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A Fiddling Physician

To say that medical training is a big commitment would be an understatement. As an older non-traditional student, the undertaking also meant giving up a life in California that I had already worked to establish, including a prior career and a beloved home and community. Complicating the decision further, in my case, was the fact that I knew I was deciding between time spent playing fiddle and time spent studying. Luckily, I had plenty of time to come to terms with that predicament as I slowly waded through pre-requisite night classes.

I’m in my last year of medical school now, busy preparing for residency interviews in emergency medicine and excited about being a resident soon. I really do love emergency department work. And looking back, it seems like I did get to play some music in medical school after all.

Playing for a dear friend’s wedding on a farm in Pennsylvania. September 2016.

I had gotten some contacts from people back home in California before I came out here. A friend of a friend had a friend who was a mandolin player in Ann Arbor. He kindly invited me to a weekly jam in his garage, and we quickly became fast friends. I got to know and play with his talented circle of musicians.

Playing at Johnny’s Speakeasy, a unique venue in Ann Arbor. October 2016.

There are some nice venues for bluegrass and related genres in the Ann Arbor area. Some spots to check out for this type of music are The Ark, Chelsea Alehouse Brewery, Old Town Tavern, Johnny’s Speakeasy and the Detroit Street Filling Station. There are also a number of traditional music festivals in the summer in Michigan.

As a pre-clinical student, my schedule was laid out for me in advance, so I was able to take some gigs and fit in a little practice time here and there.

A rainy day at Holler Fest with The Emergency Bluegrass System. August 2016.

Double fiddles at the Chelsea Alehouse Brewery with my friend Aaron Jonah Lewis. February 2017. Photo: http://www.lifeinmichigan.com/emergency-bluegrass-system-chelsea-alehouse-brewery/

M3 clerkships were a different story. We usually got our schedules on the first day of the rotation, so I couldn’t plan on taking any gigs. Nor did I have time to keep up my chops or learn new material. Sleep was a commodity.

M4 year has so far been a mixed bag for music. This year alone, I have spent time in Michigan, Mexico, California, Colorado and Colombia. I have worked in six different hospitals in the last six months. While this travel schedule has certainly made for limited playing opportunities in many ways, I was able to spend two of those months working on a multidisciplinary project of my own, supported by University of Michigan Medical School’s Medical Humanities Path of Excellence.

Together with a talented collaborator I recruited from the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance Performance Arts Technology program, we designed and built a brain-computer interface and biofeedback tool using an open-source electroencephalogram (EEG), incorporating real-time digital signal processing of EEG data into electronic and improvised music in live performances. Basically, that means I get to play the violin and DJ with my brain at the same time. Combining my background in music performance and engineering with medical school neuroscience and access to U-M’s diverse resources allowed me to make this concept a reality. We named our act Brain Command.

Beta test of the brain-computer interface at the Kerrytown Concert House. December 2016.

Brain Command at a house concert in Ann Arbor. March 2018. Photo: Aisling Zhao

While I am committed to prioritizing my residency training over playing music, it would be lying to say that it is not a little hard to see my friends getting to play gigs that I am no longer available for, or that I might not be able to hack right now. I guess I just focus on making peace with the idea that maybe I can’t do everything I want to do all at the same time. I have been blessed to get to play as much as I have in the past and will be happy to get back to it when I am finished with my medical training, as a full-fledged fiddling physician.

Andy Eggleston is a fourth-year medical student at the University of Michigan Medical School. Her interests include emergency medicine, playing music, and creative cooking projects.