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Never Too Late to Start Composing: Studying Composition After Practicing Medicine for 40 Years

Ellen Seldin Comes to Meadows While Still an Emergency Room Physician

by Chris Calloway (B.M. Performance '12)

How late is too late when considering picking up an instrument or learning to compose music? If you are like me and just recently broke out of the teens into adulthood, you might think it already too late to start writing music as a hobby. After all, composition is only for those Mozart-like children deemed “talented” at a very early age and educated through years of private lessons and instruction, right? If Mozart had already composed a symphony by age 11, then why should normal people like me even bother trying?

Ellen Seldin (B.A. 2012), a practicing physician since 1970 and a composition student for the past four years at SMU’s Meadows School of the Arts, defies these stereotypes of composers and shows how writing music can be an intrinsically satisfying practice in today’s complex world. “In regards to healthcare, we can do a lot in medicine, but there are many complex issues regarding health we still do not know much about,” she said. “Also, people want healthcare but no one wants to pay taxes for it. I find that in music I seem to be to a great degree removed from these present issues that seem like almost insolvable problems.”

Enrolling at SMU has been a process Ellen has had to be patient with. “It was not until around 2005 that I could see my way clear to both arrange for part-time work at the hospital, and have enough money in my pension fund that I could take out money without facing the tax liability associated with withdrawing money from your pension before age 65.”

How does a woman of 70, both married and working, have time to study such an involved degree as music composition? “I rarely watch television, and don’t spend time on the telephone unless I have to arrange for appointments or reservations,” she said. “I use the computer for work, and I don’t have a Facebook profile or plan on ever getting one. Because I work weekends in the ER and of my commitments at home and to my husband, I can only take about 7-8 credits a semester.”

At Meadows, Ellen has studied with Dr. Kevin Hanlon for 2½ years in composition and Dr. David Karp for piano performance, and now works with Simon Sargon in composition. She has composed 11 pieces so far. Defeating the idea that learning new material is more difficult the older you get, Ellen has found her capabilities in grasping new ideas have almost improved since her first go-round of college. “The surprise to me is that I am able to learn as well as, if not better than, in my college days,” she said. “Of course, as an active physician on a hospital staff, involved with critical care procedures and situations, I am always having to recertify, re-do accreditation boards, etc.” For instance, Ellen will have to prepare for her board certification this fall, which will enable her to remain a board-certified ER doctor for the next 10 years.

With all the pressures of working in an ER environment, Ellen has found her recent study of music has helped keep her love and enthusiasm for work intact. Indeed, she says, “I seem to be less burned out than many of my colleagues.” Recently, Ellen composed songs based on four poems by William Butler Yeats, which were performed at the April SMU student composers’ concert “Nonsense and Love: The 21st Century Art Song.” When asked what her favorite instrument has been to write for so far, Ellen said, “Since I’m just now learning how to write for brass and percussion, I should hold off on this answer. I’ve had a lot of fun with my current piece, which is called Spring Fling. The piece is inspired by Prokofiev, who has written several works for ballet and film that helped set the foundation for modern film scores. The renewed vigor we all feel at spring was the fuel for the piece with the trumpet, trombone, tuba and percussion being the instruments involved in the composition.”

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