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Music, Message: Student’s Documentary Music Helps Raise Awareness

Combining her lifelong love of music and activism, M.M. student Ellen Seldin creates musical scores for documentaries about urgent matters: gendercide, kids at risk, wildlife conservation and more

Ellen Seldin has been a lot of things in her life: a star student, nurse, wife, surgeon and, currently, an emergency room physician at Doctor’s Hospital in Dallas. The 75-year-old is also a music student at SMU Meadows School of the Arts.

While still practicing medicine, Seldin attended classes at Meadows and earned her B.A. in music composition in 2012. Now she is pursuing her M.M. and expects to graduate in 2015. Earning the degrees has helped her merge two of her lifelong interests, music and activism, and in doing so, she has created yet another role for herself: composer, specializing in film scores for cause-based documentaries.

To date, Seldin has written music for three documentaries. The first score was a flute and piano piece made for Austin’s Side by Side Kids, a nonprofit servicing at-risk children. The second score was more complex; created for Gendap, a Dallas-based organization that raises awareness about gendercide across the world, Seldin’s A Lost Girl features delicate and plaintive clarinet, viola and harp, and supports the heart-wrenching topic of gender-selective abortion, murder and abandonment.

Her third documentary, 60 Million Years, is her most complex score to date, featuring a full orchestral score that rides the tide of a 19-minute script about endangered animals in the Mojave desert, with special focus given to the desert tortoise. While the tortoise has been successfully adapting to slow environmental change over the past 60 million years, it is now in danger of extinction due to rapid changes in the environment caused by human impact; the tortoises, and 23 other endangered animals in the desert, may not be able to keep up.

60 Million Years

For Seldin, the score for 60 Million Years was more than music for the film. It was also her M.M. thesis. “During the time I was figuring out what to do for my thesis, I received a Christmas card from family member Lesley DeFalco,” she says. “Lesley is a research scientist for the U.S. Geological Survey whose life’s work has been animal observation and preservation in Nevada’s Mojave Desert. She wrote that she was very concerned about the desert tortoise and had real concerns about whether the species could be saved.”

Seldin wrote back and asked DeFalco if she would be interested in having a film made about what she and her fellow USGS scientists were trying to accomplish. DeFalco was surprised but interested. Seldin offered to produce the film, and then approached her primary music professor, Dr. Robert Frank, about the possibility of doing a film score as her thesis. No Meadows music student had ever done a film score as a thesis before.

“I encourage our students to pursue projects on topics they are passionate about, and film music is one of today’s most popular mediums for composers,” says Frank. “When Ellen proposed this project, we agreed it was a huge undertaking, and she was quite apprehensive about tackling it. But the visuals had so many vibrant, musically suggestive possibilities and the message was so compelling.”

Frank adds that, along with a lot of hard work, breaking the project down to a professional, step-by-step process made it a success. “There were many times,” he says with a chuckle, “that I had to remind her of and encourage her with the old African adage: ‘How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time!’ But, with this first successful thesis project complete and successfully defended, I hope it has paved the way for many more to come.”

Frank, who is also Meadows’ new director of electronic music, adds that the almost completed renovation of the SMU Electronic Music Studio will help facilitate more film scoring projects by students wanting a professional-quality studio in which to create their scores.

Seldin says she suspects Dr. Frank has a bit of the film composer in himself. “He has helped me with the film scoring in a remarkable way,” she says. “His grasp of what to do, when, is phenomenal.”

The first public showings of 60 Million Years, sponsored by the Friends of the Gold Butte, were in September 2014 in Boulder City and Mesquite, Nevada. The desert scientists brought Seldin in to show the film and talk about the efforts being made to save the desert tortoise. Plans are being made to submit the film to various film festivals; 60 Million Years can be seen on

Moving forward, Seldin will next work on a score for a documentary about conservation of Texas water, a project in which she looks forward to Dr. Frank’s guidance. After that, the topic will be the impact of the loss of bees in our ecosystem and the domino effect the loss is having on food production for humans and animals worldwide. Of 100 crop species that provide 90% of our global food supply, 71 are bee-pollinated.

Life as an emergency room physician

Seldin has been practicing medicine since 1970, and acknowledges that life as an emergency room physician is often a blend of tension, focus and teamwork.

“In medicine, the expectations of the patients are huge and the expectations of the administration are, essentially, to make no mistakes. We treat large numbers of people, satisfy customers, deliver rapid care and processing of patients,” she says. “I’m on duty before I even walk through the door – you have to be focused.”

She says there are rewards as well. “We are able to solve problems. And I really appreciate the terrific camaraderie with my colleagues. We will often bounce things off each other. We’re a close-knit group with a lot of positive reinforcement.

“But still, it’s quite difficult work, and it’s not contemplative. You’re on the firing line with lots of demands all the time.”

For Seldin, music is a refuge. She enjoys the creative process and the way it provides her an avenue to bring awareness to causes she cares about.

Age, gender not barriers

Seldin has always been comfortable with hard work and with pushing past typical boundaries expected of people her gender or age. When she wanted to go to medical school in the 1960s, her father dissuaded her, saying she should instead concentrate on finding a husband and raising a family. Instead, she paid her own way through college, working weekends as a nurse. Because she was in the top ten percent of her class, she was able to gain acceptance to UT Southwestern Medical School in Dallas and was one of only a few women; out of 110 students in the class of 1970, only 14 were female.

She was a surgeon for 19 years in Denver, Colorado, and won several awards for her work, including an Outstanding Clinical Preceptor Award from the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in 1989.

In 1998 she married her former medical school professor, Dr. Donald Seldin, considered by many as one of the most impactful figures in the history of modern medicine and known as a key figure in building the reputation of UT Southwestern. In addition to her own medical profession and her life as a composer, Seldin also travels in the UT Southwestern sphere, attending events, fundraisers and social gatherings.

Meadows flexibility

Beyond the excellent training and studies she has experienced at Meadows (“Dr. Xi Wang’s class on Debussy’s Jimbo’s Lullaby was riveting – I’ll never forget it!”), Seldin appreciates the flexibility that Meadows has allowed her.

“One of the reasons SMU has worked out so well for me is that the faculty have worked with me in terms of my schedule,” she says. For example, while she was pursuing her Bachelor of Arts in music (and practicing medicine), her husband needed her to accompany him on a trip right in the middle of the fall semester. She sought the advice of Dr. Alan Wagner, Meadows associate director for academic affairs in the Division of Music. Wagner advised that she could switch to Independent Study for the semester, which would free her from formal classroom courses but allow her to continue her studies – in her own time – in jazz, composition and piano performance. “I don’t know that other schools would have been that tolerant,” she says. “It’s worked out wonderfully.”

Her experience at Meadows suits her, especially the flexibility and encouragement of the faculty.

“The Meadows faculty are remarkably open to working with students and trying to get the best experience for each student,” she says.

And the students’ attitude toward her age and experience?

“The interesting thing is, I’ve blended in with the students without any trouble,” she says. “I’m not here as an accomplished doctor, I’m here as a student and started off in Theory 101, just like them. We are all in the process.”

Read more about the Meadows School of the Arts graduate programs in composition, choral conducting, instrumental conducting, music education, music history, theory pedagogy, performance (various instruments and voice), piano performance & pedagogy, and the Artist Diploma and the Performer’s Diploma.

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