A Life in Music: John F. Tisdale, MD

Senior Investigator in the Molecular and Clinical Hematology Section at the National Institutes of Health

John TisdaleJohn TisdaleWhere did your interest in music start?

There are two parts to my musical history: One is that I have spent a lot of time playing music throughout my life, and then, over the last two decades, I have been restoring pianos from the late 1700s and early 1800s.

Pianos were actually the first instrument I started playing – lessons were imposed upon me by my parents, which is probably everyone’s story. I didn’t like the piano then, so I managed to convince my parents that guitar lessons would be better. In high school, I started playing guitar with friends in bands, but it seemed like everyone needed a bass player, so I decided to teach myself bass.

As an undergraduate at the College of Charleston, I took on paying gigs whenever I could to pay for my tuition and living expenses. I played in country bands, rock bands, jazz bands, and even accompaniment for a musical. It was a lot of fun.

That’s actually how I ended up at Vanderbilt University for my residency. A drummer I met during that musical accompaniment gig was studying music business and recording engineering at Belmont College in Nashville. He had started a band and had just been signed to a record label, which was really exciting. I thought – naïvely – “Oh, if I go to Vanderbilt, I’m going to be able to play music and do my residency.”

I played once in those four years. I sat in for one set with a band at some dive bar on 8th Street in Nashville, and I didn’t pick up an instrument again until my fellowship at NIH with The Directors.

The Directors is a band made up of directors from the NIH Institutes: original members include Richard Klausner, MD, former director of the National Cancer Institute; Francis Collins, MD, current NIH director; and Stephen Katz, MD, PhD, former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Musculoskeletal Disease (NIAMS). They were missing a bass player, so I joined.

What type of events do you play with The Directors?

We have a habit of inviting ourselves to big events. For instance, when the first draft of the genome sequence was published in Nature, we invited ourselves to play at the celebration held at the National Museum Building in downtown Washington, DC. Our routine was to rewrite popular tunes to the theme of the event. There’s actually a funny story about that: John O’Shea, MD, the current scientific director at NIAMS, our guitarist, wrote some of the lyrics to one song, “We Really Got the Code on You” (sung to the tune of “You Really Got a Hold on Me”), which were attributed to Francis Collins and two others and published in Science. So, we joked that that was our first publication in Science, even though they left our names out!

We also ended up playing at the Kennedy Center – and we were actually invited! A Grammy Award-winning producer was putting together a night of music and celebration of science, and invited The Directors (which he renamed “The Rock Docs”) to play. That was a great event because, usually, playing the kind of music I’ve wanted to play, you don’t end up at the Kennedy Center.

When did you start restoring centuries-old pianos?

It might be more of an “affliction” than a hobby. … It started off through a love of antiques: I found an old piano, tried to make it work, and then, during my residency, apprenticed with someone who actually knew what he was doing. On weekends, I would help him with his restorations to gain experience. We’ve been great friends ever since.

At the moment, I have four restored pianos in my house, including the same model of piano that was gifted to Beethoven in 1817. I have given some away to close friends and family, and I have been known to trade a finished piano for a new “project” piano. It’s definitely an addiction, but it’s hard to complain about having so many beautiful pieces in the house. When you start working on them, they really tell you a story.

Are there skills you practice in your hobbies that translate to your medical career?

As a scientist, my practice relates to developing treatment strategies for patients with sickle cell disease, and meeting the day-to-day challenges of that work environment requires discipline and hard work. The same is true for being successful in playing music or restoring period instruments.

Creativity, as well, is necessary. I’ve noticed that there is a tremendous amount of musical talent in science. There must be something that links a desire to play music and be creative with a desire to do science and be creative in finding answers to challenging questions.

For me, the downtime that playing music or restoring period instruments provides is just as important. Restoring those instruments is a monotonous task – restringing the 61 to 73 notes found on these early pianos individually, with three strings per note, is a lot of the same thing over and over. The process of restoring a piano isn’t always “fun,” but it distances me from my daily work, and puts my brain into a space where it is freer to think about the questions that have stumped us in the lab and new ways to tackle those problems.

Sometimes, disengaging is the trick to moving forward. You can clear your mind and find yourself thinking about the problem without even realizing it. The instrument restoration has been quite good for that.

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