Brain surgery

By Miranda Wilson

A sentence by Daily Mail columnist Liz Jones seemed practically to jump off the screen at me today. (I promise I don’t usually read the Daily Mail. Someone I know on Facebook linked to Jones’ article, and I read it because the byline caught my attention.) Irritated at the nepotism in her profession, Jones observes “Everyone believes they can write – while not everyone believes they can perform brain surgery.”

The same might be said of all the arts, including music. Why else would so many people audition for American Idol, and then splutter in disbelief when the judges reject them after the first round? (“But all my friends say I have a wonderful voice! You’re making a big mistake! Just let me do it again and I’ll show you!”) Why else would my dad make a considerable portion of his income teaching singing to well-paid corporate employees who decide, well into their adult lives, that they’d “like to get into opera,” even though they’ve had no musical training at all?

I’m reminded of a dinner party I was once at where all the guests were professional classical or rock musicians except one man, a lawyer, who’d come as someone’s date. We musicians tried scrupulously not to talk too much shop so we wouldn’t alienate or bore him, but at some point in the evening he piped up “I used to be a musician, you know. I played in this great rock band all through college. Everyone said we were really good.” Taking our polite nods as encouragement, he pulled out his iPod, and before anyone could stop him, crossed the room to plug it into the stereo. We were compelled to spend the next hour listening to recordings of the songs he’d written, while he beamed with pleasure. One by one the musician guests discovered that they were very tired, or remembered that they had an early rehearsal the next morning, and left. I might have felt sorrier for the lawyer and his embarrassing faux pas if the songs hadn’t been so trite or so excruciatingly performed, but as it was, I was irritated to the point of homicidal fantasy. Or at least to the point of biting my nails.

So why is it, then, that certain people think they could easily become professional-quality artists, but not brain surgeons? Is it because we know that brain surgeons earn high salaries, whereas artists earn very little? Are low-income professions thought to be easy to pick up?

Or could it be because almost everyone can read and write, and most of us can sing in the shower, but we wouldn’t perform any medical procedure more complicated than bandaging a cut knee? When you think it of it this way, art does, I suppose, look easier than medicine.

This said, I suspect if you interviewed a large number of both professional artists and brain surgeons and asked them about the conditions that must exist for a person to reach professional standing in their respective jobs, the answers would look remarkably similar. You’d need

  • Parents who were prepared to devote a great deal of time and money to your interest in art/medicine, and make difficult sacrifices so you could achieve your goals.
  • The very best teachers, who could train your mind and your body to make art/heal the sick.
  • Good equipment, which is always expensive and not always easy to come by.
  • An early enough start to be able to absorb a tremendous amount of knowledge: in other words, the 10,000 hours of study it takes to achieve professionalism in any field.
  • The temperament to work incredibly hard for long hours, often to the detriment of your social and family life, and certainly your pocketbook. The humility to apprentice yourself to your elders for many years to learn your craft. The ability to live on almost no money long past the days when all your friends from high school have “real” jobs and nice cars and their own homes. The understanding that you may fail even though you gave it everything you had.

I happen, conveniently enough, to be acquainted with a surgeon who is also a fine amateur musician. I once asked him about the parallels between the fields of music and medicine, since I’d noticed that lots of doctors play an instrument well. He replied that making music on a high level was much harder than operating on patients. I was surprised to hear this, because if surgeons make a mistake, someone could die. My profession, by contrast, is a fairly undeadly one.

That’s not what I meant, he told me. Surgeons have to have a steady hand and a memory for many, many facts so they can diagnose illnesses and act quickly in emergencies. But musicians must train their brains and bodies in ways that don’t come half as easily. The ability to recognize and reproduce pitches, the ability to coordinate interior knowledge with exterior movements, the ability to perform music in front of an audience without panic: these, he said, were much harder for him than routine surgeries.


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