Sunday, July 22, 2012

Dr. Brian Peterson, Bassoonist and Surgeon, Salt Lake City, UT

Of the many insights from my remarkable interviewees, something you'll read below from Brian Peterson still stands out to me after countless hours working on this project. When asked what motivated him to pursue his medical career, he responded: "I got to re-thinking my music degree and realized that I probably wouldn't have a career in an orchestra because I just didn't think I was going to work hard enough." 

This sentence exemplifies the incredibly high standard Dr. Peterson -- and all of the interviewees you'll meet here -- have set for themselves, and passion, dedication, commitment to excellence, and extraordinary accomplishments that most of us can only aspire to. Enjoy!

Bassoonist Dr. Brian Peterson (pictured at left with his wife, oboist Barbara Peterson) of Salt Lake City has performed with the Utah Symphony, the Utah Chamber Orchestra, and the Orchestra in Temple Square, which accompanies the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. He earned a BM from USC where he studied with Norman Herzberg and an MM from Brigham Young University. Dr. Peterson is an otologist (ear surgeon) at Jordan Valley Medical Center and Intermountain Medical Center in Salt Lake City. He attended medical school at the University of Utah; completed his residency at Upstate Medical Center in Syracuse, New York; and held a fellowship at the Michigan Ear Institute.

Click on the video below to hear Brian rock out on the contrabassoon! (More vids on his YouTube channel.)

What's your non-music career?
I’m an otologist -- ear surgeon -- at Jordan Valley Medical Center and Intermountain Medical Center in Salt Lake City.

What’s your training on the bassoon?

I have a BM from USC where I studied with Norman Herzberg; I graduated from there in 1981. I have an MM in music performance from Brigham Young University. I went to medical school at the University of Utah. I did my residency at Upstate Medical Center in Syracuse, New York and I did a fellowship at the Michigan Ear Institute. Plus I served a two-year mission for the Mormon Church in Paris. So, not counting those two years: four years at USC, three years at BYU, four years of medical school, and then my training after that was an additional six years. So, seventeen years after high school.

I’m on the sub list with the Utah Symphony. I play with the Utah Chamber Orchestra and they’re a per-service orchestra. I also play with the Orchestra in Temple Square. We play with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. They do a weekly Sunday morning broadcast called Music and the Spoken Word. And then I play with a couple of local community orchestras, as well. Roughly half of what I do is paid for and the rest is just for fun.

I don’t do any teaching. I have to put limitations on what I can do. Occasionally I do some reed-making master classes and seminars for younger students. Mr. Herzberg was big into reed-making, so I got some good training from him and I do a fair amount. I’ve also got five kids, and I’m active in the Mormon Church, including running our Young Men's Group. I run marathons and half-marathons too.

What is your schedule like -- how many hours per week are you at the hospitals?

I take three work days off a month, so I guess that puts me working about twenty days a month in my office or in the hospital. Half my days are in the office, half my days are in the operating room. Plus I’m on call for three emergency rooms every sixth night and every sixth weekend.

Does your schedule have flexibility or do the hospitals set your hours?

I’m self-employed, so there is some flexibility. But, there are limitations to that. For example, a couple months ago, the Utah Symphony called me on a Sunday night and asked me if I could come do some school concerts Monday morning. I had six surgeries scheduled. I’m not that flexible. If I have a couple of weeks notice, I can take a day off or shift my schedule. And I can even do a week off if they have a major concert or something, but I need a few weeks notice to do something like that.

How much time do you spend practicing and making reeds?

I probably make reeds for three to four hours a week. Realistically, I probably practice about five to six hours a week and have between four to eight hours of rehearsals and concerts in the average week.

What tools do you use to keep track of your schedule?

I still use pen and paper, and I keep a lot of it in my brain. I do have a cell phone that’s got a calendar on it, but it takes me more time to enter it in than to just write it down. It would be a travesty if I were to lose it. But I’d probably have some free time if I did that!

How do you stay focused with so much going on? How do you manage fatigue?

Exercising. For example, I'll multi-task by listening to pieces I'm working on while I'm running. I also try to practice excerpts. Excerpts, for some reason, keep my brain a little more active that if I just do etudes. I also give away a lot of reeds to my colleagues. I really really like reed-making, so that gives me a chance to do a lot of it and keep my skills sharp. I watch old movies, and I listen to a lot of the soundtracks because it’s amazing to hear what good bassoon and contrabassoon parts are there. I also memorize scriptures and I’m active in my church.

Do you do any preparation with the cane -- you know, we oboists, we’re constantly gouging and shaping and doing that sort of stuff?

I get my cane gouged, shaped, and profiled. I don’t have a gouger and a profiler - it’s just not worth it to me. It’s more work that I want to do. I sand the cane down so it’s smooth. I generally will make my blanks and let them age for...I have some blanks that are probably ten or fifteen years old.

Does the medical career ever take you away from the bassoon for long periods of time?

Not as much any more. In my [medical] training, it did.

What did you do to get back into shape if you hadn’t been playing in a while?

The first thing I did when I got out of my residency was order a bunch of quintet music, and I spent a lot of time putting a quintet together. I had a quintet for about five or six years. I think the woodwind quintet’s just about the perfect ensemble. That really helped, because it’s solo work, but you also have to blend.

Are you taking auditions?

I’ve done a couple of local auditions just for fun. I auditioned for a community orchestra, and I auditioned for a per-service orchestra out in California because it was near where I grew up. I played for them but I didn’t make it. But it was good. I don’t have anything to lose. If the Utah Symphony were to have auditions, I’d audition, not that I’d expect to make it. It would just be good practice for me.

So, preparing for the obviously have a lot of experience and a lot of training, but how did you manage to work on the audition rep too?

I basically set up a room downstairs that nobody was allowed to come into, and I played the music over and over and over again. I had limited time, because I still had to go to work and I still had my family to take care of. I signed up about six weeks before the last audition I took, and that’s not very long to prepare. 

I probably spent about ten hours a week during that six weeks. I felt like I played the pieces well when I was preparing, but when I went to the audition I played just average. I realized that to really do well at an audition, because you get nervous and are uncomfortable, you just have to know the music so well. So I would expect any auditions I’ll take will just be more for fun. If there are places I want to go visit, then I’ll go and take the audition. I'd be more likely to take a local one than to travel a great distance.

Right when I started my practice, I got an offer to teach bassoon full-time at a university. They required a terminal degree; they didn’t care if it was in music, and they needed a bassoonist, and they knew my playing. At the time, I’d only been in medical practice for a year. It just didn’t seem reasonable for me to give up all my training at that point. There must be quite a few musicians that have full-time jobs because there are only a limited amount of orchestral jobs. There are some in our community that are very very good -- in fact, I think the best bassoonist around is a dentist. He’s a fantastic bassoonist.

Why did you decide to pursue a medical career instead of focusing on performance?

When I was on my mission in France, I didn’t play my bassoon at all. I got to re-thinking my music degree and I realized that I probably wouldn’t have a career in an orchestra because I just didn’t think I was going to work hard enough. And so I said, I’ll either have to get my doctorate in music and go teach, or do something else. And I decided I’d rather do something else. And I liked medicine. I didn’t know if I’d get accepted to medical school. But I applied and everywhere I interviewed, I got in. So I thought, well, I’ll go to medical school and then I can still do my music on the side.

Were you performing when you were in medical school?

I was. I played in the University of Utah Orchestra and with the Mormon Youth Symphony at Temple Square. Plus, I was in a woodwind quintet. We actually won a competition here in Salt Lake City when I was in medical school.

Would you say you feel passionate about your medical job in the same way you are passionate about music? 

There’s definitely a difference. In medicine, of course, you’re dealing with people’s lives. So you have to be passionate about it. But I think there will be a point where I’ll give up my medical career, and I’ll retire, and I don’t think I’ll look back. But I don’t think I’ll ever give up music. As I told someone the other day: they’ll have to pry my bassoon from my cold dead hands. I don’t feel as passionate about my medical career. It’s a career, it’s a good job, I do well, but I definitely don’t feel as passionate about it as music.

Did the fact that you’re a musician inform the medical specialty you eventually chose?

It did. When I was a medical student I did a study on pitch problems and pitch perception -- people with absolute pitch and what happened when they lost their hearing. And then I worked with an ear, nose, and throat doctor, and I really liked it, so I went into that specialty. And then probably because of my music I was attracted to ear surgery. Restoring hearing seemed like a good thing for someone who’s into music to do. Plus I liked the fine work -- it’s extremely fine, small work under a microscope. To be honest, I thought my skills in reed-making helped me out. I really thought my music degree was harder to do than my pre-med and medical training. Music was a harder major. No question about it.

Does the hospital feel that your musical training is an asset?

I don’t think they really look at it at all. I mean, my colleagues and the administration think it’s interesting. Sometimes they’ll have my musical groups come in and play at a staff party or something like that. But I think, bottom line is, they’ve got a business to run, and as long as I’m bringing cases into their hospital, they don’t care what I do.

Do you ever get a sense from your musician colleagues that you aren’t “really” a musician because you have this other life?

Not really, no, I haven’t gotten that perception. I play in a group with two of the bassoonists from the Utah Symphony. I think they recognize limitations because they do it full-time and I don’t. So, they’re better than I am. But they don’t say that, and I don’t think the difference is a massive amount. But they have taken auditions and won them, which I have never done with a major orchestra. 

But I think they look at what I do as kind of an asset, having financial means to order good equipment and that sort of thing. But, I have never felt that they looked down on me because I didn’t become a full-time musician. And my training at USC with Norman Herzberg does seem to command some respect. He is a well-known bassoonist. I can’t spend as much time practicing as my musician colleagues. But I had that training, so that receives some respect.

Do you still have a teacher?
I don’t. I went to Judith LeClair’s master class out in California this summer. [She is Principal Bassoon of the New York Philharmonic.] The other people in the class were all young kids or young professionals. I was the old fart out there, but I went and played in front of everybody like they did. I don’t think I made too much of a fool of myself. You can call Judith and see what she thought! [both laughing] But you know, I played ok. I still want to learn and want to keep up, so I might take some lessons in the future, but it will probably be once or twice a month at the most.

Who are your role models?

Norman Herzberg is probably my number one role model. He was the greatest teacher of bassoon that I know of. I studied with him for four years. He was kind of cantankerous and mean at times, but he was always very kind to me, and very patient with me even though he was not known as a patient man. 

And Roger Hicks, a local guy, is a great role model. He’s the dentist who plays the bassoon. He is a phenomenal bassoonist, and had a dental career and played and everything, and he always played extremely well. 

And Bob Williams, who plays principal in the Detroit Symphony. I’ve gone out and played with him several times and watched him make reeds. He’s just a great person, and really wants to advance music, and has always been very kind to me. If I go to Detroit and I call him up he says, “Oh, come on over!” and we’ll spend a few hours together.

How did your musical mentors feel that you ended up pursuing medicine in addition to music?

I visited Mr. Herzberg a couple of years before he died. I went out and had dinner with he and his wife. Of course he knew I was in medicine. He said, “You were a smart one to do that.” He was also very proud of his students who had gone on and played professionally or taught at universities, so I know he liked seeing that. But he seemed very proud of the fact that I’d studied at USC with him and that I’d gone on to medical school. 

Interestingly, he has three children and never encouraged any of them to go into music. I know one is a doctor and one is an attorney. I don’t know what his other child does. A lot of musicians are kind of torn that way. They know how much work it takes but they also know it’s a very demanding and tough field, and so I don’t think they look down on you for choosing a different career.

What advice would you give to young people who are considering a career in music?

I would say if they really like music, major in music. Study music. Find out if your passion is enough to allow you to play in an orchestra or teach at the university level. I used to think playing in an orchestra was my sole desire in life. I realized later that I could teach at a university, play in a woodwind quintet, and have a great life doing that, and probably get paid better and have less stress. 

I think a music major, a musician, has some advantages in going a different direction, too. The people who interviewed me for medical school loved the fact that I majored in music. But, I had to do well in my science classes. So don’t feel like you’re trapped by your degree. You can always go and do something else and do it well. I’ve known musicians that went to law school or have gotten MBAs and have done very well. 

The nice thing about music is, it can make a good vocation, but it can also make a great avocation. You can do it very well, and very passionately, and play well, and not embarass yourself, but you don’t have to worry about it for making your living. There are a lot of us who have to fill in and play at a high level where there just aren’t enough full-time musicians to do it. 

I think my training in music was extremely difficult, and it helped me go on to my career in medicine. Like I said, you can’t make an avocation out of medicine. You can’t say, “Oh, I’m going to be a musician and I’ll do surgeries on the side in my garage.” And the bottom line is, for all the musicians we’re putting out there, there aren’t enough jobs in major symphony orchestras to do it. So many of you are going to have to do something else. So, I would not discourage someone from studying music, nor from looking at a field that might seem unrelated where you can use your skills that you’ve learned getting your music degree.

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