By Molly Pereira, CDA Associate Executive Director
From the Winter 2018 Journal of the Colorado Dental Association
While he doesn’t own a cape (to our knowledge), he does own dark framed Clark Kent glasses and leads a life where his various colleagues, students and acquaintances rarely know his full identity.
To some he’s a general dentist (sans white coat), to others he’s a concert pianist (cue the phone booth outfit change into a royal blue velvet suit jacket) and it should be mentioned that he’s an accountant as well (refer back to the Clark Kent glasses).
While not Daily Star breaking news, it was long overdue to shine a spotlight on Dr. Cody Garrison—a practice owner of City Roots Dental in the Highlands area of Denver, the staff pianist and soloist for the Boulder Symphony, a pianist for Opera Colorado, and an affiliate faculty member at Metropolitan State University of Denver Department of Music.
Originally from a very small town of 350 people, Dr. Garrison grew up on a horse farm in Saint John, N.D., with his parents, sister and brother.
“I started playing the piano when I was 8 years old,” recalled Dr. Garrison. “From day one, it was the most natural thing I’ve ever done. My first piano was just this tiny 50-key keyboard, but I practiced a lot and advanced very quickly. The greatest day of my entire life was when I got a real piano a year after starting lessons.”
By the time Dr. Garrison was in fourth grade, he was accompanying the choir at his school.
“I just did it because I was pretty good at it,” he said. “And in a small town if you’re good at something, you just do it. When you’re from the Canadian border of North Dakota you’re not exposed to much classical music, and at the time I just assumed piano was a hobby but not a career.”
Small Town, Big Dreams
In eighth grade, Dr. Garrison decided he was going to be a dentist. He was inspired by his hometown dentist who had a career, respect in the community and free time to do what he loved. This career goal remained the same throughout high school and college.
“I talked to many dentists before attending college,” he recalled. “They all said the same thing—they wished they knew more about business. Taking that information, I decided to get an accounting degree from the University of Jamestown but also took the science prerequisites for dental school.”
While getting his degree, piano remained part of his every day. He was the university’s staff pianist and played at nearly every student and faculty recital. After graduating with his accounting degree, he applied to dental school, eventually moving to Colorado to attend the University of Colorado School of Dental Medicine. He has lived in Colorado ever since—despite traveling to his hometown four-to-five times a year to see his grandma and family.
“When I got to Colorado, my plan was to give up the piano for four years and focus on being a dental student,” he said. “I didn’t practice for two months, and it felt like I’d lost a limb. Not long thereafter, I was given a keyboard from a family member in Colorado.”
After graduation, Dr. Garrison rewarded himself in 2013 with his first major purchase as a dentist: a 7-foot Steinway Grand Piano.
From Pianist to Public Health Ambassador
Dr. Garrison always knew he wanted to work in public health. Early in his career, he worked for the Northwestern Dental Coalition in Steamboat Springs for three months, and then an opportunity opened up at Inner City Health Center in Denver. He was a staff dentist at Inner City Health Center, before becoming the dental clinic director for a little over two years—a position that he values as one of his proudest accomplishments.
“Being director was one of my favorite things I’ve ever done,” he said. “It’s fun to see how different leadership practices can impact a staff. My rules were always don’t be late, don’t be lazy and always ask what you can do to help someone else. We would constantly focus on what we were doing to make our patients’ lives better and what we were doing to make our work environment better.”
At Inner City Health Center he worked with his former dental school classmate, Dr. Carley Janda, whom he partnered with to create City Roots Dental—a move that put his accounting degree to good use. Having a private practice also allows him to have more time to focus on music. Both he and Dr. Janda continue to work part-time at Inner City Health Center in addition to their private practice.
“Every dentist should do community health,” he passionately stated. “These are the patients who truly need dental treatment.”
When asked about Medicaid, Dr. Garrison is first to admit that hurdles exist with the system but is adamant to serve this patient population. He attributes his success to understanding how to treatment plan and be most efficient.
Leading Two Lives
Efficiency also plays a role in his day-to-day schedule. Aside from his two dental positions, he finds time to serve as faculty in the department of music at Metro State on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
“Most of my students at Metro don’t know I’m a dentist,” he said. “I really enjoy working with musicians of all types, not just pianists. I coach them on how to collaborate musically.”
At home, Dr. Garrison’s second bedroom is literally filled with his grand piano. On days when he doesn’t treat patients, he practices piano for eight hours a day. On work days, he practices for “just” three hours. And if he has a break between patients, he goes home to practice some more.
“I ride that introvert/extrovert line,” he said. “It works for the way my brain functions. Being a dentist and a pianist together helps me be a more balanced person. I know of pianists who get so bogged down in minutiae, and dentistry helps me keeps things in perspective. Piano is a sanctuary. Accomplishments in piano are different than accomplishments in dentistry for me.”
Dentist by Day, Accomplished Pianist by Night
One of his greatest musical accomplishments occurred in April 2016 when he was given the opportunity to perform a concerto with the Boulder Symphony. Concertos are highly regarded soloist performances backed by an orchestra. For Dr. Garrison that meant memorizing about 70 pages of music and having 50+ orchestra members relying on him to perform 30 minutes of some of the most complicated music ever written.
“Life gives you opportunities and you either take them or not,” Dr Garrison said. “I’ve put myself in so many situations that scared the life out of me.”
His next solo performance is Feb. 17, 2018, in Boulder, where he will play Franz Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Boulder Symphony (bouldersymphony.org/tickets/2018/2/17/composing-the-end). He will also perform a recital at the Colorado Music Festival in Boulder this summer with Michelle DeYoung, a multi-Grammy winning vocalist.
“Piano for me, at the age of 31, has worked out better than I could ever imagine,” he said gratefully. “The happiest people I know are people who have things going on besides their jobs. Even if you don’t have a deep-seated passion, you have to do more than just your job. You can derive so much purpose in your life.”
And purpose doesn’t need a cape.