By Ken Lutes
Ipractice piano six to eight hours a day, on days I’m not practicing dentistry – at least three hours on days I’m in the office,” says concert pianist and dentist Dr. Cody Garrison. “As much as you can be a good musician in your mind, you have to keep making your fingers work.”
Garrison’s piano playing ranges from recitals at Metropolitan State University of Denver, where he’s on faculty, to accompanying opera stars and performing concertos. This year he was chorus pianist for Opera Colorado. So, just how does a person balance a professional dentistry practice with the performance schedule of a busy concert pianist?
“Some people have lots of hobbies; I don’t,” Garrison said at his City Roots dental practice on W. 29th Ave. “It can be challenging sometimes, though. Like tomorrow, I have to play a recital at school, then come back to work. I have to carefully plan my days. In both music and dentistry, you have to be kind of a perfectionist.” He says he can be picky and obsessive. “When I practice music, if I can’t play it perfectly 10 times in a row I start over. If something’s not ideal, it drives me bonkers. That said, I’m a perfectionist at dentistry and at the piano, but nothing else.”
Garrison was 8 years old when he began to study the piano. By sixth grade, he was accompanying junior and high school choirs. “I played for church every Sunday, from fifth grade until I graduated,” he said.
Garrison grew up in St. John, N.D., a small farming town on the Canadian border with a population of barely 300 people. “My mom was my history teacher for six years,” he said, “and she played drums in a band called ‘Tickled Pink.’ My dad was a really good singer. Some families have good athletes, some have musicians.
“My first piano teacher was also a teacher at my school. She was a good mentor in the sense that she could tell I wanted to work very hard and didn’t put me on a particular track. She led me but let me do my own thing at the same time. Technique was never a problem for me.
“In seventh grade, I was studying with a gentleman who was more classically trained. I didn’t take piano lessons from that time until halfway through college. In dental school, I started studying with Tamara Goldstein, another North Denver resident, and I still do.”
Garrison knew when he was young that he wanted to be a pianist, but he also knew that it’s always been difficult for musicians to make a living, even during the times of the greatest composers like Haydn or Mozart. In eighth grade he began considering dentistry as a career. The leader of his youth group was a dentist. “He seemed to have it all – a good job, respect in the community.” Garrison shadowed him and soon developed the idea that becoming a dentist would support his creative need to play the piano.
After receiving a bachelor’s degree in accounting from the University of Jamestown in North Dakota, Garrison went to dental school at CU Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora, graduating in 2012.
“When I graduated from dental school, I thought I’d work in community health,” Garrison said. “I moved to Steamboat Springs and worked at a clinic in Craig. Then a job opened in Denver at Interstate Health Center at 38th and York. After two years, I became the clinic director. It was great to oversee a staff working together to develop goals and a mission that would allow us to treat our patients well, enjoy work and each other’s company. My rules were: don’t be late, don’t be lazy, and ask what can be done to help somebody else.”
Garrison assumed that he’d stay in community health, but his piano playing life was getting busier and busier and the clinic was a full-time job. The idea of starting a private practice made sense. Talks with one of the staff dentists, Dr. Carley Janda, evolved into their opening a private practice together (City Roots). “We had gone to dental school together and were on the same page about the appropriate way to provide health care.
“[Dentistry] is one of the few professions in which you can choose how many hours to work and still make a decent living. I like it more than I thought I would. It’s fun to work with patients to, hopefully, better their lives. Going to the dentist is not an easy thing for most people.” He joked that getting people to come to the dentist is like pulling teeth. “I love helping people to enjoy coming to the dentist. Keeping up to date on changes in dentistry is the hardest thing. Advances are being made all the time. But patient interaction – that’s my favorite part.
“Piano-wise, people ask me what I want to accomplish, and I’ve already done more than I anticipated I ever would in my life. I never would have believed I’d be working with a Grammy-winning mezzo soprano (Michelle DeYoung). I’ll be playing a concerto on Feb. 17 with the Boulder Symphony (bouldersymphony.org/tickets/2018/2/17/composing-the-end). In July, I’ll play at the Colorado Music Festival in recital with Michelle DeYoung (coloradomusicfestival.org/concert/scheherazade/).
“I feel very blessed that I’ve been able to do the things I’ve really cared about.”