From the Keys to the Seas: Arthur Topilow, MD

Arthur Topilow, MD
Dr. Topilow was formerly director of Hematology/Medical Oncology at the Jersey Shore University Medical Center. Retired from clinical practice, he now runs a premedical student internship, offers guidance for writing medical papers, and has his own liquid biopsy research program.

In this edition of pASHions, Arthur Topilow, MD, tells ASH Clinical News about his lifelong love of playing the piano – from performing at mountain resorts in the Catskills as a teenager to playing with professional orchestras – and racing sailboats.

How long have you been playing the piano?

I started taking lessons when I was 8 years old. One of my cousins had started to play, and I told my parents, “I can play better than that.” I started with an inexpensive, used upright piano, and played in student recitals. I was competitive, so by my second year of lessons, I was playing in the coveted last or next-to-last position at the recitals. I’m still competitive, but now I compare myself with the giants of jazz piano, which is a slightly higher standard!

Dr. Topilow at Steinway Hall in October 2009.

Did you grow up in a musical household?

My parents didn’t play, but playing a musical instrument was required in our household. Also, I grew up in Bayonne, New Jersey, which was a very musical town at the time. A lot of Broadway performers and NBC Symphony Orchestra members lived there and commuted to New York City.

My younger brother, Carl, is a clarinetist and full-time conductor. I’ve recorded four CDs along with Carl and professional musicians from New Jersey and Cleveland. We have performed together many times, including with Carl’s Cleveland Pops Orchestra at Severance Hall in Cleveland, Ohio on New Year’s Eve.

Walk us through your career as a professional pianist. Where did you start performing?

When I was 15, I played in bars in Union City, New Jersey, and was later hired to work for the summer at a bungalow colony in the Catskill Mountains. On weekends, I played for shows and dances; on weekdays, I cleaned the pool. Not many full-time professional musicians could take an entire summer off to work in the Catskills, so they hired me, a student. For the next six summers, I played at mountain resorts six nights per week, four to six hours per night. The most interesting gig was playing for strippers at one of the hotels. By that time, I was 17 or 18.

Dr. Topilow with Dick Hyman

I truly learned how to perform during those summers. When you play with professional musicians, you either learn quickly or get fired.

Which performances are you particularly proud of? Why?

I’m fortunate to have performed nationally and internationally, in solo performances and with fantastic professional musicians. That includes doing two U.S. State Department–sponsored tours in Italy, which included six concerts with my brother on clarinet. As a just-married intern, I played the “Rhapsody in Blue” piano concerto with the Doctors Orchestral Society of New York. I’ve played the “Brandenburg Concerto No. 6” with a string orchestra in Manhattan; the Schumann piano concerto with the Garden State Philharmonic Orchestra at Asbury Park Convention Hall in New Jersey; and the César Franck violin and piano sonata and Brahms “Violin Sonata No. 1” at local venues. Another highlight was my solo concert at Steinway Hall in New York City in October 2009.

I’ve also played with a 30-piece orchestra for actress and Broadway star Bernadette Peters in front of 2,000 people in Cleveland and for comedian Joe Piscopo in a concert hall in Monmouth County, New Jersey.

At the request of the ASH Foundation Committee, of which I was a member for five years, I played at ASH annual meeting functions, either solo or with local professional musicians from the host cities.

Finally, I’m grateful for the opportunity to play at the 92nd Street Y, initially in three jazz piano master classes with Dick Hyman and Derek Smith as the instructors, and then in the main concert hall there with other professional jazz pianists and musicians. I also played with Dick in three two-hour long duo piano concerts at the Axelrod Performing Arts Center, also in Monmouth County, for 350 people. Dick is acknowledged by professional pianists to be one of the greatest jazz pianists ever. For me, it was like winning the World Series of jazz piano.

Where do you play most often?

I play in various venues in Monmouth County, New Jersey, which have included several concerts in the Count Basie Theater with the 20-piece Red Bank Jazz Orchestra. I also continue to perform at the Axelrod Performing Arts Center with a group of professional musicians every year, which I’ve done for the past 25 years. I also play either solo or with my group for numerous local paid and charity functions, including at my main hospital, Jersey Shore University Medical Center.

When I travel, I pack a small electronic keyboard in my suitcase, so I’m ready to play if the opportunity arises. I’ve played in public, both solo and with musicians around the world, including in France, Italy, Ireland, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, Japan, India, Ecuador, Germany, Hungary, Vietnam, Peru, Kenya, Morocco, Brazil, Mongolia, and Russia. I often go to clubs or anywhere other people happen to be playing and ask to join. When I was in Kenya, we went up in a hot air balloon, and I played “Up Up and Away” by the 5th Dimension. In Russia, people requested Gershwin’s “Summertime.” In the Mongolian desert, awaiting a total eclipse of the sun, I performed with a local woman who was playing a zitherlike instrument. We played a duet on a local Mongolian tune and our encore was “Midnight in Moscow.” I was interviewed for Mongolian television by a translator, but I never saw the clip – there were no TVs in the desert! I might not be able to speak with the locals, but we can always play music together.

What do you enjoy most about playing piano?

My favorite parts are performing for an audience – whether for one person or 2,000 – and playing with professional musicians. What I like least is the daily practicing, but it’s a definite requirement!

Did you ever consider making music a full-time career?

Never. In retrospect, I could have made a career playing jazz or popular music, but at the time, I thought that you could only make money by playing classical music – a very competitive field, where maybe one out of 1,000 musicians becomes a successful, full-time classical player. The thought of devoting that much time to it and not building any kind of career was not something I wanted to do.

“Both piano and sailing offer the opportunity to focus on what I’m doing. … If my mind wanders during either one, I’m going to have a problem. For me, it was the same when I was seeing patients.”

The piano has always been a constant in my life, even during the busy early days of training. Opportunities to perform came up, so I’d practice whenever I could fit it in, usually between 10 and 12 at night. I retired from clinical practice a little over three years ago, so I have some extra time to practice now. Even when I saw patients, though, I practiced the piano for about an hour most days. Still, it can be difficult to sit down to practice. You’re alone and no one is clapping for you!

In addition to playing piano, you also race sailboats. What drew you to that sport?

In college, a friend took me out for an hour or so on a sailboat and I had a great time. After that, I rented my own sailboat in the Catskill Mountains and sailed it every day for a month. Later, after I got married, I took all the wedding money, bought a boat, and never looked back.

My first racing sailboat was called Tops’l. My current sailboat is Doctor Jazz. My wife suggested naming the boat The Blood Vessel, but I wanted to match my car license plate, “Doc Jazz.”

I try to sail in some exotic place once a year. My wife doesn’t do much sailing, but we travel together often. We’ve visited at least 50 countries, plus Antarctica, mostly on land trips. I’ll say, “I want to go sailing in the Caribbean,” and she says, “I’ll help you pack.” I’ve sailed and cruised on the East Coast – Chesapeake Bay, Long Island Sound, Martha’s Vineyard, Maine, and other parts of New England. I’ve also sailed in San Diego, San Francisco Bay, Croatia, Greece, and numerous Caribbean islands.

Where do you race?

I race at least once a week in season, and most of the races are in the Hudson River and Raritan Bay, New Jersey. I have enjoyed racing regattas in Newport, Rhode Island; Lake George, New York; Long Island Sound, and Martha’s Vineyard.

For many years I had a 24-foot boat. Now, I’m in my ninth year of owning a J/105, a 35-foot racing sailboat with a crew of five. It’s mainly a daysailer, which is a boat with minimal sleeping accommodations.

What do you enjoy most about sailing?

I liked the idea that it could be a lifelong sport, as well as the physical and intellectual challenge of the race. Sailing requires a lot of work and maintenance, so one needs to cultivate a sailing crew. We have a great sense of camaraderie among our crew. One guy has sailed nearly every race with me for 35 years. Without close buddies like him, I wouldn’t be able to do it at all.

What skills do you use in your “pASHions” that you also use in your hematology career?

Both piano and sailing offer the opportunity to focus on what I’m doing. When I’m sailing, I have to concentrate on sailing; when I’m playing the piano, I have to concentrate on playing the piano. If my mind wanders during either one, I’m going to have a problem. For me, it was the same when I was in the office seeing patients. You have to be present in what you’re doing, and you learn to focus on the important details – eliminating noise and nonessentials without losing sight of the overall goals. Also, all three require out-of-the-box thinking to solve problems. After all, a piano only has 88 keys, but innumerable combinations.

Anything one does takes some effort. At times, piano playing feels like a job because of the amount of practice involved. However, as a result, I get to perform with great musicians in front of big audiences, so the work is worth it. With sailing, I concentrate on preparing the boat and crew for racing, so we can go out, place well, and have a good time. It’s the same with medicine: Each time I went to the office, I reviewed the charts and treatment options ahead of time so I was ready for my patients’ problems. In medicine, music, and sailing, the secret is preparation, practice, and focused performance.

Dr. Topilow sailing in San Francisco.