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David Geffen School of Medicine

The Music of Medicine

Dr. Tara McCannel- MedMag-S2012If a surgeon's hands are her most valuable tool, how much more so if that surgeon also is an award-winning concert pianist.

For Tara McCannel, M.D., Ph.D., both surgery and concertizing are exacting forms of performance that require discipline, dexterity and dedication and allow only one chance to get it right.

To achieve excellence in both requires deep commitment and an exquisite sense of balance, attributes that Dr. McCannel amply possesses. She is director of the UCLA Ophthalmic Oncology Center at the Jules Stein Eye Institute and a leading researcher and surgeon for diseases and disorders of and injuries to the retina. And she is a gold-medal recipient of the Royal Conservatory of Music of Toronto and has performed in concert halls around the world.

"In surgery, you can't be changing your mind halfway through," Dr. McCannel says. "You have to know in advance what you're going to do and be purposeful to get a good result. The same is true for music. When I approach a piece, I don't just play it. I want it to sound a certain way and convey my emotions about the piece to my listener."

One Monday, Dr. McCannel performs nine operations on patients with melanomas of the eye. Then in the evening, she returns home, still dressed in her blue surgical scrubs, to spend time with her 3-month-old son before sitting down at the bench of her Yamaha baby grand piano. While her husband, Colin McCannel, M.D., also a UCLA retina surgeon, cradles their baby in his arms, she allows her fingers to hover over the keys for several moments "to get in the mood" for music.

With perfect form, deep concentration and great emotion, she warms up with her favorite piece, "Oiseau Triste" by Ravel, before diving into Dvorak's "Bagatelle" and Chopin's "First Piano Ballade" — two pieces that she would perform for colleagues at a conference of the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.

Dr. McCAnnel started playing piano at age 5 while growing up in Vancouver, Canada. Encouraged by a teacher who was impressed by her early aptitude, Dr. McCannel took daily lessons and awakened as early as 4 a.m. to play the piano so she wouldn't have to take turns with her younger sister.

She played and competed throughout her adolescence, winning the coveted Royal Conservatory of Music of Toronto's gold medal in 1990, an honor bestowed on just one pianist a year in Canada. She won the opportunity to play Tchaikovsky's "First Piano Concerto" with the University of Toronto Orchestra and considered pursuing music professionally. But, she says, she ultimately chose a career in medicine after realizing her "soul wouldn't die" without music.

"I had a teacher who said when you go into music as your primary career, it's not a choice. It has to be your calling," Dr. McCannel says. "I'm passionate about music, but, to be honest, I know I could live without it. So I decided to do as much music as I can while pursuing another career."

Medicine was a natural choice for her. The daughter of a urologist, Dr. McCannel grew up accompanying her father on rounds, and she enjoyed hearing stories about his patients. She attended medical school at the University of Toronto, so she could take music lessons at the nearby conservatory. And she chose to specialize in ophthalmic surgery, because the field afforded her time to pursue music as well.

She would like for her son to have a formal music education, so he can learn to read music and play an instrument, but she worries that today's teachers defer too much to catering to children's busy schedules and pleasing the parents. "When I was a kid, my teacher was the boss," Dr. McCannel says. "That's just how it was. You did the work. There were tears. But if she wanted me to spend the weekend with her filing music sheets, I did it."

While she has composed a life around her twin passions of music and medicine, there is one place where Dr. McCannel doesn't allow the two to mix: the operating room.

"When I'm in surgery, I am very intense," Dr. McCannel says. "I don't allow music playing, and no chitchat. We're here to get the job done in the most efficient way. I don't allow any distractions."

But outside of the O.R., "music has always been a huge part of my life," she says. "I really appreciate that I have an opportunity to do it while also practicing medicine." - Kim Kowsky



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