On The Spotlight


By Rommel Gojo 

“I want my students to remember me as a good teacher… that they learned a lot from me. And sana yung mga natutunan ko abroad ma-share ko rin dito...”


Amidst the increasing number of Filipinos migrating abroad, a Filipina has chosen to return to the Philippines for good even after finishing her doctorate degree from the United States in 2015. Dr. Marie Jocelyn “Joy” Marfil still would love to continue teaching at her beloved alma mater, the University of the Philippines, and serving her country even after almost eight years of studying abroad. She took her Master of Arts in Music Theory degree at the State University of New York for two years and her PhD in Composition degree at the University of Hawaii for five and a half years.

It was not an easy journey for her, having to apply for the Fulbright scholarship grant three times and having to leave her family behind. But it was all worth the wait, for she gained a lot of experience and wisdom along the way.

She is currently an assistant professor at the UP College of Music, where she finished her Bachelor and Masters in Composition degrees, handling Music Theory and Composition classes.

In this interview I had the privilege to get to know Dr. Joy more and ask her some questions about her journey as a Filipina scholar and artist.


Rommel Gojo: What was your musical background?

Joy Marfil: My dad thought me how to play the ukulele. I was 8 years old then. And, yah, it was Bahay Kubo, I think. My dad used to play harmonica and ukulele, and he was in college in UP when he joined the UPSCA (University of the Philippines Catholic Action) choir. Ma’am Borromeo was their pianist, Sir Johnny Ramos was their conductor, and even Sir Antonio Molina was with them. And then my mom was a frustrated musician. She wanted us, her children, to study piano… all of us, the four of us. But, I just, as an obedient daughter, obeyed my mom, but my priority was academics… I just practiced when my teacher arrived because it was home service. I practiced an hour before my teacher arrived which was bad.

RG: What musical instrument/s did/do you play?

JM: Besides piano, I joined the rondalla group, so I learned how to play banduria, guitar, and bajo de arco. Our group would compete at regional levels. We played every Sunday during Mass, and then during Christmas we played Christmas carols, and in other events. At the UP College of Music, I learned how to play kulintang and other Asian instruments.

RG: Do/did you get nervous before a performance/competition? How do/did you handle mistakes during a performance?

JM: I just put coins in my shoes. If I have a microphone, I hold it tight and try to pretend that I am good and relaxed, but deep inside I am really nervous. That is my weakness… even when singing in a choir, more so as a soloist. Somehow it (the coins) helps divert my attention. Somebody told me this, a friend, a fellow musician. I just tried. I guess it worked for me.

RG: Which famous musicians/music scholars do you admire? Why?

JM: Johann Sebastian Bach. His work, especially the Brandenburg Concerto 1st Movement. Why? Because his work requires me to think, not much with the melody but how he organizes the different elements or parameters of music. I admire a lot of musicians but he is my number one. I started admiring him, I think, during my forms and analysis class. Now, one of my composition teachers in Hawaii, Dr. Takumaitoh, Japanese-American. I just love his works. Every time I listen to his works and performances, it’s something fresh… something new.

RG: Which famous musicians/music scholars have you learned from? JM: My mentors, Dr. Donald Womack and Dr. Thomas Osborne... They were always encouraging. Imo-motivate ka nila. RG: Who was your first teacher? Other teachers?

JM: I don’t consider my dad as my first teacher. I think it was just for fun, bonding moments… Formally, I think my piano teacher, Ma’am Bañaga. Ma’am Borromeo was my piano teacher here in UP. My Composition teachers were Prof. Ryan Cayabyab, Dr. Verne dela Peña, Dr. Ramon Santos, and Prof. Chino Toledo.

RG: What are your fondest musical memories?

JM: Probably, it was the rondalla group when we had competitions… When you are young, you are always excited performing… It’s a serious thing to me when you join competitions. RG: When and how did you know that you really wanted a college degree in music? What were your parents’ or family’s reactions at first? JM: It was during my third year (in high school) when my schoolmate composed a song. I was challenged. It was my dream to compose when I was in first year, but I didn’t know how… I said to myself, “If he can do it, I can do it, too.” When I was in third year, I was one of the finalists in a national songwriting competition, high school level. That was fun! It was during the Edsa Revolution 1. Coming from Davao, I went to Manila. We were rehearsing in La Salle Greenhills for the competition. It was a big deal for me. I came here (in Manila) just for the rehearsal and then came back again for the actual performance. Because of that, I decided to take up music composition. But I didn’t know about the orientation here (in the UP College of Music). I wanted to compose tonal music, but I was really challenged with atonal music. My “openness” to new things/knowledge allowed me to survive the demands of the composition program. I also wanted to take up medicine but after weighing it, I decided to take up Music. They (my parents) were very supportive. My parents, especially my mom said, “Whatever you like, pursue it.” In fact, even when I was young, she always said, “Take both, music and medicine.” Her dream was for us to have a pharmacy and at the same time a music studio for teaching piano.

RG: What made you decide to pursue further studies abroad?

JM: First, because I thought I knew nothing, I wanted to learn more. My three dreams were: to become a film scorer, to study abroad, and to teach here in the university (UP). But before I teach here, I wanted to have a PhD degree first… I had that hunger for knowledge talaga. But I didn’t have the resources to go abroad. After finishing my masters (UP Composition), I tried Fulbright scholarship. For the third attempt, I got accepted.

RG: What field did you choose to specialize in? How long did it take you to finish it?

JM: Composition. With the Fulbright though that was Masters in Music Theory… finished it in 2 years. For my PhD in Composition, 5 ½ years.

RG: What were the memorable experiences you had in your stay in a foreign university?

JM: Dami! Sa New York, siguro kasi I was involved with the International Students Fellowship and the University Baptist Church. Oftentimes, we had activities: besides the praise and worship teams, or playing piano, we had strawberry, grape and blueberry-picking, we had hosts during Halloween… Yah, different events for the international students. Also, when I joined our University Choir and performed with the Brooklyn Symphony Orchestra in New York City. Sa Hawaii naman…. First of all, I had a family there, the UP Alumni Association. Yah, more activities like hiking, biking, picnic, swimming, rappelling, and boogie boarding. What I miss in my studies in Hawaii, too, is the varied guest composers/performers from the different composers in the US and Asia in our Composition Workshop. I miss my vegetable garden in Hawaii. There I can grow my own vegetables … eating fresh and healthy vegetables. "Know the source of your food." I had kamote, kangkong, okra, pechay, basil, green onion, tomato, and even white and yellow roses.

RG: What major adjustments/challenges did you have to face while you were there?

JM: In New York, one is really the language. I could barely understand because of their accents. They talk too fast; they eat their words. That was a challenge for me, a major one. Even in Hawaii, with my professors, that was one of my major challenges. Adjustments, not much… Siguro lang sa New York it’s the snow, and I really hate snow. But in Hawaii, it’s like the Philippines. In New York, in the first semester, I was really crying, first time I was away. But in Hawaii, not much because there were many Filipinos – I attended the church there, mostly Filipinos – and, because of the online communications available.

RG: What was the most important thing that you have learned while studying abroad? How did your journey as a Filipino student in a foreign land affect your life?

JM: Music-wise, I learned to appreciate more our traditional music. To me that was an opportunity to share what we have. So most of my works I combined with Filipino instruments, e.g. agung, kulintang, and bamboo instruments. Besides the knowledge and the methodology, the attitude or the way my mentors treat the students: they treat them very professionally; they don’t put you down; they always have encouraging words. To me that is very important… I’m also a teacher and that is what I want to do also. I will try.

RG: Would you recommend studying abroad to Filipino students?

JM: Definitely, to widen their perspectives. Even not just studying, but by going out of your box it will widen your perspective in life. Dealing with others allows you to learn from them, from their culture. Yes, because if you want to really learn, don’t just stick with your teachers here. You can also learn from other scholars abroad.

RG: Among your talents (performing, composing, teaching, and doing research), which of these do you love the most?

JM: All. Kasi to me if you perform you will learn; and if you perform and if you know the instrument, if you compose you know what you’re doing. Rather than in my case, I don’t know how to play flute, so it’s not idiomatic, it’s not normal for me to compose for a flute. Probably, yes, I know theoretically, but the actual thing it’s different if you’re a flutist and you compose for that instrument… At one side also, I play banduria; I love playing banduria. To me it’s also more of therapy, so I need that also. Teaching-wise, it’s the sharing. If you believe God gave you something and you believe that you are responsible or accountable to what you believe in, share… teach. So I just wanna share. I study so that I can share more. And research, that’s a challenge for me, but I love to do research.

RG: A lot of opportunities abroad await graduates of prestigious foreign schools like the University of Hawaii. What made you decide to go back to the Philippines?

JM: One of the students here who graduated abroad, when she was asked with that question, her answer was not all students are lucky. They may have or they may not have opportunities. I know some students here who graduated there who came back. If you think you can earn in the Philippines what you earn abroad, then why go out?

RG: What activities are you busy with nowadays? What projects are you currently working on? Would you consider doing scores for films again?

JM: I’m still adjusting since I came back. The preparation, since it’s my first time to teach Forms and Analysis class, that alone eats my time… This course requires a lot of readings and analyses. I was challenged to write for solo banduria when I was there. When I talked to Ma’am Elaine, they need a repertoire for this. I just learned that there is already a banduria major here. So going back to film scoring, parang hindi ko alam kung nandun pa rin… kasi meron kang director who decides … Sa ngayon ang heart ko nasa academics and writing for new music.

RG: How do you balance your music with other obligations at home or with your other priorities?

JM: I’m just taking it one at a time siguro. Kasi may choice ka naman lagi, eh. I think it’s more of time management pa rin if you want to have balance.

RG: What is the ultimate purpose of being a musician-scholar for you?

JM: Sa akin it’s a choice. It has something to do with what are you believing in. Like what I’ve said, ako nag-aral ako kasi gusto ko matuto… I want my students to remember me as a good teacher… that they learned a lot from me. And sana yung mga natutunan ko abroad ma-share ko rin dito. Although that’s really a challenge.