Science-music mix creates sparks in Purdue Symphony
Mozart pursued mathematical puzzles with passion. At the same time he composed music so passionate and intricate it continues to amaze some 200 years following its creation.
Katie Ward, a Purdue University junior from Carmel, spends most of her day pouring over scientific and mathematical details, and making all the pieces fit. When she needs a break, the Actuarial Science and Statistics major heads to Elliott Hall of Music to perform as the principal flutist with the Purdue Symphony Orchestra.
On Thursday, Feb. 20, Ward, and the 93-member Purdue Symphony Orchestra dominated by science, engineering and technology majors, gives Indianapolis area residents a unique chance to hear music textured by young scientific minds at a special 8 p.m. concert at the Hilbert Circle Theatre.
All money raised through the $10 admission goes to fund scholarships for students who make orchestra part of their academic curriculum at Purdue.
A soloist with strong ties to both Purdue and Indiana Universities – trumpeter Susan Rider from “The President’s Own” U.S. Marine Band, will perform Alexander Arutunian’s “Concert for Trumpet and Orchestra.” Gunnery Sgt. Rider obtained her master’s and PhD degrees in music at Indiana University, and taught trumpet at Purdue and IU.
The Circle Theatre concert promises to give the orchestra the statewide exposure it deserves, says orchestra director Jay S. Gephart. Performing in the giant musical shadow cast by the tradition-rich Purdue “All-American” Marching Band, “the orchestra has never had its own identity. This concert will help to establish a really solid identity. There’s still a best-kept-secret mentality surrounding the Purdue orchestra and I don’t want it to be that way,” Gephart says.
Scholarships funded by the concert will lure even more students like Katie Ward to the orchestra. Orchestra is an academic class at Purdue, but music performance is not offered as a major. This year, 85 percent of the orchestra’s members list science, engineering or technology as majors. It gives the orchestra a unique mix of talent and brains.
“Katie is one of the most talented musicians I’ve ever had the opportunity to work with. She also has a very business-like approach to performing which typifies the science and engineering students in the Purdue orchestra,” Gephart says.
Ward’s major requires her to take a large number of mathematics and statistics classes at Purdue. “Obtaining skills from those classes allows me to have the ability to understand difficult technical passages in music,” she says
Various education studies provide evidence that students who study music as children enjoy greater academic success, and sharpen their skills in math and science. For instance, research in the late 1980s by Frank Wilson, a clinical professor of neurology at the University of California School of Medicine showed that involvement in music connects and develops the motor systems of the brain in young people in a way that cannot be done by any other activity.
Grace Nash, an Arizona music educator, found that incorporating music into mathematics lessons enabled students to learn multiplication tables and math formulas more easily. Other studies in the area of mathematics show gains in test scores in math for music students when compared to non-music students.
Ward, and other Indianapolis area musicians in the Purdue orchestra feel strongly that there’s a link connecting their passion for music with their majors. Ward noticed, as a junior high student, that math became easier at the same time she became serious about the flute, taking private lessons and participating in ensembles. “In elementary school I really struggled with math and multiplication tables. Starting in junior high it got a lot better and I think having music in my life had an impact on it,” she says.
Justin Quear, a freshman Animal Science major from Fishers, and a percussionist, also noticed early on that music sharpened his math skills “I especially noticed a difference in counting and doing quick mental math. After I started studying music each of these became easier for me to do,” he says.
When trombonist Kristen Wilde moved, with her family, to Carmel as a middle schooler, she was moved up one grade in just two classes – math and band. “Music connects the intellectual and emotional sides of your brain and inspires the type of creativity that leads to good problem solving in math and science,” says the sophomore chemical engineering major.
As a youngster, the Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Programs in Purdue’s School of Pharmacy, Marc Loudon, wanted to be a professional musician. His parents pushed chemistry and he ended up with a successful academic career in medicinal chemistry. But in Greater Lafayette, Loudon is better known for his expertise on the piano and organ, performing regularly with the Bach Chorale and the Lafayette Chamber Music Society.
The fact that Purdue boasts so many science and engineering majors in its orchestra doesn’t surprise him. He’s met, worked with and played with scientist/musicians from coast to coast all his life.
“Music clearly engages the mind if you play an instrument. That fact alone means it plays well with science because you have to be engaged to do science well,” Loudon says.
“Science is full of examples of people who thought radically about problems. I think the arts help you do that. The arts have fewer strictures to thinking radically,” he says. “There have been so many occasions when I’ve sat at the piano and had a flash of insight about something else.”
Time management, discipline, teamwork, self-confidence – among the many skills participation in music fosters - factor into the success Purdue’s orchestra students enjoy in their academic pursuits.
“Studying music teaches a great amount of dedication and discipline. Both of these help out with math and science because these areas require the students to be very structured,” says Meredith Hill, a cellist and biology major from Carmel.
“Music also teaches you to work with other people because, when you are in an ensemble, you have to be sensitive enough to know when to back off or when it is your turn to come out.”
Music’s ability to provide an escape means a lot to students. “As an engineering student, you really come to appreciate the relaxation of music, says Katherine Klemen, a mechanical engineering major from Carmel. “In a curriculum packed with math and physics courses, it is nice to get to exercise your additional knowledge and skills (in music) for a change of scenery.”
Director Jay Gephart says science and engineering majors bring “a very analytical approach to music from an technical standpoint to the orchestra – and you can’t beat that. They’re very concerned about detail and very quick to develop mathematical understanding of rhythm and meter.”
At concerts, he hears a tremendous outpouring of the emotion through music. But where these science and engineering majors differ most from music majors, he says, is their body language.
“They play with a great deal of expression and are emotionally connected to whatever piece we’re playing but most of the time you can’t see it on their face,” he says.
Whether it shows in their eyes or not the connection to music runs deep for these scientist/musicians.
“I’m a fairly quiet individual. In classes I’m not one to ask questions,” says Ward. “One way I can express myself is through music. It’s my outlet. It’s probably been the one thing I’ve been involved in that I’ve had the most passion for. I just really enjoy it.”
Purdue’s musicians also see themselves as part of a unique continuum. “I believe being a technology major is the way of the future, and that I am a link to the past with my interest for classical music,” says Matthew Saner, a junior computer technology major from Mooresville and a member of the second violin section.
“ I love being a part of both the history and the future.”