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Returning to musical roots
  1. Helen Styes


Helen Styles couldn't decide between studying music or veterinary medicine, and used the Tripos system at Cambridge to study music in the third year of her veterinary degree. She now uses skills honed in small animal practice in teaching violin, singing and piano

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I HAVE been a musician all my life. I was brought up in a musical family (my father was a professional violinist and my mother sang in the church choir) and started to learn the violin at the age of four, eventually going on to study at the junior department of the Royal College of Music while I was at school. My other passion when growing up was cats and a fascination with biology; how animals worked and how to ‘fix’ them if they were broken. I always accompanied my parents if they took our cats (and assorted small furries) to the vet and wanted to hold them for their injections, even when the gauntlets had to come out for one of our fiercer cats and the hamsters.

After a considerable amount of debate between myself, my parents and my teachers about whether I should study to be a vet or do music, I decided to apply to Cambridge to read veterinary medicine. I found the first two years with all the lectures (often not vet-specific but with medics and natural scientists) and no live animals quite tough, but I enjoyed the farm work that I did in my holidays, so persevered. One of the best opportunities offered to me by the Tripos system at Cambridge was to be able to study music for my third year. This gave me a chance to prove to myself that I was up to the academic side of music (I found it easier than the vetting and did far better) and also, as there were fewer lectures, gave me plenty of time to practice and perform. There were a few in my year who let the natural break between preclinical and clinical take them down a different, non-veterinary route. However, I stayed and went on to the clinical school. I had a very supportive personal tutor there who advised me to do as much music as I could fit in without failing my exams. For me this was good advice, although it did lead me to arrive at one exam with my hair still ever-so-slightly green from playing Kaa in a performance of the Jungle Book the night before.

I was very proud to become a MRCVS in 2001 and was looking forward to finding my first job. I started work in a small animal and horse practice and had an understanding boss who would rearrange the rota so that I could get to London to rehearse. The first few years in practice were busy learning the basics (and being a greyhound track vet – something that had never crossed my mind before), but once I settled down more into practice life I realised that this was not all I wanted to do. Although this was something that had been brewing in my mind for many years it was still a daunting prospect even to consider leaving a respected profession that I had worked very hard to be a part of.

The timings of a life in practice with evening consultations, weekend surgeries and on-call rotas (often not organised more than a few months in advance) can mean that it is very difficult to fit in the rest of your life. I had to turn down many concerts as I could either not make it to the rehearsals on time or did not yet know if I would be working on the day concerned. I found this lack of control over my ‘free’ time frustrating and did less music in my first few years in practice than I had ever done, and for me this was not a good thing.

My first strategy to cope with this was to start doing locum vet work and fitting this in around more singing. This was working reasonably well and I was starting to get asked to do more solos but, as many women have to do, I had a choice to make. I knew I wanted a family and did not want to leave it too late, but also my musical career was just starting to do more than break even. I decided that starting a family would be a big enough challenge without adding a career change to the mix, so continued in small animal practice (and did the certificate in feline medicine as my love of cats has never diminished) while I had my two daughters. Having a break from vetting while on maternity leave gave me a real chance to reassess what I wanted to do. I am very aware that life is not a dress rehearsal – my mum died while I was at university, which certainly acted as a motivating factor in my ultimate decision to pursue a different career, as you never know what life may throw at you.

One of the ladies I met in my antenatal group was another singer and taught locally. Among all the discussions that you have as a new mum about how much your baby is drinking/sleeping/pooing (much like vet consultations really) she suggested sending the local schools my CV and taking it from there Once again, it took me some time to actually pluck up the courage to do this but finally in the summer term 2009, some 12 years after I first considered changing career, I did it.

I found work easily and am now teaching violin, singing and piano at three schools and privately. I am also the musical director of the Twyford Singers, a local adult non-auditioned choir, and have started to examine for the exam board of the Royal Schools of Music. I have found that there are many useful skills I learnt as a vet that help me now: communication is the key one, but also being organised and being willing to chase up unpaid invoices helps a great deal.

Now that I have taken the plunge and come out as a non-practising vet, it is surprising how many of us there are. I think it is easy to feel trapped in life as a vet in general practice as this is certainly the public's image of us, and it is hard for anyone outside the profession to understand why you could possibly want to leave. Observing my friends at vet school, many people came up to university not just with the required high A level grades, but were also talented artists, actors, musicians, dancers or county sports players. If you have the drive and commitment to make it as a qualified vet, should you find that life in practice is not for you, you have the ability to make a living doing something different. I found that when I was making the decision to move away from veterinary medicine there was no-one really within the profession I could ask for help or advice, which made the prospect more daunting and quite lonely. My husband (who is not a vet) was very supportive and I talked it through with a few close vet friends, but otherwise felt I had to stay silent.

I love what I do now – I still work unconventional hours and lots of evenings and weekends, but I can arrange these to make sure I am at home between school pick-up until the children are in bed and most of the school holidays. My pay per hour is better, but I work fewer hours so my income is down, but not to a degree that makes life impossible. I can also practice, perform and arrange bits of music for choirs (which I did anyway) and say it is work.

Will I ever go back to vetting? At this moment in time I am not sure – if someone offered me a cat only, consulting and medicine job I would be certainly be tempted. I suspect that my generation will be working into their 70s so, with another 35 working years left to play with, who knows!

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