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Dr. Douglas Angel

Dr. Douglas Angel
How The RCM Prepared a University Professor for a Career as a Surgeon 
“I am constantly using skills learned in the music world in my day-to-day life” 

Dr. Douglas Angel is a surgeon, and a clinical Assistant Professor of Otolaryngology (an area of medicine that deals with the management of head and neck conditions) at Memorial University in Newfoundland. He’s also an alumnus of the RCM Certificate Program. We caught up with Doug to talk about how music education helped to shape his life, and the similarities between music and medicine. 


When did you start taking music lessons? 

My first exposure to music was likely as a toddler, just prior to having been enrolled in music lessons. My grandfather was very fond of classical music and would often play music and sing at any family gatherings. 

I started taking music lessons through the Music For Young Children program when I was five years old. My parents thought that learning music was important for development as a child and adolescent and would instill and foster many life skills. I’m sure they agree that music had the potential to open many doors (as it did) down the road and as I got older. I’m very fortunate to have started piano at such a young age. 

My first private music teacher was Sally Rowsell. She’s currently teaching in Ottawa. She was absolutely fantastic. She was very encouraging to my development as a performer, and extremely attentive. She was very passionate about piano and teaching, and certainly a big reason I continued down that path. 

What made you decide to stick to studying music as a child? 

There were times I became incredibly frustrated when learning new pieces and would want to give up on it. As I grew as a performer, obviously more time needed to be put into practicing outside of lessons, and this was also a challenge given the other extracurricular activities I was enrolled in. I really have my Mom to thank for being extremely supportive and encouraging when those moments happened. Without her support, I doubt I would have continued with piano as long and far as I did. 

What benefits did you draw from the experience of taking RCM exams?  

I think it’s extremely important to set goals and achieve them. The process is just as important as the result (in many areas of life), and I think preparing and taking the exams teaches many life skills. When looking back, I think that setting a long-term goal, such as taking a RCM exam, and then achieving it really helps one grow as both a performer and an individual.  

Was there a time in your life when you wanted to abandon music study? How did you work through the associated challenges?  

I certainly thought about it occasionally as I got towards the end of high school. I had many interests, and music study at that point required a significant amount of work and time. I also developed a bit of a worry about performing, as there were a few performances I had at that point that didn’t go overly well. Regardless, I had many mentors who were encouraging and pushed me to keep performing and nurtured my talent: Susan Quinn, Susan Knight, Tim Steeves, Sally Rowsell and Tom Gordon were all incredibly supportive.  

You studied music at the undergraduate level – how did that experience benefit you?  

I can’t say enough good about the School of Music at Memorial University (then or now). It’s an amazing place with wonderful teachers, mentors, and students. It was a tight-knit community, with so much to offer and I have very fond performing and social memories of those years. I think you learn so much in music school that really helps one develop as an individual. You do not “only learn music.” Many life skills are taught both directly and indirectly, and they are instilled over that period of time. I think that at times, you didn’t even realize it. 

You ended up moving from music to medicine – quite a shift! How did your experiences as a music student prepare you for a career in medicine? 

Certainly on paper it seems like a big shift. However, there are more similarities between these two fields than one might realize. I can’t talk enough about how my experience in the music world and as a music student prepared me for my medical career. I’ve given a number of presentations on this topic, and it always seems to be well received. In music school and as a music student, to be successful, you have to be disciplined, manage your time well and be open to constructive criticism at very early stage. After you finish music school, the foundation has really been laid for one to do any career; whether it be continuing in music or any other professional degree. Time management skills are imperative in both music and medicine and both careers take exceptional discipline and dedication. These important foundational skills that I learned in music really prepared me well for medical school. 

How has your music experience informed your work as a doctor, and how would you say your work as a doctor has informed your approach to music?  

I think I am constantly using skills learned in the music world in my day-to-day life as a surgeon. As an example, mentally preparing for a big operation the next day is similar to preparing for a big performance. I often refer to surgery as a performance science and often teach this to resident trainees, as well. This really involves breaking traditional thinking and shifting our views by looking at success in surgery not in terms of just the outcome, but by the process of the entire operation. In music, it’s never about the final note, so to speak. It’s about the entire experience. I think shifting thinking from the “what” of surgery (the outcome – remove this organ/treat this disease) to the “how” of surgery; the performance and what we can do better in this process would allow for a better experience for both our patients and colleagues. Another theme I often focus on is to avoid becoming complacent. A career in music is constantly evolving and you are constantly changing and improving. Plateaus are simply unacceptable. I think this is an important reminder for us as physicians. Medicine is a constantly evolving field, and we really all need to continue to strive and improve. 
I’ll share a quick quote from an article written in 2003 comparing Yo-Yo Ma, Wayne Gretzky and a famous neurosurgeon, Charlie Wilson: “Music is one of the few vocations that offer a kind of sensory and cognitive immersion similar to surgery: the engagement of hand and eye, the challenge of sustained performance, the combination of mind and motion – all of it animated occasionally by the full force of the imagination”. 

How do you balance life as a performer with life as a doctor?  

Music and performing outside of work are definitely a nice outlet away from the busy world of medicine. To be honest, I don’t perform too often, and it’s usually on a weekend with one of the few bands that I still play in. So, it’s easy enough to manage it. I really enjoy being involved with numerous festivals around town, as well as being on the Music School Advisory Board. It’s a way to give back to the music world, as I’ve gotten so much from it.  

A few years back, you performed with Julia Halfyard, one of your patients. In some sense, it must have felt like coming full circle.  

This was an incredibly special experience, and we did it to a full house! Julia is a professional and very well known local/national singer that had a potentially devastating diagnosis as a singer; thyroid cancer. The recurrent laryngeal nerve (the nerve that innervates the muscles that move the vocal folds) can be at risk of injury, especially in extensive thyroid cancer cases with nodal involvement. Fortunately, Julia did remarkably well, and we tested out her vocal function to its extreme that night. She was spectacular and I think the audience thoroughly enjoyed it. It was part of a benefit concert called “Music is Medicine” where we put on a variety show involving members of the medical and professional musical community. 

What would you say to those considering learning an instrument – or a career in music – but who have doubts?  

Just do it! You have nothing to lose. The process of learning an instrument alone, no matter what stage of life, teaches you so much and really can be fulfilling. 

There is no life without music and it’s part of our every day lives, no matter who you are. I’ll simply quote Plato, “Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything”. 

Learn more about the RCM Certificate Program here.