Musical medical student claims top prize for cello performance
7 July 2021
A final-year medical student, who is also a professional cellist, is the most recent winner of the New Zealand National Concerto Competition.
Medical student Catherine Kwak has been playing the cello since she was seven. Now 23, she recently made the finals of the New Zealand National Concerto Competition, and emerged the winner.
Catherine, who has a Bachelor of Music, was once a professional musician and knew that this competition was her final chance to practise and compete before she graduates with her medical degree at the end of this year.
“I wanted to give it one last shot before I graduate,” explains Catherine, who performed Cello Concerto in B minor by Antonín Dvořák.
“I had nothing to lose and no expectations to live up to … it was something I decided to do, not for my career, not because someone told me to, but simply for myself.”
It was something that I decided to do, not for my career, not because someone told me to, but simply for myself.
As the daughter of a pianist, music has always been a part of Catherine’s life. She recalls first playing the cello as a child and knowing it was the instrument she wanted to pursue professionally. At 18, she graduated with a music degree from the University of Waikato. From primary school until she began studying at the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, Catherine would practise for four to eight hours each day and her love for music deepened.
Although the switch from music to medicine may seem unusual to many, Catherine sees many similarities between the two disciplines. Fascinated by the art of medicine, Catherine describes her future in medicine as “another humbling way of connecting to people at their most vulnerable times and helping them”. It was this sense of personal connection with others that has inspired her throughout both degrees, whether she’s communicating through music to an audience or working as a trainee intern at Middlemore Hospital.
With the final semester of her degree approaching, Catherine decided that the National Concerto Competition would mark the end of her competitive music career, although she continues to be involved professionally with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, Auckland Symphony Orchestra, NZ Doctors’ Orchestra, and teaches cello privately.
The preparation period for the competition was intense. Catherine would wake up early to fit in up to an hour and a half of practice before heading to the hospital. Once her work and study were done, Catherine would head back home for more practice, with little time to do anything else.
“I didn’t really have much of a life … you just can’t when you’re trying to study medicine full time and prepare for a national final, and that’s the sacrifice I was happy to make.”
It was a sacrifice that paid off, and Catherine was ecstatic when she won the $10,000 prize.
“I felt that I was able to show my raw and genuine passion in my performance, and I left the stage with no regrets.”
I felt that I was able to show my raw and genuine passion in my performance, and I left the stage with no regrets.
Although this year may mark the end of her competitive music career, Catherine plans to continue playing professionally and to find a balance between music and medicine.
“As many people have advised me over the years, 'never stop making time for what you love'. Whether you can play an instrument or simply enjoy listening to music, it can bring you comfort and consolation in any situation.”
Listen to an interview with Catherine on RNZ.