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Sunday, February 9, 2014

Learning Surgery from a Master Musician

By Donald F. Smith, Cornell University
Posted February 9, 2014

Glenn Gould was a household name while I was growing up in Ontario. A child prodigy classical pianist, he was well-known throughout Canada while still a teenager. When he arrived in New York City in 1955 in his early twenties and recorded the previously obscure Goldberg Variations (Bach, 1741), he became an overnight sensation and from that moment onward, was recognized one of the greatest classical musicians of the 20th century.

Gould was 17 years my senior, and besides a love of music, I had little in common with him except perhaps the desire to seek refuge in nature. As a young child, I aspired to be a pianist myself, but I realized by the age of eleven that it was well beyond my reach. I nonetheless continued to follow Gould's career closely. Though I didn't realize it at the time, his understanding and interpretation of J.S. Bach, especially the contrapuntal form, and his ability to perform it in ways that were unique, unusually creative, and breathtakingly masterful, was to have an enormous impact on my professional career.

More than any other person, Gould's recorded performances taught me more about the art of surgical technique (I would become a boarded surgeon), and later how to lead a college as dean. Though I never met him, Glenn Gould would become my most important mentor. To this day, I return to his music episodically, sometimes listening to recordings over and over again.

Among the tributes at his death in 1982--he was just fifty years old when he suffered a fatal stroke--is one that I always thought personally relevant. It was that of a heart surgeon in London, who "made it a practice to operate only after he and his patient had both listened to Gould recordings." (Otto Friedrich, Glenn Gould, 1989)

What is it with Glenn Gould, the man whose interpretation of Bach was selected to be placed on the Voyager spacecraft in 1977 so that potential forms of life some 500,000 years from now could understand life on earth?

In this blog, I describe what I consider to the relevance to surgical technique.

Photo from the back cover of Glenn Gould. A Life and Variations,
by Otto Friedrich, Random House, NY 1989
(Photo by the author)
If you watch recordings of Gould perform pieces like the Goldberg Variations, you are struck by the independent power of each of his fingers.You immediately are overwhelmed by the strength, the power, and clarity of sound that is generated by the normally weak fourth and fifth fingers of the non-dominant hand (the left, for him and most of us). His childhood friend, and later a woman whom he loved and who loved him, talked about how the strength of his "weak" fingers was simply amazing, yielding a powerful and fully-united force in all of his fingers.

Second, you note the independence of his fingers, each working dynamically as a completely separate machine, yet creating a horizontal energy that produces a linear flow of music. In his later years, Gould commented upon Bach's ability to combine the linear contrapuntal flow that looks back to the Baroque period, with the horizontal harmonic sound of the coming romantic era. More on that in a subsequent story of how Gould's interpretations formed the basis for my administrative style as dean.

Finally, you notice that the position of his seat, several inches closer to the floor than the average pianist, forces his elbows into an acute angle and his hands appear like claws hanging over the keyboard. As unkempt as the appearance is to the first-time observer, what this position demonstrates is the strength of the hands and fingers, whether working separately or together.

These strengths, and the independence and codependence of the fingers, didn't just happen. As a teenager, Gould would routinely practice with his mentor, Alberto Guerreo, late into the night, often past two or three in the morning. His was an amazing example of the love and interpretation of musical sound, coupled with the development of manual dexterity at the highest level.

The best surgical trainees, whether in human or veterinary medicine, spend several years mastering operative technique and manual dexterity at the side of master surgeons. A sinlge hour watching Gould playing Bach would be a wonderful supplement.

One hundred hours could very well change your life, and in more ways than surgical technique. It did mine.

Dr. Smith welcomes comments at