May 2014




Ophthalmologist's interest in bluegrass carries through the years

by Ellen Stodola EyeWorld Staff Writer


Dr. Radcliffe (left) plays guitar at a friend's wedding. Dr. Radcliffe and several friends have been playing bluegrass music together for many years and have played at each other's weddings.

Balancing family, music, and career can be a challenge.

Source (all): Nathan Radcliffe, MD

Dr. Radcliffe continues to practice bluegrass after starting with it in medical school

After a long history with music and the guitar, Nathan Radcliffe, MD, assistant professor of ophthalmology, Weill Cornell Medical College, New York-Presbyterian Hospital, New York, continues the hobby today by playing bluegrass music in his spare time. Dr. Radcliffe discussed his bluegrass playing throughout the years and how it fits with ophthalmology.

Getting interested in bluegrass

Dr. Radcliffe didn't originally start out playing bluegrass music, but he has been interested in music for some time. He grew up in a musical family and played the guitar. "In college I was in a rock and roll band, but it's not as practical because you have all this equipment to lug around," he said. "Living in New York City, as I have for the past 10 to 12 years, you have to rent space just to play with a drummer."

Dr. Radcliffe said he always liked the acoustic guitar and gradually shifted to bluegrass with a group of friends that he frequently played with. "It's quieter and focuses a lot on vocal harmonies, which is something I've always liked."

"The advantage is you can get together very informally, and [bluegrass music] is built on these standard songs," he said. "For many of them, the authors are not even known; they've been around for hundreds of years. Even if it's your first time hearing the song, it's not going to take you long to figure out how it goes." Dr. Radcliffe said this type of music lends itself well to impromptu gatherings, and he frequently practiced bluegrass while in medical school, performing the straightforward and simple music with little rehearsal time.

How it fits with ophthalmology

"There's this thought that somehow being musical is going to make you a better surgeon, and I read it all the time in the medical students' essays for residency," Dr. Radcliffe said. While he isn't sure how true that is, he said there are definitely some similarities between medicine and music.

Concentration is key in both music and ophthalmology, as is working with your hands and thinking through problems. "For me, learning a new bluegrass song is a great way to escape and get my mind off of anything else that's going on," Dr. Radcliffe said.

Bluegrass music is typically seen as very repetitive and very simple at first, with three chords per song, Dr. Radcliffe said. "But as you play the music, you can always find ways to improve it, and there are ways to accentuate or improvise on top of it." Bluegrass musicians can add solos over top of the very simple background chords.

In ophthalmology, it may seem to some people that you're doing the same surgery over and over, "but when you're focused on it completely, you're always looking for ways to improve or refine it and make it better each time."

Where he plays

Dr. Radcliffe said playing this type of music worked well during medical school and residency. Now, he gets together at least once a year to play with friends. "There's a group of four of us that have an unnamed bluegrass band," he said. "We've now written and performed songs at each other's weddings." Most recently, Dr. Radcliffe and his friends played at their fourth wedding in October. It's always fun to play bluegrass at some sort of barbeque or at informal gatherings, Dr. Radcliffe said. He added that bluegrass festivals are an American tradition, where people camp out for a long weekend and watch the bands perform. When the bluegrass performances on the big stage end, impromptu bluegrass bands form around the campground.

Additionally, Dr. Radcliffe has been involved with the Sing for Sound benefit concert in New York for the past few years, an event that helps raise money for the Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech.

Dr. Radcliffe has started to play bluegrass music for his children and is hoping to get them involved with singing and playing instruments.

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