This doctor works for a song

April 9, 2001

Nearing the end of his career, he wasn&t ready to sing the retirement blues. Instead, he's singing for real.

 

This doctor works for a song

Nearing the end of his career, he wasn't ready to sing the retirement blues. Instead, he's singing for real.

By James M. Layer, MD
Ophthalmologist/Minneapolis

After completing medical school and an ophthalmology residency, I devoted my life to maintaining proficiency in my practice and raising my family. Each year melted into the next, until one day I looked up to find that a quarter century had passed. My two daughters were grown, and although I didn't want to retire, I was in a rut.

Then, quite by accident, I found a hobby that rejuvenated me.

Five years ago, during my family's yearly winter getaway to Palm Springs, we were invited to a party at a friend's home. He had rented a karaoke machine, and my family, knowing my love for Sinatra music, goaded me to get up and sing. I was an avid listener who'd never had any interest in singing, but I figured there was no harm in humoring my wife and daughters.

The results were astounding: The guests didn't stampede the exits and, even more surprisingly, I discovered that I really enjoyed singing in public.

I was hooked. I bought my own karaoke machine and began spending countless hours practicing. I tried to emulate the styles of the greats: Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Mel Tormé. Singing soon replaced golfing, sketching, and all my other pastimes. I continued to practice ophthalmology, fueled by the newfound enthusiasm my singing gave me.

Two years ago, I decided to limit my professional activities to medical ophthalmology. An old neck injury and the resulting arthritic changes caused so much pain and limited my motion so severely that I was unable to perform microsurgery. This allowed me the luxury of spending less time practicing medicine and even more time singing.

I never imagined I'd ever have anyone other than my wife Judy and my dogs as an audience. But last winter, while vacationing again in Palm Springs, Judy and I had dinner at Pepper Maggies, a local restaurant that often featured live entertainment. That night, a mother and daughter were singing. This gave Judy, whom I now laughingly call my manager, an idea. She approached the owner and asked, "How would you like to have a male singer perform on Wednesday evenings? I know a singing doctor from Minneapolis."

Tony, the owner, smiled slightly and replied, "Tell him to come in and sing for me. If he's any good, I'll let him perform here." That Wednesday at 2, I sang for Tony, his wife, Martha, and several waiters and busboys. By 6 pm, my public singing career had begun.

Judy and I invited our Palm Springs friends to my first formal gig to secure some friendly faces in the audience. I'd never been in a choir or a glee club, or had any musical training, but somehow the audience actually enjoyed my singing! With my brand new karaoke machine playing background music, I belted out some of my Sinatra favorites—"Witchcraft," "I've Got You Under My Skin," "Come Fly With Me." For the remainder of our three months in Palm Springs, I performed at Pepper Maggies once a week. Several groups of people came to hear me on a regular basis.

When we returned to Minneapolis in the spring, I began singing once a week at my golf club, to the amazement of the members. Soon I was singing twice a week, and the club had added a dance floor, transforming a rather dull dining room into a veritable nightclub.

My repertoire has grown from a few Sinatra classics to more than 200 selections. From sheer practice, my voice has also improved and my range has increased. Recently, I was approached to sing in a popular local restaurant.

When Judy told my father that I'd taken a part-time job in California, he asked if I'd had to retake the board exams. "No," she said. "The job isn't in medicine." He then asked, "Is it golf-related?" She again said No. When she told him I was singing in a restaurant, she was met with complete silence. "This is the last thing I would have expected of my eldest son," he finally said.

At this point I'm strictly an amateur, singing without pay for my own enjoyment. But recently, I had the opportunity to record a CD, which I gave to family, friends, and my loyal fans.

I'm not sure where this new career is headed. My next goal is to sing with live background music. My wife/manager recently suggested cruise ship entertaining. She even contacted a retired recording studio executive in California, who books acts for Las Vegas. When he heard my CD, he offered me a job. It was the ultimate ego trip, but after learning I'd have to do nightly lounge shows lasting into the wee hours, I concluded that I would never see my name in lights on a Las Vegas marquee.

All things considered, I'm pretty content with how things are going. I sing twice a week at my country club and fairly frequently at private events and parties. My kids come hear me when they can, and Judy is a fixture in all my audiences. I'm adding more old standards, and I've improved my equipment for better quality.

This December I plan to retire—from medicine, that is—and with more time to spend on my music, maybe I'll be thought of as just "the singer"—not the "singing doctor."

 

James Layer. This doctor works for a song. Medical Economics 2001;7:120.