By Eden E. Estopace | January 28, 2007 Starweek
This school, run by the Benedictine sisters since 1906, is the first to offer music education in the country, and now, a hundred years later, is still the country’s premier training ground for young musicians.
In an interview with Starweek, Sister Mary Placid Abejo, OSB, the current dean of the low-key music department, refuses to name the renowned musicians the college has produced. There are far too many, Sr. Mary Placid says, that it is unfair to name but a few, considering that majority of the piano virtuosos, the master violinists and the premier musicians that this country boasts about had graduated or, in one way or another, had taken lessons at this institution.
Such is the overriding philosophy of SSC’s music education, unchanging through the years: it recognizes Filipinos’ innate love for music and talent for the arts and its mission is to hone this gift and nourish this artistic inclination minus fanfare.
SSC’s history recounts that when the first missionary Benedictine sisters established a school on CalleMoriones in Tondo in December 1906, which later became St. Scholastica’s College, they noted the Filipinos’ innate gift for music and immediately wrote the Motherhouse to request for a piano teacher.
In October 1907, a Benedictine nun from Tutzing, Germany arrived in the country and immediately started giving piano lessons to whoever was willing to learn to play the instrument. This teacher was the famous Sr. Baptista Battig, who was mentor to the country’s first generation of piano virtuosos. Sr. Battig was also the first dean of the SSC College of Music and is recognized as one of the founding pillars of music education in this country.
Before coming to the Philippines, Sr. Battig was already an accomplished concert pianist in Silesia. Before she entered the convent, she had studied under Ludwig Deppe, a pupil of Franz Liszt. In the Philippines, she established the system of formally grading piano studies and established St. Cecilia’s Hall as the premier venue for concerts until the 1960s.
Legend has it that when Sr. Battig was new in the country, a German resident in Manila by the name of August Gnandt, who had been supporting the nuns since their arrival in Manila, went up and down the streets of Tondo ringing a bell to announce that a piano teacher was available at the Benedictine Sisters’ convent.
Today, there is no need for such a bell. The little ones, as young as three or four years old, are enrolling at the college from all over the metropolis either to learn to play an instrument or to take voice lessons.
Sr. Mary Placid says that while they have only around 90 students in the college level, there are about 400 kids taking music lessons in the department.
Most of them might not grow up to be full-fledged musicians, but music is an activity for the soul, something you grow up doing with the family and you carry that through life. Most children who attend music classes also come from musical families. They come with their siblings, nannies, moms and dads in tow, camping out in the music halls on weekends.
While the SSC remains to this day an exclusive school for girls from grade school to college, the music department accepts boys both in their regular degree programs and in their music classes. While the little girls are mostly in the piano or violin classes, the older boys usually take on the guitar, cello, or drums.
Sr. Mary Placid reveals that over the years, music education has evolved at SSC; from offering primarily piano lessons during the time of Sr. Battig, it is now teaching almost all kinds of instruments, including Filipino ethnic instruments such as the kulintang. It has also opened its doors to adult students still willing to embrace music in their adult lives.
“Music is therapy,” says Sr. Mary Placid. “Even poultry or house pets are known to benefit from some form of music, according to studies.”
In a piano recital last March, Sr. Mary Placid thanked parents for taking the time to bring their children to school to study music. She admits that with so many other activities luring families away from traditional recreation such as classical music, it is heartening to note that many parents still recognize the importance of the discipline of music in child rearing and that at SSC it has never really gone out of style.
That particular recital had a unique concept;the performers played in twos. Piano duets, Sr. Mary Placid explained in her opening speech, are much harder to accomplish than piano solos as it is always much more difficult to play with another person than to play by yourself.
When you play with another person, you have to hear how the other one sounds and adjust your rhythm and tempo so that you can make beautiful music together. The same goes for human relationships, she says. One has to listen to the other and strive for synchronicity so that the melody that comes out of life together is one that is melodious and harmonic.
Such is the philosophy that governs Sr. Mary Placid’s deanship for more than 30 years now. Music is always related to life;making it better, more humane, and attuned to the highest ideals of God and man.
Sr. Mary Placid, who has masteral and doctorate degrees in music from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, is the fifth dean of the college, and has steered the college’s direction towards the pursuit of higher goals through music.
Music alumnae Annie de Guzman recounts that in the mid-70s when Sr. Mary Placid had just been appointed dean of the college, she started an outreach program for street boys in nearby Singalong. From catechism, she started teaching them how to play the guitar and they would sing and play in class. Before long, the energetic sister was asking people to donate instruments. That catechism class eventually became a rondalla that started playing at five-star hotels for the functions of the Rotary Club. Most of these street children eventually became music scholars in the school and went on to play with professional groups.
Eventually, the idea of training young musicians caught on and, together with Professor BasilioManalo, she helped found the Philippine Research for Developing Instrumental Soloists (PREDIS) Children’s Chamber Orchestra.
Sr. Mary Placid’s efforts at bringing music to a wider segment of the population have taken her all over the world, presenting her case before potential sponsors.
“You want to help, donate an instrument,” was the sister’s famous line to corporate foundations. And it wasn’t long before the donations came pouring in. Today, the schooling of almost half of the music students at SSC are funded by foundations put up by the good nun such as the Predis and the Battig foundations.
One of the activities lined up for the commemoration of the centennial of the SSC College of Music is a series of concerts at LRT and MRT stations near the school.
“We want to attract potential students to our program,” explains Sr. Mary Placid. “Specifically, we want to recruit young people gifted in music who are passing by the area because we can only offer free tuition and some form of allowance. As of now, we can’t provide for the board and lodging of our music scholars even if we want to. If they live within the vicinity of SSC or at least in Metro Manila, we can offer them something.”
Because musical talent is a gift, she believes that it has to be nurtured and the SSC, as the oldest music school in the country, has to be at the forefront of developing the country’s large pool of musical talent from all segments of society.
Besides providing opportunity to young people to study music, another accomplishment of Sr. Mary Placid’s deanship is the reconstruction of the famous St. Cecilia’s Hall, which was constructed by Sr. Battig in 1933. It was restored after the war but major improvements were necessary to equip it for modern use. It was reopened in 2000 after four years of massive construction work.
“How can you teach music if you don’t perform,” she asks. All graduating music students at SSC today perform at a recital at the St. Cecilia’s Hall with an orchestra.
In October this year, to mark the 100th year of the arrival of Sr. Battig in the country, the college will present a tertulia depicting her life featuring 100 voices, 100 fingers and 100 strings.
That’s a long way from humble beginnings on Calle Moriones with one lone piano teacher and a second-hand piano, but it only proves the truth that music is still and will always be in the heart.