When did you first become interested in music?
I remember watching the old Bugs Bunny Looney Tunes cartoons when I was eight or so, and being more interested in the music than the cartoon.
What got you started?
My father and mother put me on the piano at a young age. I was able to read music – bass cleft and treble cleft very early in my life. I was able to work out the classical songs I was told to learn. I could hear a song and then play it on the piano. I would force myself to read the written music so I could better understand what the composer wanted.
How many instruments do you play?
I play 11 instruments: Four clarinets (B flat, E flat, C and Bass), three saxophones (tenor, soprano and alto), three flutes (C, alto and piccolo) and the piano.
How often do you play?
Every night for sure. I practice at least an hour, plus I have a small electric keyboard in my office on a desk on those late nights. Sometimes in between dictating medical notes a song will come to me, and I want to play it. To be a musician is to be a better listener than player.
Are you currently performing?
I am performing at a wedding in May with an accordionist from California, an alto sax friend, and drummer. I will be on clarinet and maybe a little piano. I am regularly playing for a synagogue. I very much like to do charity events, since music brings so much pleasure to people’s lives. Performing is hard since my time is so limited. Balancing my life is challenging, since I am still seeing 100 plus patients a week, operating and writing a weekly article for my family and friends.
Tell us some cool musical experiences you have had.
Mostly it has to do with “winging it” while I am on stage. For example, like the singer forgetting her lines. I was performing a Christmas Party and was told “DO NOT PLAY OVER THE SINGER, JUST BACK OFF THE FIRST SET AND DON’T SOLO!” by the band leader. Well as the people were walking in, the singer froze and forgot her lines. The Band Leader yelled over, “STEINGART PLAY IT, STOP SITTING AROUND!” (Reminded me of my residency days with Dr. Heithoff and Dr. Mrstik who kept me in line). Since I am always, always, prepared, I played and soloed the entire first 45 minutes. The singer later recouped, thanked me, and had a dazzling performance.
Another: I was in Boulder at a family wedding. I was asked to play the processional with a local group. I played the flute and put it away after the groom broke the glass (a custom in Jewish weddings), and then I went to the ballroom. The band they had was all electric, except for the drummer, and I grabbed a drink to catch up with my cousin. The band was playing great Motown and people were dancing. Unexpectedly a big storm came through and all the power went out. It was dark except for the emergency lighting, so we could see. The band leader, wedding planner, and parents of the bride and groom were at a loss since nobody planned for this to happen. Livia came up to me and said “Nobody knows when the power will come back on, get up and do something!”
I had already had a drink, so my mental faculties were slightly dulled when I said, “Ok” and grabbed her cousin Dan, an 80-year-old Vegas entertainer, to sing. I ordered the drummer on his feet, told him I wanted a 2/4 beat and never stop playing since I would not have silence. I retrieved my clarinet, which was brought in just in case the processional wanted another instrument. I began to play a set of fast dance music called horas (Klezmer). Dan sang some of the melodies, but got everyone involved, and we performed while over 200 guests danced until the lights went on 40 minutes later. Many people thought this was pre-meditated and a set up. They loved it. I overheard one of the band members comment, “Who comes in with a clarinet and entire repertoire? I can’t believe it.”
An event occurred in San Diego, when the hired band got stuck in traffic. Literally at the last minute the wedding planner needed to have an instrumentalist play for the processional. Livia’s sister knew I was playing the flute, but unfortunately my flute could not get to the lower register since it was broken. I played it anyway, and all went well. Bride and groom are happily married some 15 years later.
I have also dropped my music on the stage, missed solo opportunities, and broke some springs on my sax, having to switch to an instrument I never had rehearsed.
But my biggest thrill is playing at home on the piano. Many evenings as our 3 young children at the time were in bed, Livia would insist, “Stop playing! The kids are trying to sleep!” When I stopped, inevitably one of those “sleeping” darlings would shout out, “Dad keep playing I can’t fall asleep if you stop”, so I played the nights away.
How does music affect or enhance your life?
By studying music, I focus on things that I can control. I don’t listen to all the noise out there trying to distract what is really important in life. Music always has something to say, it is a universal language. Most everybody listens. Just like music, medicine has many distractions. We, as doctors, cannot usually control the circumstances of the situation since our paradigm is so much more different than the patient, the lawyer, the insurance company, or the hospital. Music allows me to better react to that. In music I must be able to navigate chords, work around technically difficult passages, and sometimes just back off. Medicine has similar properties: knowing how to navigate the health with patients, work around difficult problems they may have, and knowing when the treatment proposed will be effective. Music allows me to hear harmonious and unharmonious sounds mixed together. Medicine too, mixes and matches, by knowing that every individual we treat has their own voice, their own sound and beat. Therefore, I have many “tools” in my medical bag. These tools facilitate me, as a doctor, to better treat the patient; just like I have a mixed bag of instruments to play. Music makes me a better doctor.
I was asked one day by a musician friend, “How can you just get up and play? Aren’t you nervous?” I answered, “In my day job I’m an orthopedic surgeon, I take care of patients. If I make a mistake in surgery I could hurt someone, cause bleeding, or an injury to a nerve. But up here on stage, so what if I miss a note, or pass a beat? Do you think someone is going to sue me?”
I have speakers in all the rooms in my office, so when I see a patient who is not feeling well I will ask, “What is your favorite type of music?” I then will change the station. By the time the patient leaves, at least I see a smile or get a thank you. Like that Alka Seltzer commercial, “Try it You May Like It”.
Dr. Michael Steingart graduated from the Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine, completed his orthopedic residency training at Garden City Osteopathic Hospital, and completed a Sports Fellowship at the University of Arizona. He lives in Phoenix with Livia, his wife of 40 years, where they raised three children, Leia, Arthur and Rose.