Play it Again, Doctor
Lifestyle & Travel for Physicians, May/June 2006
by Christina Frank
It’s impossible to resist dubbing William Woods, MD, “the physician musician,” but such word play seems frivolous once you realize how serious he is about both pursuits.
For Dr. Woods, 45, a radiation oncologist in Hattiesburg, MI, music is far more than a hobby. His third CD, entitled Every Part of Me, was released last September, featuring his original jazz compositions and keyboard virtuosity; it’s been on the national charts for several weeks and has received glowing reviews. He plans to release a fourth CD at the end of the year. (Dr. Woods donates 50 percent of the proceeds from the sale of his CDs to The American Cancer Society.)
Dr. Woods grew up in Englewood, NJ, and began tickling the ivories at age 9, after first taking violin lessons at the urging of his father, himself a noted violinist. His years spent studying piano with composer and musicologist Ernest Lubin came to a tragic end in the mid 1980s when Lubin was murdered trying to defend himself against a robber. After that, Dr. Woods attended Juilliard. He has also studied privately with jazz greats Joanne Brackeen and Jackie Byard.
Though music has always been a passion, Dr. Woods flirted only briefly with making it his full time job. “I couldn’t handle the uncertainty of trying to succeed as a jazz musician,” he says. “I’m shy and reserved and more interested in composing than performing, for one. I also wanted to use the other side of my brain and do something that would allow me to work with and help people.”
Conveniently, he found science as fascinating as music. While a freshman at Princeton, he quickly switched his major from music to geology (with a minor in music); he earned his MD from the Albert Einstein School of Medicine in New York City. Those seven years spent in medical school and doing his residency was the only time he was forced to put the piano on hold.
These days, his regular hours at Forrest General Cancer Center allow him to devote most evenings and weekends to composing—that is, when he’s not enjoying family life with his wife Michelene and their 3–year old son, Jonathan.
It took a while, says Dr. Woods, to learn to compartmentalize successfully. “At first, trying to mix medicine and music was a challenge,” he says. “I would be at work thinking about my music and at home worrying about a patient. But now I’m able to focus on work when I’m there and leave it behind when I go home.”
In fact, his two callings complement one another. “As a doctor, I have to be very objective,” he says. “When I work on music it’s a big release, allowing me to express some of the emotions I feel at work, but am forced to bury.” Some of his early compositions were inspired by specific patients who were struggling with cancer, but lately Jonathan is his muse. “He’s so wonderful and also a holy terror!”
Dr. Woods bristles a bit at being labeled a “smooth jazz” musician, which conjures up background music for him, but he’s pleased that his work has been called “edgy.”
“I’m trying to bring back the genre as it was in the 1970s,” he says, citing Bob James and the band Fourplay as examples.
By all accounts, Dr. Woods’ improvisational style is far from mundane or predictable and seems to be earning him an ever-larger audience. Proof that he’s being taken more seriously as a musician, he explains, is that articles about him are focusing on his music, not on the nifty fact of his dual careers. “Now they’re saying ‘oh, and by the way, he’s also a doctor,’” says Dr. Woods. “So I don’t feel like a talking-dog show anymore.”