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GPs with double lives: Musicians


Filip Vukasin


24/11/2022 4:48:53 PM

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

GPs Dr Simon Pilbrow and Dr Tu Pham
GPs Dr Simon Pilbrow and Dr Tu Pham operate at different ends of the musical spectrum.

Everyone listens to music in one form or another – at a concert, during surgery, dropping the kids off at school or via annoyingly catchy advertising jingles. However, not everyone can create it.
 
Even fewer can do so while simultaneously pursuing one of the most demanding careers in today’s society. It’s what makes Dr Tu Pham – a GP in Brisbane who also writes songs and raps – and Dr Simon Pilbrow – a Rosebud GP, composer and jazz pianist – all the more special.
 
Both doctors spoke to newsGP about weaving medicine and music, making time for it and how their creative pursuits affect change.
 
How it all began
Dr Pham was about 14 years old when he first started listening to hip hop, which was popular in the refugee community he grew up in.
 
‘I was drawn to 2Pac as he used music as a medium to effect social change,’ he said.
 
Dr Pham adopted a similar recording name – Tu P – and raps about a wide range of topics including organ donation, addiction, refugees and discrimination. He has recorded two albums and performed overseas and locally.
 
‘The subject matter of my songs can be quite confronting, which is part and parcel with the authenticity required to partake in hip hop,’ he said.
 
‘But my songs are a reflection – rather than a glorification – of the problems and how we can overcome them.’
 
He has taught young doctors, worked at headspace and spent time in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and rural communities, all of which has informed his music.
 
‘General practice gives me the chance to see how socio-political and cultural issues affect the health and wellbeing across all strata of our society, which gives me a fresh perspective to discuss in my lyrics,’ he said.
 
‘Although general practice is busy, it gives me weekends and regular hours to be able to pursue music after hours.
 
‘After my clinic hours and CPD are completed, I spend most of my spare time writing lyrics, recording music and videos, liaising with other artists, creating online content and dancing Zouk.’
 
Dr Pilbrow also devotes much of his spare time to music, which was hard when he started in general practice and had a young family, but has become easier over time.
 
‘One of the reasons that influenced my choice to pursue general practice, rather than surgery, was the notion that I would have more spare time as a GP compared to a specialist. This was a pipe dream,’ he said.
 
‘Working as a GP in Rosebud has been very busy. [It’s still] rewarding and fun … but I think the reality is that GP life is as busy as many specialties.
 
‘It is hard to balance all of life’s demands. Work and family have to come before other passions, and so it has not been easy to create regular disciplined space for music.’
 
Yet despite the challenges and time constraints, Dr Pilbrow did not give up. He even spent one semester studying music at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, before returning to Australia and commencing his medical studies in 1980.
 
‘During my undergraduate years I was involved in 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 full time into general practice, the after-hours, on-call load was demanding and I had to prioritise our young family, so there were seven years when I played no gigs. I made time to keep practicing the piano and kept my chops in shape, but there was little time to write music.
 
‘Once the kids were a little older, I resumed playing jazz gigs, mainly around the Mornington Peninsula in wineries and other local venues.’
 
Hitting the high notes
The hard work and dedication paid off. Dr Pilbrow has performed overseas, written several hundred jazz compositions, a number of which are housed in the US Library of Congress, composed a string quartet for his son’s wedding and has written reviews of Los Angeles Jazz Institute festivals, published online.
 
He’s even worked with a Grammy-award winner.
 
‘[It] culminated in a recording at a Hollywood studio during 2017 of an album of my own compositions called Colours of Sound, featuring some legendary US jazz players … [and] musician/composer/arranger Brent Fischer,’ he said.
 
Music is made to be consumed. So, given both GPs have recorded albums which are available to stream or buy, surely patients have listened and commented?
 
‘A number of my patients have found my music online, either themselves or through hearing from friends who are patients of mine,’ Dr Pham said.
 
‘It does mean that I have to make sure my health messaging in my lyrics is consistent with what I am saying during my consults.’
 
Meanwhile, Dr Pilbrow says has even had groupies.
 
‘Over the years, many of my patients came along to our local jazz gigs and some were regular “groupies”,’ he said.
 
‘The CD has been warmly received by patients also and five years since its release, patients still mention that they still enjoy listening to it, which is nice.
 
‘I think my patients appreciate that their GP has a life outside medicine, although I suspect they wonder how I find time for it. My interest in music also creates a bridge between me and my patients, particularly for those who also have musical interests.’
 
Where music and general practice meet
Dr Pilbrow likes the duality of medicine and music and although he doesn’t see similarities between the two, they constantly weave through his life.
 
‘My musical life is suspended when I arrive at work and it resumes when I climb into my car, although it hovers in the background whatever I am doing because music is so pervasive, it is always there in the background,’ he said.
 
‘Being a GP is about people and at a practical level it is a service-orientated job. Music is obviously a creative pursuit but also involves people, both in collaborating to make music and in the audience who listen.
 
‘Both music and medicine require time, effort, discipline, learning and practicing a craft, but they are really quite different.
 
‘About the only similarity for me is that I am a 10-fingered typist, and so possibly typing all day long at work helps to maintain my piano playing chops.’
 
For Dr Pham, listening underscores both general practice and music.
 
‘Being a good GP involves listening. And being a good musician requires one to be inspired, and that always involves listening first,’ he said.
 
‘General practice involves tailoring your communication style to your audience, whether it is [with] other specialists, patients, families or health administrators.
 
‘When someone makes music, on the other hand, it allows one to unapologetically be their authentic self.’
 
‘A wonderful companion’
Authenticity also exudes from Dr Pilbrow as he describes music’s effects on him.
 
‘Music is relaxing, stimulating, exciting, soothing, and so much more. When I exercise, music is in my head, never via headphones, and provides impetus and energy for me to keep going,’ he said.
 
‘If I am working on a new piece of music, then the exercise time is both a great time to rehearse ideas in my head, and to let the music drive me on.’
 
He also uses it as a way of winding down.
 
‘My preferred method to get to sleep is to get a tune into my head, ideally something quite sedate, and slow it right down to a snail’s pace, till it almost grinds to a halt,’ he said.
 
‘Usually when I wake, I am aware that I didn’t finish the tune.’
 
But music is more than just and exercise and sleep aid. It also helped Dr Pilbrow get through some of his most challenging moments, such as when he listened Antonio Carlos Jobim’s ‘Someone to Light Up My Life’ after being diagnosed with prostate cancer.
 
‘It has a very uplifting, hopeful feel to it on top of its romantic theme,’ he said.
 
‘At 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 this anthem has held its special place for us both.
 
‘Music is a wonderful companion.’
 
Both Dr Pham and Dr Pilbrow make time to create music that replenishes their mental, emotional and physical health. They see splendor in the duality of science and art and are proof that double careers are possible.
 
Dr Pilbrow continues to play and compose on a piano gifted to him anonymously days before he commenced radiation treatment.
 
‘It was an amazing gift and a total surprise, for which I remain incredibly grateful. It is a joy 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 GPs with parallel careers. Anyone interested in telling their story is encouraged to contact filip.vukasin@racgp.org.au
 
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