When Kalamazoo College Professor of Psychology Siu-Lan Tan got a call from the World Science Foundation in 2013, the foundation official had two requests. First, the foundation was asking permission to present Tan’s research on how music shapes film narratives during a panel discussion hosted by Alec Baldwin and the Coen Brothers at its annual World Science Festival. Then Tan was asked if she would blog about her research on the festival’s website.
Without hesitation, Tan said, “Sure.” She then called her sister, who is 12 years younger, and asked, “What ‘exactly’ is a blog?”
“This was two years ago,” Tan recalls. “They said they would send the link out by Twitter feed, so I asked my sister, ‘What is Twitter feed?’ She had to explain all of this stuff to me.”
Now the 52-year-old author of two books, Psychology of Music: From Sound to Significance and The Psychology of Music in Multimedia, blogs for Psychology Today, where she writes a popular column called “What Shapes Film?”
Infant emotional development, indie music videos and baby polar bears are just a few of the subjects covered in her column. Tan, whose first name is pronounced either “SYOO-lahn” or “SHOE-lahn,” depending on which of her parents you ask, blogs about viral videos and analyzes film through the lens of two fields nearest and dearest to her heart: child development and the psychology of music.
Sometimes Tan combines insights from both fields. One of her most popular posts, “Why Does This Baby Cry When Her Mother Sings?” explains why the baby in a viral video cries when her mother sings a particular song. Tan’s explanation in her blog post is that the baby might be mirroring the emotive face of her off-camera mother. The post has been read nearly 90,000 times.
As if achieving wild success in a medium she was once only dimly aware of isn’t enough, last August a team of Emmy Award-winning journalists and producers flew from Los Angeles to Kalamazoo to interview Tan for SCORE: A Film Music Documentary. The movie, slated to be released in November, will feature interviews with Hollywood composers Hans Zimmer, Danny Elfman and Randy Newman and director James Cameron alongside footage of Tan, who was chosen to participate because of her expertise in the psychology of film music.
In addition to her involvement in what she says is “a ground-breaking film on film music,” in 2012 Tan received the Lucasse Award, Kalamazoo College’s honor for excellence in teaching. And she’s been quoted on websites and in publications from BuzzFeed to the Oxford University Press.
When does this woman sleep? And, more importantly, how did she get to this point in her life, when things as disparate as orchestral music, Hollywood film scores and a baby’s emotive face make sense to her?
Tan was born in Bondu, Indonesia, and when asked how she came to Kalamazoo, she laughs and says, “I kept venturing into new worlds that I was not prepared for.”
When Tan was 4, her family moved to Hong Kong, which at the time was still a British colony. Because the Tans didn’t speak English or the Chinese dialect spoken in Hong Kong, Siu-Lan entered British school on probation, eventually learning English. At home, her family spoke Indonesian and Dutch.
Tan still speaks with a faint British accent. It sounds more like a hypersensitivity to correct pronunciation than anything else, but it gives her speech an elegance that matches her ideas.
“Hong Kong was a completely new environment for me,” she says. “I had to grow into the language, the culture, the whole school system. It was very different from what my parents had experienced, so if I asked for help with homework, the answer was, ‘Oh, we didn’t do it that way.’”
Tan says that school experience still resonates with her now that she is a college professor. “I know what it’s like to not know what’s going on in the classroom,” she says. “It’s really important for me to look for those students who are lost.”
At 19, Tan moved to California to study music as an international student. “We used to call it ‘foreign student’ back then,” she says, laughing. She said goodbye to her parents at the airport in Hong Kong not knowing when she would see them again.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in music education and an associate degree in piano pedagogy at Pacific Union College, Tan fell in love with psychology.
The transition from studying the arts to studying psychology challenged her. “In music, intuition is really important,” she says. “It informs the expressivity of what you put into a piece. When it comes to psychology, intuition is just the beginning of the story.”
Psychology, which requires a systematic testing of hypotheses according to rules of research, wasn’t easy for Tan at first. But her father, who is in his 80s and still lives in Hong Kong with her mother, was an electrical engineer before he retired. Rigorously structured learning was part of Tan’s background, although she didn’t tap into that type of learning until early adulthood.
Interestingly, Tan’s mother played music and ran a kindergarten. “She’s very artistic,” Tan says.
In 1990, Tan reconnected with her college sweetheart, Danny Kim, and married him shortly thereafter. They had been apart for six years, during which time Tan began doctoral studies in psychology at Purdue University, in West Lafayette, Indiana. In 1992, she transferred to Georgetown University, in Washington, D.C., to be near Kim and in 1998 earned a doctorate in psychology there. Tan says despite her new academic credentials, she was still determined to hold onto her own artistic path, especially her love of music.
“When I left Hong Kong, I didn’t want to say, ‘OK, I’m going to replace myself and be an American and forget where I was from.’ The same thing happened when I went to psychology. It was really important for me to say, ‘Don’t lose the music. Don’t lose that artistic instinct, that creativity.’”
The combination of creativity and structure is what Tan is most passionate about in her work with her students, especially in a developmental psychology class at Kalamazoo College, where she teaches students that imagination is essential for a healthy society.
“Reading and mathematics are very important,” Tan says, “but if all children are doing is memorizing and pattern recognition and they lose their imagination, you are cultivating people who lack the creativity to become innovators, to grow up and produce ideas.”
She relates a story her mother often tells about Siu-Lan’s childhood in which the young girl would line up her stuffed animals, prop a chalkboard and a clock in front of them, and lecture the animals for hours about how to tell time.
“Imagination is such an important aspect of childhood not to lose,” Tan says. “How to read a certain language is not a natural thing to know to do, but this other thing (imagination), the child comes into the world with, so it’s not like we have to teach it. We just have to keep it alive.”
Tan calls her various projects “potato printings,” as if the life of an academic is not too different from the projects she facilitates with local elementary students through a program called Playground Crew. The program, which was created by Tan with students in her developmental psychology class, pairs college students with elementary school recess groups to study how a child’s play is actually a child’s work.
The Co-Authorship Project
Such projects with local elementary students are pivotal in Tan’s work. She also runs The Co-Authorship Project, a program she founded in her first year of teaching at Kalamazoo College 17 years ago. The project matches Kalamazoo College students with elementary students at Woodward School for Technology and Research in Kalamazoo to write books together, producing one-of-a-kind, hand-bound literary gems such as Fufu the Lawyer Wizard Dog, Save the Drama for Your Mama and How to Make a Banana Milkshake, a how-to book that opens with the line “Borrow your grandma’s blender.”
Last year Tan’s husband, a video producer and documentary filmmaking instructor at Kalamazoo College, directed a full-length documentary about The Co-Authorship Project called The Stories They Tell. Kim worked on the film for two years, editing 80 hours of footage while keeping editorial decisions separate from Tan so she wouldn’t influence its shape.
“My husband is a huge part of my life,” Tan says about her 31-year marriage. “We collaborate. We edit each other’s work. We met in creative writing class. We both love words and everything about performing.”
“He’s like 10 people to me,” she says.
The Student Within
Tan starts her days listening to “Rey’s Theme,” from the Star Wars movie The Force Awakens, which accompanies the character Rey, a tough young woman with an active moral compass and a task to bring missing intelligence to the good guys in the movie.
It seems fitting. During her sabbatical this year, Tan is working on six publishing contracts: One is a book, three are book chapters, and two are research articles.
Her students confirm the layers of preparation that go into Tan’s work. She has three research assistants who will be credited in the published books they are helping to create. Tan sends them chapters she is revising, and they tell her what they think.
Christina Dandar, a sophomore psychology major who is one of Tan’s research assistants, says she appreciates the opportunity to get a behind-the-scenes look at how books are made. “It’s cool to see how I affect the chapter,” Dandar says. “The input I have actually makes a difference in what Dr. Tan writes about.”
The words Tan uses to describe her assistants could easily sum up Tan herself: dynamic, curious, bright, talented and very different. But Tan’s focus is rarely on herself. Instead it is always on what she is learning.
“I love these women,” she says of her research assistants. “I couldn’t do this sabbatical without them. They are picking apart everything I’m doing and giving me feedback on how to do it better. It’s fun because usually the tables are turned, but now they’re guiding me.”
Despite all her accomplishments, Tan says disappointments hit her hard. If she does something and it doesn’t go as planned, it stings, she says. But then “I just say to myself, ‘Something else will come through, and I’ll do a better job at that.’”
In other words, Tan doesn’t scrutinize the events of her past, a trait that is interesting for an expert in the fields of child development and psychology. “Mainly, I am moving forward,” she says. “Maybe I should be more analytical, but I think I just tend to move forward.”