In the Spotlight

Robin Seto

Robin Seto attended JCC for four summers and Walden for two summers, graduating from Smith College in 1979 and then University of Hawaii John A Burns School of Medicine in 1983. After completing the University of Hawaii Internal Medicine Residency Program in 1986, she and her internal  medicine husband Stephen Denzer moved to the Big Island of Hawaii with the intent of providing comprehensive primary care to an underserved rural community as private practice physicians. In 2004, she joined the Hawaii Permanente Medical Group at the Kaiser Kona clinic, moving to Oahu in 2018 to join the Kaiser Permanente Hawaii Internal Medicine Residency Program.  They have two children, Brittany, age 27, a 4th year medical student at the University of Colorado and Ian, age 22, a graduating senior at Yale University in mechanical engineering.

How and when did you relationship with JCC begin?

My relationship with JCC began in the spring of 1969, when I won the Peabody Preparatory Spring Musicianship frolic as an 11-year-old, and was asked by Mrs. Cushman to attend JCC as a recipient of the Elizabeth Brouha JCC scholarship. My first summer at JCC was an eight-week immersion into a culture where creativity and community were the underlying values of the musicianship curriculum, followed by three additional summers at JCC and two at Walden. Those summers became the driving passion for someone intrinsically shy and introverted. I had the privilege of David Hogan’s teaching and mentorship during the summers and the academic school years as a Musicianship student at the Peabody Prep.

Many years later, as a physician mother working in Kealakekua, a rural community on the Big Island of Hawaii, I believed in the magic of JCC enough to want to embed the same values and experiences into my daughter’s life. Though both my son and daughter had been dutifully enrolled in Junior Music Academy and piano lessons in Kona, I bemoaned the fact that they would not have access to the quality of a Peabody Preparatory education. I considered volunteering as a physician to fill the nurse position posted by Walden, so my daughter could attend as a student, but opted instead for a series of mother daughter journeys back to Walden for the reunions when she was ages 3, 8, 13 and 18. Later, much to my delight, I discovered that, through those reunions, my daughter Brittany had developed her own personal friendship with my JCC roommate, Tamar Bloch, and in college, to her glee, discovered that she had enough credits to minor in music! Connecting with my children through music allowed them to see and connect with another aspect of me that I found most gratifying.

Could you describe a favorite memory from your time at JCC?

I do not have a one, but rather a myriad of JCC memories, as an 11 to 14-year-old, as though they just happened yesterday. The setting of the Burklyn Manor in Vermont, as a child, felt like living in a castle on top of a hillside, surrounded by mountains. Tears still come to my eyes when I recall singing “Come Close the Curtains of Your Eyes” to David Hogan’s accompaniment and listening to his “Bist du bei mir” while lingering on the Burklyn manor staircase. Mrs. Cushman would wake us up each morning at 7am, clanging the bell and singing, “Good morning to you.” In those days, without cable or YouTube, and reliant on live performances, I remember the thrill of the Sunday afternoon faculty concerts – the brilliance of Alan Shewmon’s and Hugh Wolff’s piano performances, the colors and sounds of Georgia Cushman’s dancing and the beauty of Monteverdi’s duet “Pur ti miro, Pur ti godo” sung by David Hogan and Nansi Carroll. I recall the sense of exhilaration while eating oranges on the mountain peaks after a long Saturday morning hike, then swinging through the Virginia Reel at Saturday night square dances. The Mendelssohn Piano Trio in D minor played at Mrs. C’s memorial concert will to this day make me pause and reminisce about my JCC summers.

What is something from JCC you have carried with you?

JCC gave me the foundation for a wonderful college experience as a music major at a small liberal arts college, Smith College, the alma mater of JCC faculty Ann Callaway. I was able to indulge in both piano performance and composition, and develop what was to be an influential 15-year relationship with Konrad Wolff, who had just retired from the Peabody Conservatory to teach piano during my freshman year. I was fortunate to be able to study with him in New York City during a three-month summer hiatus between my 1st and 2nd year of internal medicine residency, making time for a visit to the Walden campus together.

The most recent Zoom JCC reunion prompted me to reflect more deeply upon this question, acknowledging that music is not at the forefront of my life. I believe that the repeated summer JCC exposures as a child and teenager imprinted on my developing brain a set of learning values, emphasizing self-actualization, perseverance, joy of learning and sharing in a collaborative, supportive, non-judgmental environment. The goal of such an “appreciative or transformative” learning experience is to create a “growth mindset”.

At JCC, we were not taught how to compose, but rather, through analysis and experience of sound, encouraged to independently explore through the act of composition, presenting our works at the weekly Monday night forums for open discussion and feedback. The atmosphere was respectful, non-judgmental, and inter-generational, with the goal of fostering a collaborative, supportive, and creative community.

I believe that the acquisition of the “growth mindset” through my JCC summers contributed to my success and happiness through college and medical school, and then as a physician, mother, and now, after 32 years primary care in Kona, teaching faculty member of the Kaiser Permanente Hawaii Internal Medicine residency program on the island of Oahu since 2018.

How are music and/or creativity part of your life now?

When I was 13, Hugh Wolff presented George Crumb’s Ancient Voices of Children to our class, while, at the same time, Humphrey Evans introduced us to John Cage’s definition of music as sound and silence placed in time. The sound of voices, percussion and instrumental ensemble in George Crumb’s work and our class performance of John Cage’s Fontana Mix – “Music is all around us if we only listened” – embedded a lifetime memory of attentive mindfulness to sound, space, and movement, which I believe I carry to this day as a physician. When I enter a patient encounter, I feel, sense, and hear the space, glances and nuances of the patient, family, and/or caregiver, remaining attentive to sound and emotions. In this sense, I can “hear music” in much of what I do.

As an internist, my philosophy of care is based on the principles of palliative care, which include respect for an individual’s values and beliefs, and care based on a bio-psychosocial and spiritual model. I believe my experiences in music have led me to this point in my career, when I more fully understand and can articulate the importance of blending the art and humanities with the science of medicine.

In a book called Attending by Ronald Epstein, the four foundations of mindfulness – Attention, Curiosity, Beginner’s Mind, and Presence — are outlined as a means to increase physician capacity to promote more patient- centered care for medically complex patients. Mindful awareness of self and others is a cornerstone of the JCC and Walden experience.

On a more concrete note, given the consuming nature of life as a primary care physician, my current goal is to bring music more purposefully back into my life, inspired in part from the most recent JCC Zoom reunion. My 3rd year resident, as a member of Medical Notes, the Hawaii Permanente Medical Group string chamber ensemble, just told me recently that they would be thrilled if I would join them for a piano quintet.

Why do you give to Walden?

I give to Walden in the memory of Mrs. Cushman and David Hogan, and to say “thank you” to all the persons who had the commitment to ensure that Mrs. Cushman’s creative approaches to teaching music would live on following the founding of The Walden School in 1972. I still remember the tenuous period following Mrs. Cushman’s death in 1971, the responsibility she placed on David Hogan and Pamela Quist, then only in their 20’s, to carry her work forward, and the steady guidance of Mrs. Lynn Hebden and later Pat Plude. I salute the brilliance of Seth Brenzel’s leadership to lead Walden to a broader, more professional, and international presence in the digital age, and now its perseverance through the Covid-19 pandemic.

What is a hope you have for Walden’s future?

I hope that Walden will continue to flourish as a beacon of light for transformative learning, with the understanding that the underlying values and principles of Walden offer opportunities that are broader than the focus on music alone, and of significant value to our society as a whole.