Orthopaedic surgeon finds fulfillment in returning to his musical roots
A physician who from an early age wanted to enter the medical field might not raise any eyebrows, but at least one renowned orthopaedist never even considered a career in medicine until he was in college, at a time when he was already working hard to become a professional musician.
“I never really thought about medicine, to be honest with you,” says Alvin H. Crawford, MD, FACS, winner of the 2007 AAOS Diversity Award. “But I saw some challenges in it. I saw the challenge of medicine, which is the same as the challenge of music.”
Pre-med as a backup plan
Dr. Crawford discovered a lifelong love for music when he took up the trumpet in seventh grade. But he soon made the switch to clarinet as his primary instrument. “I didn’t have the embouchure for trumpet,” he explains, referring to the “mouth” required for that instrument. By the time he was in high school, he was already working as a sideman, backing up traveling musicians when they came through town.
“I made most of my money by playing with bands,” he says. “I could read music easily, so I could rehearse with a group in the afternoon and play a performance that night. That’s how I earned my living.”
Upon graduation, Dr. Crawford attended Tennessee A&I University (now Tennessee State), where he had a music scholarship. By day, he studied classical clarinet; at night, he played saxophone in local jazz ensembles. He was well on his way to becoming a studio player, until one night, his brother pulled him aside after a performance and told him he shouldn’t have any trouble finding a job after college.
“He was referring to the public school system,” Dr. Crawford explains. “And even though I probably revered my high school band director as much as my father, the one thing that I knew I was not going to do in life was become a high school band director.”
Recognizing the difficult reality in earning a living through music alone, he began to rethink his career goals, ultimately adjusting his classes to include pre-med requirements while retaining his music scholarship.
“That conversation [with my brother] pretty much talked me out of staying as a music major,” he says. “Besides, there were three of us in college, so attending the conservatory was just out of the picture financially.”
On again, off again
Dr. Crawford continued to perform through medical school, but in time, the work demands of medical internship meant setting his music aside.
“That was before the 80-hour rule,” he laughs. “It was like 36-on and 12-off, and on the 12-off you finished your charts.”
Dr. Crawford’s music career would remain on hold until he began serving as a medical resi-dent on a Navy ship in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. On board ship, he had time to devote to playing again and upon his return to the United States, he joined a group of Navy pilots who performed for free at non-profit and charitable events around San Diego. But when he left the Navy and moved into academic life, his musical career again took a back seat, and it wasn’t until about 10 years ago that he seriously revisited his first love—his lifelong goal to master the classical clarinet.
These days, he takes lessons at the local conservatory, finally getting the musical education he couldn’t afford as a young college student. He’s even had the opportunity to study with one of his heroes: clarinetist Eddie Daniels.
“You should always find either a mentor or someone you want to emulate in life,” he says. “I found Eddie Daniels—probably the only clarinetist who’s equally respected in both the classical and jazz arenas. He came to Cincinnati to play and I had the opportunity to meet him. I asked, ‘Would it be possible to take a lesson?’ And he said, ‘Sure, I give lessons, but you’ll have to come to my home.’ He lives in Santa Fe, so when the Pediatric Orthopaedic Society of North America held its meeting there, I took lessons from him at his home. That was probably the highlight of my music career.”
Last summer, he and his son traveled to Kentucky for an intense course in jazz improvisation taught by internationally known saxophonist Jamey Aebersold at the University of Louisville.
“It’s a one-week course,” he says, “that is comparable to one of the Academy intensified instructional courses. You have to perform. It’s hands on; then you perform and show what you’ve got in a recital at the end of the week.”
The circle of life
With decades of experience in orthopaedics and music, does Dr. Crawford have any insights that apply to both?
“Orthopaedists have a different approach to patients than most doctors, who are focused on illness,” he says. “We make people better. As orthopaedists, we can think of nothing better than to get a tennis player back to playing tennis. Music attempts to make people better in a different way. You play to bring out the best in people. If the audience is as responsive to the music I’m playing as my patients are to my treatments, I feel just as happy.
“And in music, people rarely play alone. It’s a team effort and every person has to contribute to the team. It’s equally so with orthopaedics...with the surgery, the rehab, the occupational physical therapy, the convalescence, and the willingness of the patient to want to get better. So there are parallels.”
Dr. Crawford currently plays with four ensembles: he is a lead clarinetist in Cincinnati’s Queen City Orchestra; he performs with the local university community band; he plays saxophone in the Undercover Big Band; and he is one of three “wannabes” in The Wannabes Plus Two—a jazz combo that features two professional musicians, a retired Procter-and-Gamble executive, a retired laboratory director, and as Dr. Crawford refers to himself, one “ongoing orthopaedist.”
“I’ve put almost 40 years into [my life as an orthopaedist],” he says. “Now I’m looking to see what’s out there. I’m not turning my back on orthopaedics today or tomorrow, but I’m working on the next phase. You know the analogy of the circle of life? In time, the next phase may take me back to the beginning.”
Peter Pollack is a staff writer for AAOS Now. He can be reached at email@example.com