From the lectern to the stage: Bio dean Thompson plays the blues

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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Singer-songwriter Marjorie Thompson has toured all over the world, playing folk and blues finger guitar for crowds of a thousand. She teaches guitar with Jorma Kaukonen, former lead guitarist for Jefferson Airplane.

But Thompson hasn’t quit her day job – associate dean of biological sciences at Brown. Beyond her teaching, advising and planning duties for the Division of Biology and Medicine, Thompson has just released her fourth album, “Right By Me,” comprising mostly original blues and folk songs.

“Sometimes I wake up and ask, ‘Who am I today?’ ” Thompson said. In addition to fulfilling the demands of being a dean, throughout the school year she travels all around to teach guitar workshops and to perform. “The medium is different, but for me my life at the University and with my guitar are very similar – both involve instruction, education, creativity, passion.”

“I don’t know how she juggles it all,” said Fred Jackson, the director of the Plant Environmental Center, who has worked with Thompson in her professional capacity at Brown. “She’s all over the world all the time, but it never detracts from her job. She continues to do both things with such great enthusiasm.”

“I try to keep them separate, so people know that I value Brown,” Thompson said. “But my students and other professors have listened to my music and come to shows – it’s nice to share that with them.”

Although both music and biology have always been essential to Thompson’s life, it wasn’t until recently that she began making a career out of her music. After attending a workshop program for musicians in 1999, Thompson began writing in 2001 – and has received critical success with her four albums.

“It was never my goal – just playing guitar was all I wanted. I started writing songs by accident, and it became a central part of my life,” Thompson said. She released her first album soon after and immediately began touring.

“It was a wild experience – I don’t get stage fright before teaching, but I did with my music. My music is more personal, I felt more exposed,” Thompson said. When she first started performing she played at venues on campus and in Providence. Since then she has played venues of a thousand people in Italy and played with some of her own guitar heroes – Dan Hicks, Hot Tuna and New Riders of Purple Sage.

“It’s very gratifying that they are all smart and good people, and not a lot of ego and airs, just people who love the music,” Thompson said. “But the best thing about writing and performing is the new levels it has taken my guitar playing – since I started writing, I’ve improved as a musician.”

Thompson’s success has also brought her musical and academic lives closer together.

“I have been requested to do college consults with high school-aged kids of booking agents or people I’m performing with,” Thompson said. She has also been a guest lecturer in a music class at Brown.

The connections between these two parts of her life are more fundamental than they seem, she said.

“When you are teaching, you are communicating and entertaining, and I see those skills as being parallel. When I teach about liver, I’m not thinking about music. But getting across ideas and getting them excited about it is the same,” Thompson said. “I’m still working on connecting with the audience. It’s really something when you can see people so close to you responding or being moved by your music. Then again, sometimes it’s like telling a joke and no one laughs.”

“She gets the best of both worlds, that makes her even more dynamic,” Jackson said. “I don’t know what she’s going to do when she makes it big.”

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