Music with Brains
Neuroscientist and radiology prof trades labs for jazz
Donald Robin, who during the day is a neuroscientist and professor at UTSA, isn’t the type who walks around in a lab coat and tie.
With attire consisting of a T-shirt, a pair of well-worn shorts and flip-flops, one gets the idea that there is more to this professor’s life than lecturing on the complexities of the human brain.
After dark, one gets a much clearer picture. Once the sun has set, Robin sheds what few Ph.D. trappings remain, powers down his computer and plugs in his guitar to play in a band with an unlikely name: Royal Punisher.
A Royal Punisher performance includes a mix of improvisation with such standards as Thelonious Monk’s “Epsitrophy” and Frank Zappa’s “Blessed Relief.”
This summer, the quartet recorded and produced its first album of original compositions, due out this fall.
“We could have done it before, but we weren’t ready,” Robin said of the recording sessions. “It took us three years playing together to get us ready.”
The laid-back musician/scientist is also assistant director in UTSA’s Honors College. He teaches a course that pairs neuroscience students and art students and explores how the brain guides art and how art affects the brain. Another course “evaluates the ideas that people believe in, whether the idea works or not. There are the ideas of ‘perpetual motion,’ or taking sea salt to improve your health. Basically, it is ‘voodoo,’ if someone believes in it, but we know it doesn’t work,” he said.
Robin also heads the Human Performance Division of the Research Imaging Institute at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, where he was named radiology professor of the year in 2011–12.
Penchants for both music and academia came early in Robin’s life.
Born in Boston while his father was on the faculty at Harvard University medical school, he began playing the violin at age 4.
First taught by his father’s best friend, who was in the string section of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Robin said the internal musical light didn’t ignite until the grand old age of 6. He picked up a guitar about the same time that his father put Miles Davis’ critically acclaimed, revolutionary classic, “Kind of Blue,” on the turntable.
“That was it. I fell in love,” he said. He has been playing ever since.
The name of his group, Royal Punisher, is more befitting a heavy metal band than a jazz quartet with decades of rock and improvisation “chops.” It became the group’s formal handle after Robin visited a winery in Napa Valley that produces a zinfandel of the same name. His band mates loved the name.
The quartet performs regularly at their home bar, Boneshakers, near downtown San Antonio, and continues to attract the local arts crowd as it plays in non-jazz venues around town. This year, it was named the top jazz act by readers of the San Antonio Current.
“We are getting people to listen to us who had never much listened to jazz,” Robin said. “And we are playing in venues where we are bringing jazz to high school and college students, which is not bad.”
The band is already inspiring some elementary and middle school students: Robin’s three children, ages 11, 9 and 6, are learning to play the piano, guitar and drums and they also sing.
The next generation of “punisher” musicians may shortly be taking the stage with their scientist father.