowing us to improve our personal best. We amateurs dream– not about winning the race, because that is impossible – but just reaching the finish line, even several hours later, friends and thousands of strangers cheering us on.
Meanwhile I am nervous as I stride into the church sanctuary to sit at the piano, and I have never ever been nervous before when playing in front of an audience. I have faced situations far more horrific without flinching—staunching an unexpected hemorrhage in the operating room, blood soaking my shoes. “Nobody dies, nobody dies, “ I chant silently to myself as a mantra to remember that, unlike surgery, nobody will die if I make a mistake at the piano. What is the worst that can happen? But my heart is pounding out of my chest and my fingers are trembling as I sit down to play. I am trying to play with as much nuance and beauty as I can, despite fingers that feel numb. The notes are slipping through my fingers like the reins of a panicked horse. Then it happens! In the middle of a run of octaves, suddenly my mind is blank and I cannot remember what to play next. I stare at my hands in horrified panic. I start playing the passage again. Again my memory fails and the music grinds to a halt. The silence feels like an eternity as time expands and contracts with my heartbeat. Finally I manage to start playing somewhere beyond the frozen landscape of blank space in my mind and grimly limp towards the ending, knowing that my dream of playing my very best and making it into the next round of the competition has just imploded.
I get up from the piano, take a bow, and collapse shaken, in a nearby pew. I can’t believe I spent the last nine years taking piano lessons, and practicing thousands of hours to suffer a performer’s worst nightmare: a mind- numbing memory lapse so obvious that it can’t be covered up by quick improvisation. The doctor in me, ever clinical, wonders if this is a sign of early Alzheimer’s. To add to my humiliation, I know that in my panic I played terribly, without a glimmer of musical feeling. I am distraught but somehow I manage to pull myself together and applaud when the next performer walks to the grand piano and sits down. I slouch down as far as possible in my hard wooden pew to avoid the pitying glances coming my way. Phil, a kindly elderly volunteer “stage hand” who ushered me through the side door to the piano , gives my arm a squeeze and says, “Better luck next year, huh?”
The next day I do my best imitation of being a good sport and cheer for my new friend Robin (a tall elegant woman too young to be a retired lawyer) as she makes it into the semi final round and eventually wins an award for best performance by an American composer. As the competition progresses, I tell myself the entire traumatic, humiliating experience was worth it, because I am invited to swanky receptions at Washington embassies and because I will leave with several new friends: Robin, Judy, a retired music teacher and equestrian, Neil, a retired chemistry professor, and Andrew, an online marketing specialist.
I return to my “day job” as a physician who helps infertile couples conceive, usually a very gratifying job. None of my patients are even aware that I have stolen time away from practicing medicine. But I feel like a failure: depressed, listless, and unable to touch the piano. A month goes by and I find it impossible to make myself to start playing the piano. Robin is worried and sends me a You Tube video in which Jon Nakamatsu, the 1997 Van Cliburn piano competition winner, gives a speech to the Van Cliburn amateur piano contestants in 2007. “My name is Jon Nakamatsu, and I am a loser,” he announces with a charming smirk. In a self-deprecating yet hilarious manner he lists every single competition he lost on his way to the Van Cliburn gold medal–recounting the advice he was given by a well-meaning judge that he would never have a career in music so he should try something easier. We show courage, he says, “every time we expose ourselves to public judgment of something intensely personal, all for the promise of nothing.”
I promptly fall in love with Mr. Nakamatsu and decide that if he is a loser, then being a loser is a badge I can wear with honor. It takes a long time, but slowly I start taking an interest in music again: forming an internet chat group made up of my new piano friends, all of us competition losers, but richer for having met one another. One month after the debacle that was the competition, I sit down at the piano and start playing again: once more resolved to enter a piano competition and next time to “fail better.”
One day in August shortly after my return from Washington, one of my patients– extremely anxious and deathly afraid of anesthesia– refuses to have her egg retrieval surgery unless her husband or “someone she knows” is in the operating room with her. Her husband is not allowed to be in the O.R. so it left to me to cajole and convince her to have the surgery by promising to be in the operating room with her. I come in on my day off to hold her hand while her IV is placed and to perform her surgery. There is no CPT billing code for “TLC,” but I come in anyway, on a perfect summer day, because this is what I do as a doctor. I care for my patients even when there is no reward, sometimes not even a thank you, “all for the promise of nothing.”
My patient is crying and shaking. “Please don’t let me die. It wouldn’t ruin your day if I die, but think of my husband….” “Believe me, “I say with all seriousness, “It would ruin my day. I won’t let anything happen to you.” Eventually she lets us wheel her, heavily sedated but still crying, into the operating room. When she awakens dazed from the anesthesia, her face is still wet with tears, but this time they are tears of relief. “Thank you,” she says hoarsely as if barely aroused from sleep. “Thank you so much for being here for me.” For a moment, I feel like a hero. Three days later, I transfer a single perfect embryo into her uterus. Twelve days later she finds out she is pregnant.
After this heart -warming experience, you might think that I would need no further validation. But surprisingly, such moments of grace are few and far between. Is it so hard to understand why I play the piano and enter piano competitions? It’s not because I have any delusions of winning prizes or becoming late in life, a concert pianist. All I wanted to do in Washington was to play my very best and sadly, I did not do even do that. No, I entered the piano competition because I wanted to play for an appreciative audience– even though it meant facing a panel of intimidating judges and playing for a “jury” of my peers, every one of them serious music lovers. Listening is an act of love which longs to be reciprocated. Those of us whose vocation is listening, realize that love— romantic or platonic — is often unrequited. But sometimes we need– and indeed even crave– a little love, a burst of applause, a single heart-felt thank you.