“So what do you like to do?”
“Oh I want to do [insert specialization or sub-specialization here]”.
“I mean, what do you like to do for fun?” There is silence then a wry smile.
“I used to love mountain climbing…”
“That’s so cool!”
“But I don’t have time for it anymore.”
“You’ll understand when you start working.”
I can’t tell you the number of times I have had this conversation. We each have a limited amount of time and energy to fulfill a lifetime of responsibilities. Choices have to be made and things sacrificed along the way. Often the first things we let go of are our loves and passions- the ‘frills’ of life. Slowly at first, in ways we don’t even realize. But what if these are the things that make us happy- that give us the energy to tackle the challenges we face every single day? Can we really afford to give them up?
Photo credit: Matilda Aquila Chia
One of the things that I truly admire about today’s guest is his dedication to both his passions and responsibilities. Kai Wen is a 5th year medical student- like all his batch mates, he is expected to be in training. Not just to pass his finals, but to take his place in the ward as a doctor next year. Somehow, Kai Wen manages to fulfill this duty while staying true to his other love in life- music. Since teaching himself beatboxing in 2007, he has not looked back, performing several times a month (locally and internationally), going on tour, conducting beatboxing workshops, judging national beatboxing competitions and even working on vocal arrangements for local musicals/television shows (full bio here)! The comment I most often get from those who know him is ‘how does he do it?’. I am curious too.
Although he would be the first to insist that the balance he has struck is far from perfect, I think many of us have been struggling to find any balance at all! So if you are in the same camp and find it hard to hold on to what you love in the face of your other responsibilities, do read on :)
Kai performing a gig at Singapore's Esplanade Theater
(Photo credit: Alvin Ho, Positron Productions)
1) What are some of your priorities and passions in life?
One of my priorities is people, and to that end have made a resolution to make time for friends, while also trying to participate as much as I can in senior-junior teaching within medical school, such as CSFP (a mentorship program that teaches clinical skills to the juniors).
I also volunteer with an amazing program run by MINDS which sends trained 'appropriate adults' to accompany police detainees, victims or witnesses to their police interviews if they are suspected of having mental health issues (eg. intellectual disability/autism spectrum disorder).
Another priority is of course medical school; it is truly a privileged position and a debt to society to be in medical training and I therefore hope to become a skilled and compassionate doctor, which has to start by putting my medical education first. On the other hand, some of my passions include music (particularly a cappella, vocal arranging and beatboxing), and music education.
2) How do you juggle your passions and priorities?
I guess perhaps I’m lucky to be in a unique situation where performances tend to be at night or on weekends, and school (for now) largely happens on weekdays, so that naturally reduces the number of clashes compared to people who might be working in a different industry. Otherwise, it's also a matter of discipline (which I’m still working on!) in recognizing that as a final-year student studying should be my main focus, and hence I try to spend most of my spare time reading and revising.
Further, carefully weighing the pros and cons of all gigs which come my way is important; I’m not above taking leave from school for certain shows where I can afford to, but I won't hesitate to turn down a gig if it will clearly interfere with my learning. For example, this year I was offered performance opportunities in Taiwan and India for great festivals which I really wanted to accept, but due to clashes with final exams and student internship (where I would expect to have a lot more responsibilities), I unfortunately had to decline.
Kai judging the beatboxing category at Singapore's National A Cappella Championships (Photo credit: Martin Karnolsky)
3) Have you ever burnt out? How do you cope with/ prevent burn out?
One instance of burnout which I experienced was in 2011 when I competed in a national beatbox battle, and ended up doing worse than I’d hoped. I think I took the judges' comments quite self-critically; subsequently I questioned why I had put so much effort into practicing my craft with so little to show for it, and contemplated giving up on beatboxing.
In retrospect, I think burnout occurs when one is either physically or mentally fatigued, or both, and in this case I guess I got around it with the encouragement of close friends as well as a change of mindset, that there was so much more to learn in order to improve myself.
4) Do you experience self-doubt about your choices? How do you reconcile these doubts?
I guess self-doubt is pretty much a constant in almost every musician who isn't immediately 'successful', due to the seasonal nature of music work, so I’d have to say yes to this question. Over the last few years, there have been months where I’d be doing two to three gigs a week, and then other months with completely no work at all. In such times it'd be inevitable to begin questioning my dedication to doing music, and if my time and effort could be better spent on other pursuits instead.
I think I deal with this by keeping busy with both my own music projects as well as schoolwork, and I am always grateful for occasional undeserved kind words of encouragement from my friends (and sometimes complete strangers) which make everything worth it and keep me going.
Kai in Los Angeles with Andrew Kesler (middle) and Avi Kaplan (right). Kai was there for A Cappella Academy Retreat, an audition-only summer intensive programme, where he got the chance to record backing choir vocals for Pentatonix.
5) Have you had to give up anything along the way? Any regrets?
I think early on in chasing a music career I quite unfortunately neglected the importance of keeping friends close to me, and I didn't (and still don't) have much of a social life; for one, I spend a significant proportion of my time with friends from my a cappella group, who have made it in their own musical careers and are huge inspirations, but as a result I barely spend any time with peers my age. Yet certain trade-offs like these do need to be made in order to progress in an industry like music, just as personal sacrifices need to be made to be a doctor. I don't regret it though; I feel extremely lucky to have been able to join a well-established a cappella group way back in 2012, which meant for the most part I didn't have to worry too much about the finances of being a starving musician, and could therefore afford to experiment more in terms of starting out as a solo artist.
6) Are there still things you wish you could do? Why have you not gotten around to doing them?
There are plenty! I wish I could learn or immerse myself in various things, including musical theatre, jazz arranging, languages, and audio production. Perhaps because med school and music work are practically my life now, I haven't really been able to do these things, mostly because expert guidance is required to learn most of them and the time which that requires isn't entirely compatible with everything else I do right now, but occasionally I try to teach myself through books and online resources like coursera.
Kai performing a Multitrack A Cappella of Gentle Bones' 'Save Me'
7) Looking forward, how do you hope to balance your passion for music with your work as a doctor?
I do want to keep doing both for as long as I can; although I might tail down my involvement in some music activities, and scale down on larger projects, I’m hoping to keep pushing myself and working hard in both fields. That said, while work will come with significantly more responsibility and accountability than school, and I’ll probably have less control over how my time is spent, role models such as Dr. Sydney Tan (music director for a good number of National Day Parades, last year's SEA Games, and practicing doctor no less) whom I’ve had the absolute privilege of working with several times through my a cappella group Vocaluptuous, help me to keep hoping that a dual career in medicine and music are wholly possible.
8) There are many who have given up what they love because they need their time/energy for other responsibilities (work, school, family etc). What advice do you have for them?
I would say it's important to find out what you love and what you're good at. They mightn't always be the same thing, but when they do overlap that's when you'll find yourself seemingly able to work at it tirelessly, even with everything else that's happening in your life.
And don't obsessively compare yourself with how other people in the same field are doing; as long as you put effort into what you love when you can afford it, even if it's the littlest bit, you're still progressing and that's what counts eventually.
Thank you for sharing your passion with us!
Kai doing what he does best- Beatboxing