My Second Career: How I Made the Leap from Surgeon to Violin Student

By Dan Guyton | From the January/February 2020 issue of Strings Magazine

Wearing a black suit, starched white shirt, and purple tie, I was sitting upright, holding my violin and bow at attention, as our conductor, Tom Riccobono, described to the audience the two movements of Dvořák’s 8th we were about to play. Quickly my eyes surveyed the scene: the concertmaster, across the podium to the violas, cellos, and basses, over to the winds, the percussionists, and then my eyes returned to the violins.

Memories like an old Kodak carousel flashed across the black stand: my first violin, sporadic lessons, passing teachers and intermittent practice, my current teacher and her studio. And here I was, about to play for the first time with a full symphony orchestra! Tom’s baton was in the air. All 70 plus members of the orchestra wore the same expression—one of confidence and optimism: clear eyes, full heart, can’t lose. Tom hit the downbeat and off we went!

First Career

Eight years ago, as a new member of a large volunteer community orchestra, I never envisioned this experience. At that time, I remained very active in my first career as a busy surgeon. It was a vocation filled with the simple gratification of helping those in need. I loved it. But caring for patients, while bearing a heavy administrative load within the hospital and medical school, left little time for other interests. I listened to music daily while commuting and often heard beautiful melodies played by masters such as Isaac Stern, Pinchas Zukerman, and Anne-Sophie Mutter. Often I thought how wonderful it would be to play with such passion and sensitivity.

Yet I had attempted this once before only to reach a dead end.

I had once received a violin for Christmas, and answered a classified ad from a teacher offering lessons. While I enjoyed the instruction, I simply could not commit the time needed to progress. By first-career necessity, my scheduled lessons were canceled. By fatigue, practice became frustratingly intermittent. My violin interest slowly extinguished.


Several years later, as I approached retirement, I began to wonder how to spend my newfound time. I read many articles stressing the importance of engaging in some form of creative activity to help maintain mental acuity. But I was hesitant to resume violin, for I did not wish to repeat the frustration of my first experience. 

I searched for a more goal-oriented teaching program. By chance an article appeared in Strings magazine about the New Horizons organization. Begun in 1991 at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music, this nation-wide program is specifically designed for adults who wanted to or had once played a musical instrument. A new semester was about to begin at nearby Baldwin Wallace University so I enrolled. I took a seat in the back, the music was distributed, and we began. 

I was immediately, hopelessly lost. I had no idea where in the music the string-only ensemble was playing. Words annotating the arrangements, like “pizzicato” and “arco,” were as foreign to me as “serosa” and “submucosa” might be to someone without any surgical knowledge. I pretty much just sat for the reminder of the session. I left feeling pretty dejected.

Did I really have the desire to try again? After much mental back and forth, I had to acknowledge it was just not in my nature to abandon a challenge. My goal would be to simply become the best I could be. I repeated that mantra many times and grew excited. My determination was rekindled. I was about to embark on much more than creative mental experience. Playing violin was to become my second career.


Second Career

Fortunately, my New Horizons teachers helped me over the initial learning hump. I happily completed several semesters largely playing arrangements of popular melodies. Learning to play at tempo with the orchestra was (and remains) a real challenge, and has provided personal fulfillment and an excellent foundation.

For me, musical progress would be measured in baby steps, uphill into the wind. I was working hard, for I had a huge amount of knowledge to assimilate and foreign skills to learn. I was careful not to set unrealistic goals. I was not a child prodigy, had no background in music theory, and clearly had not attended a music conservatory. My aspiration was simply to become the best I could be. With this objective, I began taking regular lessons at the New Music School with Sam Sharp. I learned the importance of intonation and played a few solo pieces for our class recitals.

I relocated semi-fulltime to beautiful Northern Michigan, serendipitously close to Interlochen Arts Academy. Known worldwide for teaching excellence in all types of artistic endeavors, Interlochen offers a boarding school for high school students, summer camps, and a variety of courses year-round for adults. My teacher here is Renee Skerik. Simply put, she is so inspiring. For the first time I am learning not only how to play the violin but how to be a violinist. I have discovered the many similarities between the education of a surgeon and that of a violinist, beginning with the shared foundation of time, desire, and teaching.


Our orchestra, the Benzie Area Symphony, is composed of retired professional musicians and members with far more experience and training than I have. So I must practice and practice. 

But back to our performance. My eyes were now on Tom as he dropped his hands to close the piece. In unison we stopped on a dime. Applause filled the auditorium. I quickly stole a congratulatory glance at the violinists on either side. So many emotions soared: happiness, excitement, relief—what feelings! All impossible without Renee’s superb instruction. I couldn’t wait to do it again. I have the desire, the time, and a great teacher.

This is my second career, and it is, indeed, very different from my first. But it is also a career I love.