Saturday, October 15, 2005

Professors move to a different beat - Brown Daily Herald - Campus News

Brown Daily Herald

Professors move to a different beat

Non-music professors find time to pursue musical endeavors
By Sara Walter
Published: Friday, October 14, 2005

As a student, it is hard to envision one's favorite professor or dean out of the classroom context. But Associate Dean of Biology for Undergraduate Education Marjorie Thompson, Professor of Anthropology William Beeman and Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine Scott Allen are just three Brown faculty members who find time between class and research to explore another talent: music.

"Whatever is worth doing is worth overdoing"

Marjorie Thompson loves her job. A teacher and mentor for undergrads and graduate students, she has been at the University for 25 years. But when she was growing up she had a "three-pronged interest" that included not only science, but music and art as well.

In the mid-1960s, as folk music came to the fore, Thompson began playing the guitar. She "lived and breathed folk music" and took lessons in country blues finger-style guitar from Southern-trained artists in New York.

Today, Thompson performs in a variety of venues including clubs, theaters, taverns, coffee houses, house concerts, festivals, radio stations and public access television - though her personal favorite was the International Guitar Festival in Italy.

The back-and-forth transition between teaching and music is natural, Thompson said. "Teach-ing in itself is a communication art" because you are "trying to evoke a response" from students, she said.

Thompson called herself a guitar "hobbyist" from 1965 through 1999, at which point she attended a guitar camp in southern Ohio. The owner of the camp was Jorma Kaukoner, the lead guitarist of Jefferson Airplane, and Thomp-son says it was only after studying with an "idol" that she started playing guitar seriously. In 2001, she began composing her own original songs. Encouraged to record and perform the songs, she has since released four CDs.

"Whatever is worth doing is worth overdoing," Thompson said. At this point in her folk music career, she performs an average of 75 shows a year.

Thompson also indulges her artistic passion by trying her hand at biomedical illustration and making custom jewelry based on the makeup of cells, which is sold in the Brown Bookstore. She said that people should not have to choose between their interests - it is "exciting to have alternatives," she said, adding that everyone should have a passion like hers.

Folk music is "like oxygen and you need it," Thompson said. She plans to continue working with biology at Brown, recording and "performing at better and better venues, and increasing (my) recognition in the music world."

Thompson said she is "intensely organized and fills up every possible moment of every day." She plans to perform at a study break in Arnold Lounge on Oct. 18 and has a Web site,, for her music.

Musical therapy

Scott Allen is a musician, activist and doctor. It leads to a workload that has reduced the number of live performances he can play in recent years, thus pushing his musical expression more into recording his folk music on piano and guitar.

"I think I've pretty much always had a fascination with" folk and popular music, Allen said. His interests include a combination of folk and rock music, but he has always been interested in the acoustic side of music. "I like music that is very simple and straightforward ... (there is) something nice and effective about simpler arrangements," he said.

Allen was a piano player in his late teens and early 20s, but was working at the time in Southeast Asia, where pianos were hard to find. As a result, he learned how to play guitar, and today it is his instrument of choice, though he writes, arranges, records and plays both instruments.

Allen works with Brown students who are residents at his clinical practice site. Until last year, he worked at a prison where students studying community health clerkships did clinical rotations. Now he works at the state hospital.

Despite his love for music, Allen says that even if he were able to make a living out of it - which, he said, musicians have not been able to do successfully for a long time - he would still practice medicine.

Allen also has a family, a Soros fellowship to do advocacy work in the area of human rights and is associated with Musicians for Human Rights in Cambridge, Mass., and Physician Advocacy, which works for freedom and democracy.

For Allen, the worlds of music and medicine constantly intertwine. His job in medicine has a "profound impact on the subject material of (my) music." The majority of his new CD was influenced by the time that he spent working in the prison. "If it's what you're living, it's what comes out," Allen said.

Allen currently performs about three or four times a year, as opposed to the three or four times a month he used to. He said that being in a band would be too much of an ongoing time commitment. Working individually, he said, he can "take an hour here, an hour there and not have to coordinate it." Consequently, individual recording plays a big role in his musical career.

Allen also finds music to be therapeutic. When he was in high school, he said it was very common for his peers to use marijuana and drink, but he turned to music as an escape. Allen tries to use this passion for music to help his patients.

"You can have an interest or a passion that can be therapeutic or healing. ... (I) try to ask patients what they find self-healing, such as music, sports, reading, (or) some other hobby they might have," he said.

Though he cannot perform often, Allen shares his music over the Internet. His site,, has 1,500-2,000 visitors a month.

"It really is a strong passion," said Allen. "If no one listened or no one was interested, I would still do it. I don't do it for praise, approval, or money - if that happens, it's wonderful."

Take a bow and an encore

Folk music isn't the only genre of music that University professors perform. William Beeman, professor of anthropology, has a background in linguistic anthropology, theater, speech, dance performance and performance theory. After working in Japan, India and the Middle East, Beeman said he realized that "(you) have to be a performer to understand what it is to perform," and he no longer wanted to only observe musical performances.

Many forms of musical performance in these cultures require training as a child. Beeman did have musical training and knew he could be a professional singer. He began attending the Boston Conser-vatory and commuted there for seven years while teaching a full course load at Brown.

Beeman has performed all over the world and came close to leaving teaching for good after a singing stint in Germany. Locally, he has performed in Providence, Boston, New York and Connecticut. Just last year, Beeman took a year off from teaching to write and perform. He has performed between five and six operas a year in Europe, North America and Japan.

While at the Boston Conservatory, Beeman did six apprenticeships, which he says is "how you really learn to work on stage with your voice." The apprenticeships provided him with the rigorous training for opera - in opera, if you don't have the correct vocal training, you can burn out your voice, Beeman said. Training is a huge time commitment and you have to be willing to train on a regular basis to be a successful opera singer. "(Performing opera is) an athletic activity in the end," Beeman said, because the singer is supposed to make it look easy while moving the audience emotionally and acting in a convincing way.

Beeman later took a three-year leave of absence from Brown to work at an opera theater in Germany. Though he had the opportunity to stay at the theater in Germany, he made the hard decision to come back to teaching at the University, partly because German labor laws were likely to limit the amount of time he could work there. Beeman returned to the United States and cut down his performances.

Every other year, Beeman teaches a music theater workshop that combines opera and music theater because he believes that the technique for both should be the same. He also composes music on the side and has two books in the works: "Iraq, a State in Search of a Nation" and "The Meistersinger - Artistry and Identity," which is about his experiences at the German opera house.

This coming spring, Beeman plans to begin auditioning again and set up a full performance schedule for next year. He said performing is a "terrific rush" and that there is "almost nothing more gratifying."

Beeman is a bass, which will allow him to sing much later into life than if he were any other voice type.

"If I live that long (I will sing) into my 80s or 90s," he said.