Birmingham ophthalmologist Andrew Mays briskly walks into the examination room beaming. This is no perfunctory encounter. He appears genuinely happy to greet this patient who could be the 60th he’s seen this day.
And this is no garden-variety eye care. His patients are battling glaucoma, many in advanced stages of this major cause of blindness. From Cincinnati to Fort Myers, they seek his expertise at the UAB Callahan Eye Hospital in downtown Birmingham or the clinic’s Vestavia location.
Mays is an associate professor in UAB’s Department of Ophthalmology who joined the faculty in 2013 after 16 years of private practice in Birmingham. But before ophthalmology he was headed for a career as a professional concert pianist.
Lifelong piano training and two music degrees later, Mays graduated from UAB Medical School in 1991 and became one of Alabama’s preeminent ophthalmologists.
“Being a contact lens and glasses wearer, I was fascinated by the workings of the eyes, ” Mays explains. “The surgical aspect also intrigued me. Microsurgery just seemed like a good fit for someone with my motor skills.”
Although he chose medicine, Mays also became a world-class amateur pianist — in 2007 taking first prize in the Fort Worth-based Van Cliburn Foundation’s quadrennial International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs, considered the most prestigious event of its kind.
The 2007 competition is the subject of “They Came to Play, ” an acclaimed documentary and New York Times Critic’s Pick. Mays competed against 74 amateur pianists worldwide and also won the Audience Award and Best Performance of a Work from the Romantic Era.
Mays brought the audience to its feet with his high-spirited performance of Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata and Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz.
Despite the gravitas of his performance, after he left the stage he lightened the competition by noting how playing piano in front of people “is a lot different from doing it in your boxers in your living room at midnight.”
Says Cliburn artistic consultant Shields-Collins Bray: “His playing is that of a real musician, and his joy in playing the piano is obvious and infectious.”
Former Cliburn Executive Director Richard Rodzinski calls Mays a role model for all amateur musicians. “He’s the kind of person we hoped to find when we created the competition, someone who balances his day job with an inner life that brings fulfillment to all who have the privilege of hearing him play.”
Among the movie’s most memorable and charming scenes is Mays playing piano at his Birmingham home as his young daughters dance in their ballet skirts.
As a child, Mays, now 54, saw Van Cliburn perform and was captivated. So receiving the top trophy from the virtuoso himself, who died in 2013, was an additional thrill.
Mays and his wife, Therese, have four children. An accomplished flutist, she also switched careers from musician to physician and practices internal medicine in Birmingham. Their son was studying music on a scholarship at the University of Alabama and is now a medical student at UAB.
“See a pattern here?” Mays asks.
His first piano teacher was his mother, astounded that her 4-year-old could replicate the melodies to kindergarten songs. At age 15, his family moved to Decatur, where he won a music competition. This led to a full scholarship at the University of Alabama School of Music to study with renowned piano professor Amanda Penick.
Early on, Mays recognized that stability and full-time musicianship rarely go hand-in-hand. In the movie he reveals wanting to be fully engaged in his children’s upbringing. His grandfather, who managed a music store and met many prominent musicians, warned him that a musician’s life is like being “a traveling gypsy.”
So, while earning his bachelor of music degree, he also took pre-med core course requirements. “My undergraduate years were difficult. I was practicing piano four to five hours a day and studying calculus, organic chemistry, physics and biology.”
He stayed at the University of Alabama to work on a master’s degree in music and was awarded another scholarship to study for a year at the Hanover Conservatory in Germany. Then to New York City to study at the Manhattan School of Music and back to the University of Alabama to complete his master’s.
“That’s when I implemented plan B. I applied to medical school, got accepted and was off on a different career.”
In medical school his apartment was too small for a piano, so he practiced in a church but eventually stopped. Fifteen years went by without touching the keys.
“There was too much to do in medical school. After that came an internship, residency, fellowship in glaucoma, marriage and family.”
Because he knows firsthand the benefits of studying music during childhood, he required his children to play piano.
“When I insisted they practice every day, they answered that I myself wasn’t doing that. So I started to practice again. That’s when I decided to play in the Van Cliburn piano competition for amateurs.”
He also won a silver medal at the 2006 Rocky Mountain Amateur Piano Competition in Colorado Springs.
Giving up private practice to merge with UAB was an easy decision, having served as its residency program director for 10 years and longtime adjunct associate professor.
“In today’s environment, it makes economic sense to consolidate resources. I think UAB is one of the most distinguished faculties in the United States. Our eye hospital is top-notch.”
UAB is a study center for the newest class of glaucoma drops, and Mays is the research project’s principal investigator. The medication is not yet approved by the FDA.
As lead ophthalmologic technician in the Vestavia office, Lynn Goggans regularly observes Mays’ patient rapport and tireless days. “He’s the most caring and compassionate doctor I’ve ever worked with. When he works through lunch I’ll let him know there’s a bottle of water and crackers.”
Mays has developed a gratifying niche for both his vocation and avocation, which includes practicing several hours a day with an upcoming performance.
He’ll play Feb. 14 at the newly renovated Lyric Theater in Birmingham to raise money for Birmingham Music Club scholarships, of which he was a recipient. In March, he performs in the Moody Music Building at the University of Alabama to raise money for its School of Music.
Piano is as fundamental to his wellbeing as grappling with the complexities of the eyes, and he’s equally at home in surgical scrubs, lab coat or white tie and tails.
“I dreamed I was onstage playing with an orchestra, but had not practiced and could not play the piece, ” recalls Mays of a recurring nightmare during his years away from the piano.
“It was always the same piece and the same ending. I woke up in a sweaty panic. Now I realize the dream was my unconscious musical part screaming for attention. I don’t have that dream now that practice is a regular thing. So I must have missed music more than I was willing to admit.”
Jessica Armstrong and Art Meripol are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. She is based in Auburn and he in Birmingham.
Text By JESSICA ARMSTRONG • Photos by ART MERIPOL