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From Music to Medicine: Two USU Graduates March to the Tune of a New Career

Cpl. Steven Mowen(left) performs during a concert. Ensign Trevor Elam (right) performs as part of a military band.

By Ian Neligh

The poets did well to conjoin music and medicine, in Apollo, because the office of medicine is but to tune the curious harp of man’s body and reduce it to harmony. 

—Sir Francis Bacon, 1561-1626

Blood pressure, respiration, heart rate  — the human body is affected positively by the power of music in countless ways. 

It is perhaps then not a stretch that two accomplished military musicians transitioned from the world of music to medicine and found helping people ultimately struck a powerful chord.

Air Force Capt. (Dr.) Steve Mowen and Navy Lieutenant (Dr.) Trevor Elam both graduated from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USU) on May 15. 

Both graduates started their musical and medical aspirations encouraged by their friends and family and have dedicated themselves to the pursuit of healing others.

The Ensemble

Sitting with his grandmother as she taught piano is one of Elam’s early inspirations for playing music. By the time he was in junior high, it had fully taken root. An opportunity came to play clarinet in his middle school band and he took it. While Elam’s initial motivation may have come from a desire to be with friends, his passion for playing music soon manifested after one particularly successful concert, accompanied by a standing ovation. 

Ensign Trevor Elam, then a 3rd year medical student at the Uniformed Services University, poses with a therapy dog on the wards.  (Navy Medicine photo)
Ensign Trevor Elam, then a 3rd year medical student at the
Uniformed Services University, poses with a therapy dog
on the wards. (Navy Medicine photo)
“I enjoyed the rigorousness of how methodically one has to practice to get good — I liked that,” Elam said.

After graduating high school he went to Eastern Illinois University where he studied under the clarinet professor. Elam graduated in 2009 with a music degree and a teaching certificate — but given the economic difficulties of the time,  couldn’t land a teaching job.

“So I was working minimal jobs, but I made it a priority to keep practicing and while I was waiting for the next round of teaching applications to come out I said, ‘well, I might as well make good use of this time and I kept practicing.”

He then applied for several orchestras, including with the Navy and Army. 

“And I won the job with the Navy band,” said Elam. He enlisted in 2010 and attended boot camp, then technical school where he learned the fundamentals of his new job including military drill and ceremony. 

“Three years, the bulk of my time, was in Naples Italy — that was a great experience,” Elam said.  There, the band was used to support efforts to bridge and help build partnerships between NATO countries.  “I felt like I was making a difference doing this job but I couldn’t do it forever… so that’s when I did some soul searching:  ‘what would I do if I wasn’t doing music?’”

While overseas, Elam ended up taking an anatomy and physiology class taught by an American endocrinologist who loved medicine.

“He mentored me and convinced me that medicine was the way to go,” Elam said. He soon realized it would be too difficult to do his medical school prerequisite classes while still in the military.

Elam said he and his wife, who was also in the same military band, agreed he would get out and go to school while she helped to support him. He attended Northwestern University for a post baccalaureate certificate in premedicine and before long he was accepted to attend USU. He soon discovered the hours he had once dedicated to practicing music now translated to studying in medical school, but that’s not where the similarities end. 

“As a clarinetist, I didn’t practice for practice’s sake, I practiced because the ensemble relied on me to be able to play the part well — just like my patients will now depend on me to know the material well,” Elam said. 

Mastery of Composition

It was family that inspired Mowen’s two largest life decisions. The first came as he was growing up.  He was inspired to be like his father, a talented musician and tuba player. His father recently passed away, and Mowen said he found his love for music deeply inspirational.

“I used to hear him play every once in a while and I wanted to be just like him,” Mowen said. 

He started on the euphonium, sort of a mini-tuba, and as he grew older, and began playing the tuba itself and, later, other brass instruments. His love of music brought him to Montana State University where he earned a Bachelor of Music Education.

While in graduate school, as he studied conducting, the Marines arrived on campus to recruit for their band. Mowen said he always had a desire to join the military and the timing of the recruiters was perfect. Before long, he tried out for the Marine fleet bands on a tuba and was accepted.

“I absolutely loved playing in the Marine Forces Pacific Band,” Mowen said. “All the Marine Bands are top-notch.”

Cpl. Steven Mowen speaks to students during a concert in American Samoa.
Cpl. Steven Mowen, U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Pacific Band, speaks to students during a concert April 15, 2015 in American Samoa. (U.S. Marine Corps
photo by Sgt. William L. Holdaway//RELEASED)

From 2013 to 2015, he traveled to U.S. territories and countries all over the world. 

“I remember, fondly, performing for the king’s coronation in Tonga,” Mowen said of the Polynesian Kingdom. “I wrote and arranged a piece of music for the king’s coronation and it was well-received. This was, perhaps, the highlight of my career.”

Mowen’s second inspiration, the one that would take him from music to medicine, occurred while stationed in Hawaii when his wife gave birth to their son. There were complications.

“After an emergent C-Section to save them both, I was quite literally in the hallway watching as my son was being transferred to the NICU and my wife to the ICU at the same time, ‘Who do I follow? What do I do?’ This was one of those moments that you will never truly know how you’ll respond until you’re actually living through it and I wish it upon no one.”

Mowen said the staff of the Kapiolani Medical Center saved his family and it was likely then that he realized he wanted to become a physician.

“I want to save lives,” Mowen said. “This realization happened late in my life but the motivation was as potent as anything I could imagine. I needed to become a physician.”

Mowen discovered USU’s Enlisted to Medical Degree Preparatory Program, applied and was selected.  Following completion of the two-year program, he was accepted to medical school at USU.  The Navy provides medical care for the Marines, but Mowen changed branches to the Air Force when a spot opened up. 

Trevor Elam and Steven Mowen accepting their USU Doctor of Medicine degrees.
Trevor Elam (left) and Steven Mowen (right), both former military band members, received their Doctor of Medicine degrees from the Uniformed Services
University of the Health Sciences, May 15, 2021. (Photos by Thomas Balfour, USU)

“We all bleed the same. Whether I’m serving in the Navy or the Air Force, we are the same,” Mowen said. “The inspiration to change branches did not differ from the inspiration to serve in the first place.” 

While going through medical school, he found his background in music to be helpful when it came time to hit the books.  

“Mastery of a composition is required before a performance and this requires countless hours of rehearsal at both the personal and group levels,” Mowen said. “In music, I would never imagine showing up to a rehearsal unprepared. In medicine, I would never imagine showing up to a ward without knowing every intricate detail of a patient’s physiology and pathology. A background in the discipline of music was tremendously helpful.”

Mowen said he loves what he does now and wakes up every morning excited to learn medicine. He added he still plans to continue to play the tuba, which he finds relaxing.

“I also look forward to playing for my son the same way my father played for me,” Mowen said.