Martin Kuuskne is an Emergency Room Doctor who works at Brampton Civic Hospital. As soon as he starts speaking about his job, it’s easy to hear the passion he has for his profession and helping others in his voice. But it wasn’t always about science and medicine. When choosing what to study in university, he had to decide between performance piano or the sciences. While it is difficult to think of a more drastic dichotomy, it is clear that his artistic and scientific sides both influence and complement each other. Eventually, Martin made the decision to pursue his studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, where he completed a Bachelor of Health Sciences. Ever the keener, he was accepted to the Michael G. Degroote School of Medicine at McMaster University in his third undergraduate year and entered medical school as one of the youngest in his cohort. He then completed his residency at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, in Emergency medicine. During his residency he completed a fellowship in Medical Education and Simulation.
Working at one of the busiest emergency departments in Canada, Martin truly values his time outside of the hospital and puts a special emphasis on self-care, hobbies, and other interests outside of medicine. After a fast-paced, adrenaline filled day at work, you will hear anything from Bach fugues to modern jazz emanating from his piano room. He also uses his medical skills outside of the hospital where he works as a ringside physician for professional boxing matches in Ontario though the Ontario Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport.
Tell us about a few of your hobbies.
I currently find it really important to ground myself in my hobbies and interests because it was tough for me to do so during my residency. The time constraints, busy schedule and studying medical texts made it difficult to keep up some of this things I enjoyed doing on my off time before I started residency, but I always made time to travel. Seeing a different part of the world and experiencing different cultures always excited me and motivated me to plan my next vacation when I had time. I also continued to play the piano; something that I learned when I was very young. I always found myself drawn to the piano after shifts and I continue to play and learn new songs, pieces and styles of music. After finishing my residency, I picked up a few new hobbies. My father gifted me a camera for my graduation and, with a little help from internet courses and a lot of trial and error, I have taking a keen liking to landscape photography. The manipulation of light and how small changes in settings can have a major impact on how the photograph is perceived amazes me and I’m always in search for the ‘perfect’ shot. Lastly, with travel still being an important part of my life, I slowly started to incorporate scuba diving in some of my trips. Now I plan full trips just based on diving to explore amazing reefs all around the world. Lastly, now that I am renovating my house, I guess you can say home construction and renovation is one of my new hobbies; it’s amazing what you can learn and apply from YouTube!
How did you get started in classical piano? What Inspired you?
I come from a very strong musical background; my paternal grandmother was an Opera singer in Estonia in the 1940s and my maternal grandfather was also a performance singer. My father studied jazz saxophone in university, so our road-trips to the family farm always had John Coltrane or Oscar Peterson along with us for the ride on the radio. I started taking piano lessons at age 3 with the same piano teacher that my father had when he was a child, Aino Kurg, of Estonian heritage. At first, playing the piano was just something I did, but when I started attending St. Michael’s Choir School in Toronto, Ontario, I developed a true love of music. Our normal school day was scheduled around daily choir rehearsals and piano lessons. I also studied the theory of music, harmony and counterpoint which laid the technical groundwork for me composing some of my own songs.
What is your favourite thing about music?
Music transports me to my own place. I become absorbed in the notes, chord progressions, lyrics and rhythm. It allows me to clear my head and focus intently on something that brings me joy. I love how you can infuse your personality or even your current mood into what you play. It is an emotional outlet and allows for self-expression. It also brings people together. I recently attended the 150th Estonian Song Festival in Tallinn, Estonia where songs representing the freedom of the nation bring together 35,000 singers with 60,000 spectators from around the country, and the world, in a single venue. It was an amazing spectacle to witness.
Do you write your own music? How does that process come to you?
When I was younger, one morning I was looking through our garage and I stumbled upon my father’s old jazz standard notes from his studies at the University of North Texas. It was the first time I saw a major seventh chord written in shorthand. I picked up a hastily transcribed version of a little song called “Giant Steps” and proceeded to stumble through some of the most interesting sounds I’ve heard from my piano and I was hooked.
I actually have written a few solo piano pieces; I usually get inspired by a feeling or situation and I come to a melody representing that in my head. I usually have to use my phone to record it quickly otherwise I may lose it! I then take that melody to the piano and see how I can mature the melody into different sections or even movements. My courses in theory, harmony and counterpoint help with some of the more technical aspects of chord progressions and accompaniment. However, what I find liberating is improvisation. Being classically trained all my life, the idea of not having notes or sheet music to fall back on is a bit daunting but I try my best to improvise over some jazz piano chords and standards.
How would you say music has had an impact on your life?
Music grounds me in humanity and art. It is so easy to be distracted and pulled in 10 different directions at one time in our current modern world, but music has always allowed me to be present in the moment. I have realized that the periods in my life where I was not playing the piano were usually associated with difficult times. Music allows me to have an outlet to focus on myself and, if I am stuck trying to find a solution, a break with music allows me to approach problems with a fresh perspective. I also use music to share special moments, whether it was singing at an Estonian Song Festival in front of thousands or playing Christmas music for my family.
Who are some of your favourite composers?
I have always found myself drawn to Bach. I think that his music speaks to my mathematical, scientific and technical side. I spent months working through his Well-Tempered Clavier Book 1. His wonderful preludes are like small appetizers before his technically astounding fugues, where he can have up to 5 different ‘voices’ speaking to each other in counterpoint. For me, learning and playing these fugues was akin to solving a very difficult mathematical proof and when I would play the last chord of a particularly difficult fugue, it felt like Bach’s “quod erat demonstrandum”. I eventually became comfortable enough with the fugues to add a bit of personal expression to some phrases. On the other side of the spectrum, Chopin’s etudes allow me to fully display the romantic and expressive side of the solo piano piece. I am currently polishing up my “Fanatasie-Impromptu” as well as working through his “Ocean” etude (Opus 25, Number 12). These are Chopin masterpieces that I always wanted to play when I was younger and to be able to play them now is a dream come true. I still have a lot of work to do first though!
You mentioned that you’re also getting more involved in scuba diving. What drew you in to that hobby?
I’ve always really enjoyed snorkeling and observing marine life. One of the chapters of my emergency medicine textbook was all about diving emergencies and we had to study it in-depth for our final exam but I had never been scuba diving before. I was encouraged by some of my colleagues to try it and I’m glad I took their advice. I think the wildlife, the precious reefs, the control one must have on breathing and the astute awareness that you must have at all times drew me to diving, and now I’m hooked. You get to explore a whole other environment of our earth!
Do you remember your first dive? Tell me about that experience.
My first dive was in Ko Tao island in Thailand and it was the most incredible island that I had seen. I actually remember reading that chapter on diving emergencies on the ferry on the way to the island! I didn’t need it though, our instructors were so amazing and attentive and I felt very safe going under water with my scuba gear for the first time. My first breath underwater was surreal but I quickly got used to it. We took a lot of time to practice safety procedures with our buddy and I got comfortable removing my goggles 10m underwater. Then it was off to discover; the reef was extremely beautiful and the water was clear, crystal blue. Among the amazing fish and unique creatures, we saw a 2m wide Lion’s Mane Jellyfish on our first dive; I was awestruck. It was also Whale Shark spotting season when I was there but I didn’t get to see one, so I’ll have to go back!
Where have your diving excursions taken you?
I have completed dives around the islands of Thailand and Jamaica, the Gulf of Mexico, Cuba, the Bahamas and Belize.
How would our readers get involved with scuba diving?
Are there certain courses you You need to take an introduction course; I’d recommend the open water certification with either Scuba Schools International (SSI) or the Professional Association of Diving instructors (PADI). If you complete the advanced open water course for each of those associations, you can be licensed to dive pretty much anywhere in the world down to 30 metres. There are further courses you can take to become more specialized, but the open water certification is a great start.
What’s next on your list of dream diving destinations?
I’d love to dive in the Egyptian Red Sea and will have to see the Great Barrier Reef off of Australia. Cape Kri in Indonesia is also on my bucket list.
For more information, please visit http://martinkuuskne.com/