The perfect score

Sophie McNamara
Med J Aust
Published online: 6 August 2012

Music helps Dr Rowan Thomas to escape the pressures of medicine

Dr Rowan Thomas has a busy and stressful job as deputy director of the department of anaesthesia at St Vincent’s Hospital, Melbourne, but he has a dependable antidote — his violin.

“Medicine has its own creative rewards, but it’s important to relax in a way where you can escape from some of the things that you worry about”, he says. “When I play music I think ‘well, at least I’ve got a roof over my head’. It puts things in perspective.”

Dr Thomas is president of the Australian Doctors Orchestra, a group of medical professionals who are also classically trained musicians.

Eligibility requirements are tough — members not only need to be medically qualified, but also must have reached at least grade 8 in their chosen instrument.

Many members also have Doctor of Music degrees, the highest academic award in music, and about one-third have completed their LMus (Licentiate Diploma in Music).

Despite the high standards, the orchestra has more than 600 doctors and medical students on its books.

About 150 players are expected at their next concert, at Melbourne Town Hall on 16 September, which will feature renowned violinist Natsuko Yoshimoto playing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. The event is being sponsored by health care supply company, B Braun, with proceeds to be donated to Australian Rotary Health. (More information is available at

Dr Thomas says it’s exciting to play with such a superb violinist as Ms Yoshimoto, who has performed solo at Buckingham Palace for the UK royal family and has played with numerous orchestras worldwide.

Dr Thomas also regularly attends Chamber Music Summer Schools, held every year at Mt Buller in Victoria, where Ms Yoshimoto has worked as a tutor.

It was at one of these summer schools, in January 1993, that the first steps were taken to create the Australian Doctors Orchestra. While there, Dr Thomas met Dr Miki Pohl, a plastic surgeon who had always wanted to start an orchestra for doctors, and Mr Christopher Martin, a viola player and conductor.

After hearing Dr Thomas play, Dr Pohl decided to establish the orchestra, initially by contacting all his medical musician friends. He asked Dr Thomas to be the orchestra’s first concert master, a position he held for 18 years until two years ago when he became orchestra president.

Dr Thomas began playing viola when he was 15 years old, after his high school music teacher noticed that he picked up Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star on his first attempt, and urged him to pursue the instrument. He joined the school orchestra and was playing grade 6 pieces within months.

He switched to the violin when he was 20 years old, having already worked through most of the viola repertoire, under the guidance of some talented teachers.

Dr Thomas kept up his music practice while studying medicine at Monash University, and started a string orchestra and string quartets, often with other doctors, many of whom now play in the Australian Doctors Orchestra.

He took a year off after 3rd year of medical school to study music in Toowoomba, Queensland, with violinist Spiros Rantos. At the end of the year, Dr Thomas performed the Bruch Violin Concerto on Brisbane radio and has since regularly played with amateur orchestras.

At medical school, Dr Thomas says he often felt different from the students who didn’t have music as part of their lives, but that changed with the Australian Doctors Orchestra.

“In the orchestra, you feel as though you’ve found 150 soulmates and that you are part of a group, and not that unusual anymore”, he says.

Dr Thomas, who has been at St Vincent’s since 1998, also has a Masters of Public Health and a Graduate Certificate in Health Informatics. He has chaired the Victorian Regional Committee of the Australian and New Zealand College of Anaesthetists.

He thinks one reason many doctors are musicians is that they often enjoy setting goals and achieving new things.

“It’s just part and parcel of wanting to achieve, engage and develop a special skill”, he says.

Dr Thomas also notes that doctors tend to enjoy classical music, while lawyers prefer jazz. While still honing this theory, he says: “Perhaps part of it is that doctors are trying to find the truth, while lawyers would say that anything can be argued”.

  • Sophie McNamara



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