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Artist academics

/ 02:57 AM October 02, 2015

I’ve written about the need for educational institutions to consider athletes and sports not as “extras” but as an integral part of academic life. I’ve used several arguments here, including a now-accepted fact that minds function better in healthy bodies. As for the athletes, who tend to be stereotyped and marginalized as having an easy life “just” playing sports, I’ve pointed out that the attributes of discipline and diligence, so admired in academic scholars, are found in athletes as well, sometimes at levels that exceed those of academic work.

Today I want to expand my advocacy to student artists, the ones in music, dance, theater and the arts (sculpture, painting and many more in this 21st century). Literature also falls under arts, but I will limit my discussion to the performing arts, “performing” itself being a loose term that includes an artist’s exhibition.

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When I was appointed chancellor of the University of the Philippines Diliman last year, I made it a point to first visit the departments of architecture (which I consider to be a discipline of the arts), music and fine arts, pledging they would be given high priority.

I did this because I felt that despite the many honors and accolades that our artists have brought to UP—from national-artist appointments to a harvest of awards from national and international competitions—we’ve tended to view them as we do athletes: not quite in the mainstream of academic life, and called in to perform for an intermission during a symposium or a reception for visitors.

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A dean of an arts college huffed: “We are tired of being entertainers.”

The dean’s remark and more thoughts passed through my mind in the last few days, during which I watched a few artistic performances. First there were the rehearsals and previews of the UP Pep Squad (which I consider both an athletic and artistic group) as its members prepared for the big UAAP cheer dance competition involving eight universities (that’s tomorrow, 2 p.m., at the Mall of Asia).

Then there’s the College of Music launch of a year of virtuoso musical performances leading to its centennial in 2016. The opening event was “Tikladong Hirang,” piano concertos composed by Nicanor Abelardo, Rodolfo Cornejo, Jose Fernandez and Francisco Santiago.

Last Wednesday night it was U-Hee Nori for a night of “Korean contemporary samulnori.” I know the terms sound like food, but U-Hee Nori is the performing group and “samulnori” is a blend of percussion instruments, dance and acrobatics.

Attending these events is not so much an official chore for me as a time for reenergizing at the end of a long day. One just can’t go wrong with the Korean group drumming away while flying into the air, or with UP’s most accomplished pianists playing on four Steinway pianos, accompanied by a full symphonic orchestra.

Neurology and the arts

Watching all these events, I thought of Oliver Sacks, author of such delightful books as “An Anthropologist on Mars” and “The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat.” Sacks, who passed away last month, was a physician and a neurologist; his books—including “Awakenings,” which was made into a film—helped the world to better appreciate the brain with what he called clinical tales, or accounts of patients with all kinds of neurological disorders.

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I use “disorders” with reservations because many are really variations, and we are too quick to call other people “weird” just because they think and do things differently from us. One of Sacks’ books, “Musicophilia,” is about music and the brain and includes a discussion of Williams’ Syndrome, a genetic condition marked by “hypermusicality,” or striking abilities in music, yet accompanied by developmental delays and physical problems. On the other extreme, Sacks has descriptions of a patient for whom orchestral music sounds like horrible noise.

Think of how dull the world, and life, would be if we all thought the same way. Our brains look similar but work differently, and this is so well exemplified by the variety we have in a university. Teaching general education subjects, I have had students from every degree program in UP Diliman and have seen the differences in the way they look at the world, and at people, around them.

Listening to the piano concertos, I marvel at how composers work out their musical scores for the piano (or four pianos), together with all the orchestra’s instruments. It’s not just sounds, but also the pauses, cadence and rhythm coming together.

Then there are the artists interpreting the pieces. The solo performer always dazzles, but I am more intrigued by the way orchestra players perform together.

We often disparage ourselves as undisciplined, yet we have the best chorale groups in the world, and I attribute seeing ourselves as part of a community to discipline. (It’s something we’re still trying to develop in the UP men’s basketball team; the discipline’s there, but the team spirit is still being molded.)

An academic community cannot thrive without the artistic brain, which I think exists in all of us, waiting to be cultivated. We need to start early with family life, encouraging children with artistic pursuits. I sense that in the Philippines, we “stream” our children: This one’s the nerd, sticking to books, another to play basketball, and another to do music.

Doubtless, there are differences in innate talents, but we owe it to children to give them opportunities to discover and develop what they have. I’ve met kids in urban poor communities learning to play a musical instrument or the steps of a dance by watching YouTube videos.

Learning from artists

I’d prefer they watch and learn from real live people, and this is why our schools need to be able to expose all our students, whatever their majors, to the arts and artists. I’m always reminding our students that they’re fortunate to be in UP Diliman, which offers so many cultural events: music, dance, theater, film (“Heneral Luna” will be shown on campus on Oct. 15).

It’s not surprising that we do have students and graduates who excel as scientists and as artists. Our College of Engineering has had two successive deans who are both accomplished pianists. One of them, Science and Technology Undersecretary Rowena Guevarra, is working on her PhD in music. The current dean, Aura Matias, explains that engineers and musicians share a fascination with counting, except that musicians think of the numbers as beats and notes and pauses.

Whether writing a journal article or a column, teaching or doing administrative work, academics have much to learn from artists, including the way they compose. Whether doing a painting or a musical score, they visualize a big picture of what’s out there and what’s not. Oliver Sacks wrote about how our brains sometimes trick us in wonderful ways, as we see sounds, hear colors. Artists seem to be better at tapping into those “tricks.”

We also stand to learn from artists’ performances, of the long hours put in for seemingly repetitious tasks but as a way of stretching the body and mind to their limit until an artistic piece becomes the master’s piece.

Then there’s the artist as conductor, the best ones being those who are able to bring free spirits to work together. That’s really what education is all about.

Perhaps reason for the bias in the academe against artists and athletes is this: We think of them mainly as bodies in motion.  That is certainly important, but we should also appreciate the way artistic performance involves the mind—focusing, centering, calming down. Those are skills that would also serve us well in science and technology, in management and administration.

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