High Notes

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Music can change the world because it can change people - Bono

If you’re not familiar with Alan Shiner’s name, there’s no question that you’ve heard his work.

In fact, you can probably fill in the gaps.

967-11-11, phone Pizza Pizza …

Sleep Country Canada, why buy a mattress …

African Lion …

Everyone loves MarineLand …

Sunwing dot …

You get the idea. Alan Shiner has written some of the most prolific jingles in modern Canadian history. For most of his life, Alan has been working as a highly accomplished musician, composer and producer. He was already a star in high school, forming a band that continues to be a hot musical act to this day. His musical journey has taken him on adventures most artists could not fathom, from playing on Boz Scaggs’ hits to working with Mariah Carey since 1997.

Yet Alan’s career has been full of choices, and the list of opportunities he had to pass up is equally as noteworthy. When he started university, he auditioned for Billy Preston’s band and was offered a world tour – an opportunity his mother discouraged due to the realities of a hard-partying life on the road, and one that he ultimately turned down to focus on his studies.

In his early post-secondary days, Alan says he was unsure of which path to take, having turned down offers for pre-med programs and Western University’s dental school in London, Ontario…so he chose to stay in Toronto where he could study sciences, as well as continue as part of the local music scene.

Along with countless live gigs, Alan worked on recording sessions and composed the scores for a few theatre productions in his spare time. A song he wrote for one of those plays took on a life if its own….maybe you’ve heard it? “It’s Raining Men”.

Instead of pursuing music as his sole career after completing his science degree, Alan continued on a parallel academic path when he was then accepted into the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Dentistry program. The juxtaposition may seem strange to some, but not to Alan.

“I probably enjoyed each thing better because of the other,” he says, reflecting on his career (he left practice several years ago due to chronic back and neck issues).

After serving as the musical director on a CBC variety show while in dental school during the early 1970s, he contemplated an offer to become the keyboard player on a new variety show on NBC. Alan turned down the opportunity in order to finish his studies, and instead recommended his friend from Thunder Bay, Paul Shaffer. The show was Saturday Night Live.


Alan viewed dental school as a way to offer him a professional course of study while allowing him to simultaneously continue his musical career. In his own words, he made it through school on a combination of a “photographic memory, ignorance, naivete, and chutzpah (nerve)”. Intelligence and skill no doubt helped, as well.

After his first semester in Dentistry, though, Alan says that his mental health took a sharp turn. He met with the Dean and all of his professors, who urged him to take a few weeks away to refocus. Those few weeks turned into a few months, during which time he dealt with serious mental health challenges.

Still, he returned to the program with his confidence nearly shattered, struggling to interact with students or to absorb any of the material. Some classmates and professors put up barriers. They were difficult, even abrasive, questioning his ability to handle the competitive environment and his commitment to his studies in light of his musical career.

Surprisingly, support came from unexpected places. One professor, who had previously been strict and seemed to lack empathy, ended up being one of the most understanding.

“I could hear a calming voice next to me and it was Dr. Phil Watson, kneeling down and gently asking me how I was doing,” says Alan of his first day back in the dreaded school lab. “He took me into the hall and told me about his own mental breakdown, and that his wife had mental illness and was frequently in hospital, and how he drove a tractor on his farm in his free time to help cope with the stress.”

This kindness showed Alan that he isn’t alone, and that there were ways to cope with mental illness while still enjoying a full and productive career.

In Dr. Alan Shiner’s case there have been two careers – both of which have brought him tremendous fulfilment and pride. Whether it’s writing a great song or doing great work with patients, Alan says “I’m proud of anything that I can do the right way. It doesn’t matter if it’s a solo thing, or with notable people…I’m proud that I put in the proper effort and did the best job that I can.”

While he still lives with episodes of depression, Alan says that music has been what helps him through.

“Sometimes when I’m having a really bad day and don’t feel like going to a gig…I know that feeling down doesn’t lead anywhere, and the music is what lets me escape.”

“I can only rely on myself to get out of it,” says Alan, “but it’s true that music does help.”

“I do believe that we can exercise our artistic gifts, such as I do with my music, as a way of transforming painful emotions and experiences. Music gives us a sense of purpose, fulfilment and belonging. Scientific evidence shows that these things actually improve the health of our brains and add years to one’s life, period! Music has had a very restorative effect on all fronts, both for me and everyone who has been listening.”

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