General practitioners with a double life: musicians | Wbactive

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dr Simon Pilbrow and Dr. Tu Pham pursue parallel careers in writing and composing music that not only brings them joy but can also be therapeutic.

The family doctors Dr. Simon Pilbrow and Dr. Tu Pham work at different ends of the musical spectrum.


Everyone hears music in one form or another – at a concert, during an operation, while dropping kids off at school, or through annoyingly catchy commercial jingles. However, not everyone can create it.


Even fewer can do so while pursuing one of the most challenging careers in society today. That’s what Dr. Tu Pham – a family doctor in Brisbane who also writes songs and raps – and Dr. Simon Pilbrow – a Rosebud family doctor, composer and jazz pianist – all the more special.


Both doctors spoke NewsGP about weaving medicine and music, taking the time to do so, and how their creative endeavors are influencing change.



how it all started
dr Pham was around 14 years old when he started listening to hip hop, which was very popular in the refugee community he grew up in.


“I was drawn to 2Pac because he used music as a medium to bring about social change,” he said.


dr Pham adopted a similar record name – Tu P – and raps on a wide range of topics, including organ donation, addiction, refugees and discrimination. He has recorded two albums and has performed nationally and internationally.


“The subject matter of my songs can be quite confrontational, which is an integral part of the authenticity it takes to participate in hip-hop,” he said.


“But my songs are more of a reflection – than a glorification – of the problems and how we can overcome them.”


He has taught young doctors, worked in headspace and spent time in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and rural communities which has influenced his music.


“General medicine gives me the opportunity to see how socio-political and cultural issues impact health and well-being in all strata of our society, which gives me a fresh perspective to discuss in my writing,” he said.


“Although the family doctor’s office is very busy, it gives me weekends and regular working hours so that I can devote myself to music after work.


“After completing my clinic hours and CPD, I spend most of my free time writing lyrics, recording music and videos, connecting with other artists, creating online content, and dancing Zouk.”


dr Pilbrow also devotes much of his free time to music, which was hard when he was starting out in GP and having a young family, but has gotten easier over time.


“One of the reasons that influenced my decision to go into general medicine rather than surgery was the idea that I would have more free time as a general practitioner than as a specialist. It was a dream,” he said.


“Working as a GP at Rosebud was very labor intensive. [It’s still] rewarding and fun…but I think the reality is that GP life is as busy as many specialties.


“It’s hard to juggle all the demands of life. Work and family must come before other passions, so it hasn’t been easy to create disciplined space for music on a regular basis.’


But despite the challenges and the time pressure, Dr. Pilbrow not up. He even studied music for a semester at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music before returning to Australia and beginning his medical studies in 1980.


“During my undergraduate years I was at the Monash Student Jazz Club, played in the Monash Jazz Quintet, the Monash Big Band and composed jazz tunes, many of which we performed,” he said.


“When I went into general practice full-time, the after-hours on-call workload was demanding and I had to prioritize our young family, so there were seven years that I didn’t play gigs. I made time to continue practicing the piano and kept my skills in good shape, but there was little time left to write music.


“When the kids were a bit older I went back to playing jazz concerts, mostly around the Mornington Peninsula at wineries and other local venues.”



Hit the high notes
The hard work and dedication paid off. dr Pilbrow has performed abroad, written several hundred jazz compositions, some of which are preserved in the US Library of Congress, composed a string quartet for his son’s wedding, and written reviews of Los Angeles Jazz Institute festivals that have been published online.


He’s even collaborated with a Grammy Award winner.


‘[It] culminated in a recording in a Hollywood studio in 2017 of an album of my own compositions called colors of soundwith some legendary US jazz players… [and] Musician/composer/arranger Brent Fischer,” he said.


Music is there to be consumed. Given that both GPs have recorded albums available to stream or buy, surely patients have been listening and commenting?


“Some of my patients have found my music online, either themselves or through listening to friends who are patients of mine,” said Dr. pham.


“It means I have to make sure my health messages in my writing are consistent with what I’m saying during my consultations.”


Meanwhile says Dr. Pilbrow even had groupies.


“Over the years, many of my patients have come to our local jazz concerts and some have been regular ‘groupies,'” he said.


“The CD was also very well received by patients and five years after it was released, patients are still mentioning that they still enjoy listening to it, which is nice.


“I think my patients appreciate that their GP has a life outside of medicine, although I suspect they’re wondering how I find time for it. My interest in music also creates a bridge between me and my patients, especially for those who also have musical interests.”



Where music and general medicine meet
dr Pilbrow enjoys the duality of medicine and music, and while he sees no similarities between the two, they pervade his life.


“My musical life is suspended when I get to work and it resumes when I get in my car, although it hovers in the background whatever I do because music is so ubiquitous it’s always in the background” , he said.


“Being a GP is about people and on a practical level it is a service-oriented job. Music is obviously a creative endeavor, but it also involves people, both collaborating to make music and the audience listening.


“Both music and medicine require time, effort, discipline, learning and practicing a craft, but they’re really very different.


“The only resemblance for me is that I’m a 10-finger typist, so typing all day at work might help maintain my piano playing skills.”


for dr Pham emphasizes listening to both general practice and music.


“Being a good family doctor means listening. And to be a good musician you have to be inspired, and that always involves listening first,” he said.


“General practice is to adapt your communication style to your audience, whether that’s it [with] other specialists, patients, families or healthcare administrators.


“On the other hand, when someone makes music, it allows you to be your authentic self without compromise.”



“A Wonderful Companion”
Authenticity also radiates Dr. Pilbrow when describing the effect music has on him.


“Music is relaxing, stimulating, exciting, calming and so much more. When I’m working out, music is in my head, never through headphones, and it gives me drive and energy to keep going,” he said.


“When I’m working on a new piece of music, practice time is both a great time to rehearse ideas in my head and to let the music drive me.”


He also uses it to switch off.


“My favorite method of falling asleep is to get a tune in my head, ideally something fairly quiet, and slow it down to a crawl until it almost comes to a standstill,” he said.


“Usually when I wake up I realize I haven’t finished the tune.”


But music is more than just exercise and a sleep aid. It helped dr. Pilbrow also for getting through some of his most challenging moments, such as when he played Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Someone who will light up my life‘ after being diagnosed with prostate cancer.


“In addition to its romantic theme, it has a very uplifting, hopeful vibe,” he said.


“In that moment as I drove away I decided this would be my victory tune and played it to my wife after I told her the news and that anthem held its special place for both of us.


‘Music is a wonderful companion.’


Both Dr. Pham as well as Dr. Pilbrow take the time to create music that will replenish their mental, emotional and physical health. They see brilliance in the duality of science and art and are proof that dual careers are possible.


dr Pilbrow continues to play and compose on a piano given to him anonymously days before radiation treatment began.


“It was a great gift and a total surprise for which I am incredibly grateful. It’s a pleasure to play,” he said.


“Music is like an adventure and I like to go where the music takes me.”



This article is part of a series about family doctors with parallel careers. Anyone interested in telling their story is encouraged to get in touch filip.vukasin@racgp.org.au



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