Doctor Or Musician, Which Career Would You Choose?


A stereotypical doctor doesn’t have piercings or a tattoo, and a stereotypical drummer doesn’t wear scrubs.

Bourke Tillmann, however, is a fourth-year medical student and is the drummer of the successful indie band HOLDING.SKY.

HOLDING.SKY has played with a variety of popular and independent artists in their three-and-a-half year reign on the indie scene.

“I would give anything to save a person’s life. So now I get to go to work every day and do just that. Not only do I get to do that, but I can call it a career.” —Bourke Tillman

The band recently recorded their third EP, From the Throne to the Lions – produced by Dan Achen, who has worked with Feist and City and Colour. It’s available for free download, with proceeds going to charity.

Between Bourke’s busy schedule as an ER doctor, general surgery assistant and drummer, he and I recently chatted about his dual persona.

Editor’s note (Jan. 17, 2010): Bourke is now a resident in emergency medicine and TalentEgg recently filmed an interview with him and his band mates about balancing music with “real” careers. Click here to check it out.

For more information about HOLDING.SKY, check out their official website which also has links to their presence on FacebookTwitterMyspace and other sites.

Q. What came first, wanting to become a doctor or a musician?
A. Wanting to play music came first. I wasn’t one of those kids who grew up wanting to be a doctor – I wrote the MCATs after first year [of university] just to prove to a friend I could.

Q. What are some of the reasons why you wanted to become a doctor?
A.This is actually a pretty personal question. During my teenage years, I was unfortunately near a lot of death and from then on have seen the after effects this trauma has had on my friends (depression, suicide, drugs, homelessness). I never wanted to be helpless in a situation like that again.

Why else? It’s something I love and am good at. And when I think about it, I know I would give anything to save a person’s life. So now I get to go to work every day and do just that. Not only do I get to do that, but I can call it a career.

Q. Why did you want to become a musician?
A. The joy in writing music and creating something new, when you sit down with a few friends and put together a few notes and a rhythm there’s just magic. Then getting to perform, to show others what you have made – it’s incredible. You’re terrified because you’re showing your deepest emotions and they might be rejected, but you’re thrilled because you have an excuse to be completely yourself.

So why did I start playing an instrument? I thought drums were cool. I always wanted to play them so I decided to. Why do I want to become a musician? Because I want to have the challenge of creating something new every day, and the thrill and fear of showing my soul to strangers every night.

Bourke TillmanQ. How do you think being in a band helped you get into med school?
A. When you’re getting ready to play a concert in front of a couple thousand people, a med school interview really isn’t that intimidating. So instead of being paralyzed with fear when I interviewed, I was relaxed.

“I practice two hours away every weekend and spend half my nights planning shows and tours. It reminds me there’s more in my life than just medicine.”

The second way I think it helped is the system’s desire to show how accepting it is. Medical schools want to show the world that they accept everyone, that they’re not an elitist system, nor perpetuating a social hierarchy. So I had already slid by their mental benchmark and made a nice example to show the world how accepting medical schools are. Do I think they are as accepting as they’re trying to portray? I’m a white, middle-income male, so you guess.

Q. How has being in a band helped you since getting into med school?
A. It has helped me keep perspective. So many people allow medical school to consume their lives. Instead, I practice two hours away every weekend and spend half my nights planning shows and tours. It reminds me there’s more in my life than just medicine.

It has also helped me keep in touch with my patients. As an independent band, we tend to play the shadier areas of cities, and . . . more of my patients are in a lower social economic range (to be politically correct). I spend a fair amount of my time hanging out with my patient population, while a lot of people in medical school spend their free time in bars with $15 covers and $8 drinks.

When you remove the social barrier that the physician-patient relationship creates, sometimes you can learn a lot more. Of course, you can sometimes learn too much. But in our music we broach some common but difficult subjects, and when you start the conversation people aren’t nearly as afraid to continue it.

Q. Do you ever regret the choice you made to go through medical school to become a doctor?
A. I wish I could say no, but it’s a hard process. When I’m spending hours studying instead of learning how to play a guitar, or reading about an esoteric disease I’ll probably never see in my life, I ask [myself] if it’s really worth it. But the patient interaction . . . working up their problem, figuring out how to make them feel better (not necessarily how to cure their disease) makes up for it 10-fold.

Oh, and the paper work sucks.

Q. How has your training in medical school helped you within the band?
A. Well, it’s made me more of an asshole, so I feel less bad when yelling at them to get something on the business side of the band done.

But seriously . . . Working in a hospital really teaches you what’s important in life and has made me appreciate the band even more, which makes me work harder. Also, I have learned how to manage and delegate tasks, and this really does help the business side of the band. As far as writing music, I’m usually at my most creative when I’m in a poor mood, so it has helped me write some new songs.

Q. What advice do you have for people who feel like they need to make a decision between an ideal career choice and an important part of their personal life?
Bourke TillmanA. I tell them to do what makes them happy. Is that ideal career going to make you happy, or is it just impressive? Trust me, it doesn’t take a lot of money to make it in this world – I’ve lived off a bag of chocolate covered raisins and table scraps for a month.

I’ve also been homeless for four months (although not in a row). You can make due on very little and still be happy. But doing what makes you happiest doesn’t always come easy. If you truly want it, you won’t give it up, but you’ll have to sacrifice.

I rarely ever watch TV. I sleep less than six hours most nights. I’ve lost girlfriends. I’ve been in car crashes. I’ve been on the other side in hospitals and I’m not the best in either of my two passions (music and medicine). But I love them both so I make the sacrifices I make.

So I say again, do what makes you happy. If you want to ski for three months a year, find the job that allows you to do that. Don’t find a job that demands you work ridiculous hours so that when you’re 60 you can start skiing. If family is your passion, find the easiest, shortest job you can so you can spend as much time with your family, while still helping support them. Money only has value when it’s spent, so don’t spend your life chasing it.

Q. Do you think you can serve as a role model to others? What about others in the band?
A. I would like to see myself as a role model – [it] would be pretty awesome to think that I’ve done enough in my life that it’s worth people looking up to. As for the rest of the band, Holding Sky is about dedication and breaking limits. We all challenge each other.

Ben [Tillman, bass] finished working on Tim Burton’s 9 and is now working on another major motion picture; Mikey [Hill, guitar] is in med school; Tim [Laidman, vocals] has degrees from both Sheridan and Mohawk; and Kohji [Nagata, guitar and backup vocals] will always challenge you to be a better person.

Q. How has all of your education and/or work impacted the band’s progress, if at all? Do you think any of you would quit the band?
A. I think it’s more how is the band impacting [our] education and work. But truthfully, the fact that some of our jobs have locked in contracts means we can’t do extended tours unless we know they’re going to be very beneficial for the band. Which means we have to use other methods to get our name out there.

As for anyone quitting the band, unless Thursday, Moneen, Attack in Black or the Deftones offered them a spot in their band, I don’t think anyone is going anywhere.

Focus on Healthcare

Photography by Jeff Jewiss