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Local Doctor Blends Medicine And Music

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Phillip Pearl is professor of neurology, pediatrics and music at George Washington University. He plays professional jazz piano, vibes and drums.  He's found interesting ways to incorporate his love of medicine and music into his everyday life.
Heather Taylor
Phillip Pearl is professor of neurology, pediatrics and music at George Washington University. He plays professional jazz piano, vibes and drums. He's found interesting ways to incorporate his love of medicine and music into his everyday life.

Phillip Pearl doesn't call himself a renaissance man. In fact, all the things he does, he says, "any able adult could do."

But given his Leonardo Da Vinci-like ability to excel in both the medicine and music fields, maybe a renaissance man is exactly what he should be called. For example, he's a professor of neurology and pediatrics at George Washington University's School of Medicine and Columbian College of Arts and Sciences and has an adjunct appointment in the university's music department.

Pearl spends a lot of his time at Children's Hospital in Washington, D.C., where he's involved in patient care, research and education. For years, he's immersed himself in both medicine and music, striving to figure out a way to combine them, to incorporate them successfully into his life. And since 2003, he's developed a fascinating presentation that combines the two fields seamlessly. It's called the Neurology of Famous Musicians.

In it, Pearl talks with physicians, medical students and other members of the medical community about composers and musicians who suffer from neurological problems. For example, says Pearl, "I'll talk about Robert Schumann, who had all sorts of problems and also lived with bipolar effective disorder. And I talk about how the medical problems affected the musicality of the composer. And then Pearl will leave the podium where he's lecturing and then he'll play a Schumann composition. And afterwards, he'll continue his presentation, including medical biographies about other well-known musicians, like Shostakovich, Ravel, Cole Porter, and one of his favorites, George Gershwin.

Each musician's medical story is followed by Pearl playing a composition on piano, to the audience's delight. Over the years, he's given it at meetings of the American Academy of Neurology, in Italy and Israel. But that's only part of Pearl's approach to combining a life of medicine and music.

There's also the job he has on the editorial board of the journal, Music and Medicine. Currently, Pearl is working with the piano builder and engineer Warren Shadd on a manuscript about adapting musical instruments for individuals with neurodevelopmental disabilities.

Pearl's dual path of medicine and music began since birth.

"I grew up in a musical family," he says. "My dad was a professional jazz trumpeter. By the time I was in sixth grade, I had outgrown my local drum teacher and started working on xylophone.

Pearl took some entry exams, went through an audition, and was accepted into Peabody, the elite music conservatory in Baltimore. He ended up with a music diploma when he finished high school, and when it was time for college, he thought about going into music full-time.

But his father, a professional jazz musician himself, recognized the challenges of a musician's life, and urged Pearl to go in a different direction. "I remember my dad saying to me, 'You're way too good at school to do music full-time.' I don't know if that's fair," says Pearl, "but I went to medical school."

But before he went to medical school, he headed to Johns Hopkins University as a pre-med student, the same time when Hopkins acquired Peabody, so Pearl auditioned and got accepted as a percussion major at the Peabody Conservatory of Music. It meant he was able to study science and all those pre-med courses, and music, too. "It was a terrific experience!" says Pearl. "In the middle of that, I started teaching myself piano, and ended up taking lessons."

Today, Pearl plays professional jazz piano, vibes and drums, with a steady stream of performances at many venues from hospital related gigs to local clubs, including Adams Morgan's Columbia Station and Blues Alley in Georgetown.

So what's the key to creating a full life of music and medicine? Pearl thinks there are two factors that make it all work.

"Surrounding oneself with good people and teams, says Pearl. "Medical research is no longer done by individuals that much. It's done by teams. And I just try to take advantage of the associations one can make with other good people. There are so many good people in medicine and research, in music, at the university, at the medical school, at the hospital." And the second factor? "I think one has to be careful not to waste a lot of time."

"I love the practice of medicine," says Pearl. "It gives a lot of significance to my life that I don't think would be there without it. And yet, I've always needed the music. And if I don't play for awhile, I'm pretty unhappy."

So when it comes to translating his passion for music and medicine into two career paths, this 21st century renaissance man knows the answer isn't a matter of either/or. For him, it has to be both.

[Music: "My Favorite Things" performed by Phillip Pearl, written by Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein / "I'm Too Sexy (Instrumental)" by Right Said Fred from I'm Too Sexy]

Video: Phillip Pearl, M.D. frequently plays jazz piano in the lobby of Children's National Medical Center, in between his work as a neurologist, and professor of neurology, pediatrics and music at George Washington University.


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