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His Patients Inspired His Songwriting In and Out of the Clinic

Article In Brief

Working with neurology patients has inspired William Baek, MD, to write and produce songs for two albums. This lifelong musician discusses the added value music brings to his life and how that passion prevents him from feeling burnout.

William Baek, MD, is a clinical associate professor at University of California Riverside; a Fellow of the American Association of Neuromuscular and Electrodiagnostic Medicine; and diplomate of the American Board of Disability Analysts. But when he's not working as a general neurologist in private practice in Upland, CA, you can find him in a music studio, writing and recording songs.

A passionate musician since childhood, he has found inspiration for his songwriting from his patients' experiences. His first album, released in 2018, can be found on YouTube and Spotify. His second album is due out in 2020.

Dr. Baek spoke to Neurology Today about the role music-writing has played in his practice and life. His comments are edited and excerpted below.

Were you always involved with music?

I started playing the piano at age 10. Initially the lessons were my mom's idea—she plays the piano well—but I loved music and really took to it. I was born in the United States, but my family moved to Seoul, Korea, when I was nine and then returned to the States when I was 26, and it was in Korea where I learned to play the piano.

As a pre-medical student, I also took up the trombone. I had always wanted to play a brass instrument, and initially I thought about the trumpet, but I found the trombone interesting because it's almost like singing. You have to have a good sense of pitch because you can play multiple notes in the same position.

I loved music so much that while I was in college, I thought that I wanted to become a singer and a rock star, but back where I come from in Korea, if you want to go into the entertainment business, you say goodbye to college. I was already a pre-med student, so I thought I should finish that. But I played lead trombone in our medical school orchestra, and while I was taking the bus home at midnight after studying in the medical school library, I would write songs.

Did you continue to pursue music during your residency?

There wasn't a lot of time for that, but I did do one fun project. My uncle was a producer with a record label, and he had a song that they wanted to be sung in many different languages. Since I'm bilingual in Korean and English, I translated the song into Korean. Translating lyrics isn't as easy as it sounds—you can't just do a direct translation. You have to make the translation work as a song. I had listened to enough Korean music that I could do that. Then one of my co-residents and I recorded the song in Korean for my uncle's label. It was a typical love song, but my uncle put a good pop-catchy spin on the arrangement that was totally amazing. I still have that CD at home.

But other than that, during my residency and fellowship my musical interests went on the back burner. I got married and we had children, and while I took a couple of voice lessons, there wasn't much time.

When did you return to music and how did you get your first song produced?

In 2012, I had gone into private practice and had a little more room to breathe. Recording an album of my own was my dream, but I wanted to learn how to sing more professionally first. So every Thursday at lunchtime I'd rush out of clinic, grab a sandwich, and drive to a 30-minute voice lesson. After I had been doing that for several years, all the time writing songs, one of the ICU nurses at a hospital where I work, who sings semi-professionally, introduced me to Stephan de Reine, a producer with GRA music group. Once I met him I realized that my dream could come true. I began working with him—I write the melody and the lyrics, and he does all the arranging. In January 2018 I released my first album on his label.

Tell us more about your decision to include 10 songs on that album that are inspired by your patients.

During my rotations, I often hear very poignant stories that aren't really something I could put into scientific papers. I want other people to hear our patients' stories about their life experiences, so that maybe I can raise awareness and also maybe reach out to people who are experiencing these conditions so that they can be comforted.

Nowadays I listen to a lot of music that is a bit superficial, and I want to talk about more serious topics. The songs on my first album are about Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, there's a song about myasthenia, and a song about multiple sclerosis, “Walk Again.” Another song, “Chained to a Dream,” is about stroke. My father experienced a stroke back in 1996 and I wanted to write about what that was like. The songs don't have medical terminology or lingo, I've kept them abstract so that people who don't have these medical conditions can relate to them as well. I can't compete with Ariana Grande or Taylor Swift, but I could find my own niche, and I think this is a good niche for me.

What inspired you to write songs about patients?

I clearly remember when this first occurred to me. It was 2005, and I was a neuromuscular fellow at the University of California, San Diego. My mentor and I were treating patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and I thought, “Maybe I could write a song that could express musically some of what they are experiencing.” That song is also on my album, and it was my first song inspired by a patient.

What do your patients think about your music?

They're always very interested—they want to follow my YouTube channel and find out where they can get the album. Naturally, the patients gravitate toward the songs that describe their illness in particular. I recently heard from one patient and it was particularly heartwarming. She is a full-time pharmacist who has MS. She's a wonderful patient advocate and an example of how people can overcome illness. She told me, “When I have a bad day, I listen to your song and it makes me feel so much better.” That made me feel that I've already achieved what I wanted to do.

Was it hard writing about your father's stroke?

He's a man of few words, so it was hard for me to try to get into his brain and describe the illness. But when my mom heard it, she was like “Aha!” She thought it really described the struggle of the person, and their relationship to their caregiver. Some people might find it depressing, but for others, it's cathartic. I wrote the album to help heal my patients, but I think it's healed me.

Tell us more about your second album.

The second album was completed at the end of December 2019, but there have been problems with releasing it. I went to record in France with my producer last June, but then there were strikes and some delays. It should be coming out this year, and it will include some more songs inspired by medical conditions. I see a significant pediatric population, and I wrote a song about life with ADHD called “Free Wheeling.” Although I don't have ADHD, I did feel a lot of stress under the school system in Korea to conform. I had to fit the norm and the social structure, but I had my ideas and my own person. The school wouldn't budge, and they wanted to treat each child uniformly in a mechanical way, which is something like the way society seems to want to control people with ADHD.

Do you perform your songs in public?

Back in 2018, I sang “Walk Again” at the MS Walk in Fontana, CA. That was just an amazing experience. I also sang it at a family practice conference held at Disneyland. I'm hoping to sing at another MS Walk this year, and someday I would love to share my songs at the AAN conference.

How does your music and songwriting help you as a neurologist?

If you're always invested 100 percent of your waking time in patient care, it's exhausting and monochromatic. We need this variety and variability in our lives, in order to appreciate different things. So many of my friends who are doctors have other talents too, and they should take time for them. We see a lot of burnout, and I tell my colleagues: “You were somebody before you became a doctor, and I'm sure you still have other non-medical aspects to your life.” People need to explore these other sides of themselves and cultivate them in order to avoid burnout. The more involved I am in music, the happier I am.