At SOTA, You’ll Need Plenty Of Authenticity

Meet Mary Seah, principal of the School of the Arts (SOTA), who tells us what an arts education at SOTA is really about.

Mary Seah (third from right) with SOTA Visual Arts students at the exhibition, 3Quarters (2019). Photo courtesy of School of the Arts, Singapore (SOTA).

Curious about what being part of an arts school is like?

“I sometimes tell people that I have joined a community with bohemian and literati vibes,” says Mary Seah, who took over the helm at SOTA in December 2018.

“Music is my first love, and I feel so privileged to be able to rekindle that as part of my job. Music and the arts have given me a language to speak with, and think alongside the teachers and students in this school. It is a powerful and unique language.”

A music graduate from King’s College, University of London, Mary is a natural advocate for the arts, and she is particularly interested in how it might be a way for young people to explore and process complex social issues. Early in her teaching career, she taught the A-Level Music Elective Programme at Raffles Junior College, and was later asked to head its arts department. Prior to joining SOTA, Mary was principal at Tanjong Katong Girls’ School, where she led the school to achieve a School Distinction Award in 2014.

Despite her artistic inclinations, Mary remains acutely aware that art, as a single discipline, is “inadequate in helping us to fully understand the world.” Her challenge then, is to provide opportunities for arts students to develop ways of thinking that will “spur them on to discover intersections with many other disciplines.” This, she says, lies at the core of SOTA’s curriculum philosophy.

Read on as she talks to KSP about leading the students at SOTA to greater heights.

Tell us about work right now. What are you doing? 

I am working from home today. In between two long meetings with my vice-principals and deans, I received a delivery of cold brew Hojicha tea, accompanied by a note that said “to help you get through the Circuit Breaker.” A cold treat, but such a warm gesture from a respected colleague! This is the “new normal,” where there are fresh opportunities for showing care and building a stronger SOTA spirit despite being physically apart. 

One of the hardest decisions we had to make today was to cancel the planned recordings of performances by our students. We had traversed numerous options in the past few months since Covid-19 hit us — from the postponement of performances, to reducing the audience size, to the eventual cancellation of all public showcases (in tandem with the national directive to close all performance venues). While we had hopes for making a recording instead, it has become clear that there is no way for students to rehearse, perform, or even record in real time. We’ve decided to put these sessions on hold for now.

What’s been the bright spark for you during this outbreak?

It’s times like these where the values of individuals, the strength of formal and informal leaders, and the unity of teams are tested. The bright spark for me, as head of this school, is the support we give to one another as we make difficult decisions. And despite the challenges of full home-based learning, I think our educational philosophy of being student-centric has become sharper in focus. 

As for our students, I’ve seen them step up to meet various needs of the community. Many of them had to rethink their community service projects and reassess the needs of the community in the light of Covid-19. To my students: whether you have chosen to lead a brand new initiative or join one, I am proud of your efforts!

Mary Seah (left) congratulating Class of 2019 SOTA graduate Marcus Chiau on his excellent IB results (2020). Photo courtesy of School of the Arts, Singapore (SOTA).

What do you consider your most important work at SOTA?

My most important work? Students, of course! Our students are going to inherit an increasingly complex and confusing world. I often wonder how we can anchor them in core values, so that they are free — free to explore the complexities, and trusted to make unique, beautiful, and constructive contributions to Singapore and the world. This is my interpretation of the school’s vision to nurture creative citizens for the future. I would really like our students to leverage their training in the arts to be the cultural leaders of tomorrow, where their contributions are significant, profound, and sustained.

You’ve wondered if there is a place for discipline in arts education. What are your thoughts on this now?

I believe that internal discipline is absolutely necessary in the pursuit of the arts. In reference to our school values, I sometimes ask students: What is “humility” and “integrity” in discipline? What is “passion” in the light of one’s artistic discipline? And finally, how does “people-centredness” feature in discipline? At the end of the day, discipline at SOTA is about honoring people and the institution — the values we stand for — and working towards the highest standards that qualify your art form as “art.” At its core, discipline is about you.

Tell us about an experience with a SOTA student that has encouraged you as an educator.

I’d like to mention Allison Tan, a SOTA alumna from the Class of 2018. Allison is a dancer who was awarded the SAF Scholarship and the President’s Scholarship in 2019. She is currently studying International Relations at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, and will return to a career with the Republic of Singapore Navy. Her example goes to show that there are a lot of transferable skills and dispositions in the arts. What we should continue to do in SOTA is to anchor our students in the important things that matter — and these include character values and ways of the arts disciplines — while also encouraging them to develop breadth, adaptability, and ultimately, service.

Mary Seah viewing SOTA Visual Arts student Claire Lim’s artwork at the SARBICA International Symposium 2019. Photo courtesy of School of the Arts, Singapore (SOTA).

What’s one thing that most people don’t know about arts students?

Our students come across as spontaneous, curious, and unafraid to question and probe. They are relaxed, confident, and outspoken. Look beyond the surface, and you will uncover the multiplicity of perspectives, the thoughtfulness, and the insight they are working on developing. 

Also, you might not know this, but SOTA students love sports. You will always find groups of students playing table tennis, badminton, or basketball at all hours of the day in school. Oh, and our A Division Tchoukball Boys team have been champions for three years running, while the Girls team have clinched top three positions too. They are a force to be reckoned with!

What should parents know about an arts education at SOTA?

What an education at SOTA requires from the student is authenticity. This is absolutely critical at the point of application, and an important requirement all the way through the six years that he or she is here. Parents, therefore, need to have conversations with their 12-year-olds, to understand if they are authentically passionate about the arts. Contrary to popular belief, passion doesn’t make your pursuit of something pain-free. In fact, passion puts you to work harder than ever, and it makes you suffer for its sake! 

This authenticity will lead you to recognise what you are not so good at, but passionate about. It will also lead you to discover connections to new strengths, which could well be what the world needs. You may therefore decide to pursue a career as an engineer, architect, data scientist, lawyer, diplomat, and so on, and the IB Diploma allows you to do that. But I hope our students will always remain authentically passionate about the arts. And that they will always have a unique way of looking at the world, because of their unique arts training. 

For students hoping to enter SOTA, what would you say to them?

Back to the authenticity question, I would ask them: Are you for real when you say you are “passionate” about the arts? If you don’t get into SOTA, are you prepared to find other ways of pursuing your passion? If that should happen, check out the various elective programmes that the Ministry of Education offers — you are bound to find one that would develop you.

Finally, I would tell them that the journey towards being the best version of yourself starts now, in the big and little things that you do. And of course, all the best for the Primary School Leaving Examination!