14 July 2015
Mixing music with medicine
Darwin-based composer Cathy Applegate writes about her two professions, and how working as a doctor helps to keep her grounded. This article was originally published on Applegate's blog. Applegate is currently busy convening an Australian Doctors' Orchestra concert in Darwin in June 2016 and composing a new work for this event. Another project for 2016 is the ballet The Brolga and the Star for performance by the Palmerston Ballet School, Darwin, late in 2016.
There was a time when I questioned my credentials as a composer. After all, working as a doctor in general practice was the day job that paid my bills and how others defined me. I've come to think differently about that over time, and that in turn has brought me a certain internal peace. Because I am, and always have been, a composer.
It was only relatively recently that I've come to appreciate that it is a rarity for individuals to work solely as a composer; most composers have other paid work of some description, and that has long been the case throughout history. Myths abound around this subject.
It only takes a quick look through a few famous composers' biographies to realise that many held down other jobs. Sometimes these parallel occupations were not connected in any way to music; sometimes they were in related fields, such as performance or teaching. I suspect there was often a deliberate choice around life balance; for many it would have been a necessity.
It would not be true to say that I haven't had regrets. If I had truly followed my heart, I would have pursued a career solely in music, and indeed, now, I find myself gravitating more and more in that direction. But, looking back, the balance of working as a doctor and composer has mostly worked for me and maybe fate knew something that I didn't; maybe this mix was right for me. Medicine and music do seem to exist in some sort of natural harmony.
As I write these words, I reflect on all the life experiences I have had through the world of medicine; because this is a job where you see life in all its raw and naked truth - all the joys, sorrows, and dramas that are part of the human experience: I have delivered babies and I have held the hand of the dying at the other end of life; I have felt the elation of saving a life in an emergency and felt the pain of failure in a situation where life was unsalvageable; I have had the privilege of being invited into the most vulnerable and private aspects of people's lives.
Working as a doctor keeps me grounded and part of me wonders if without it I would become an absent-minded-professor-type, wandering around in a creative daze. Because I can be like this at times. The creative state for me is trance-like and I think I need to have something concrete to bring me back to earth and get me out of my own head.
For me, life experience informs creativity. I am inspired by the things I love about life, especially the beauty of the natural world; but people and their interactions are equally inspiring. Medicine has taught me about the resilience and kindness inherent in the majority of people. The journey with a patient through tough times can be emotional and draining, and this is where music has helped me tremendously.
Music - both performance and composition - is my elixir of life. It recharges my batteries and gives meaning to everything. I hope my compositions, in turn, bring beauty and meaning to others.
Cathy Applegate - AMC profile
© Australian Music Centre (2015) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
Cathy Applegate's work Piano Concertantrum was premiered by the Darwin Symphony Orchestra in March 2015, with Michael Kieran Harvey as soloist. She has composed numerous other works for individual soloists and ensembles and is increasingly involved in arranging and transcribing musical works. She has also written novels and picture books. Cathy Applegate works part-time in General Practice.
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