Santa Cruz Harp Festival performer Jennifer Cass on the connection between mathematics and music
It’s no secret that many musicians are strongly “right -brained”: Their intuitive and artistic faculties are often much more developed than their powers of reasoning and analysis. One notable exception is local pedal harpist Jennifer Cass, who also happens to be a math teacher at Cabrillo.
“I really like my life, where I have my math side, but I think the way I teach is a little bit more global,” Cass states. The musician claims that while she doesn’t consciously try to combine the disciplines of music and math, they have a way of mixing together naturally. “For me, they’re both about patterns and structure,” she offers. “That’s what I try to get across to my math students: looking for the beauty in mathematics; not just, ‘Factor this polynomial, follow these steps, and you’ll get an answer. It has to be right or wrong.’”
Cass says she’s more interested in the aesthetics of math than in the mathematics of music. “I don’t like to analyze the music as much,” she notes. “Music, for me, is more of an experiential thing, and I try to let it be what it is.” Nonetheless, the harpist’s mathematical pursuits have sharpened her ability to see structures, which in turn enhances her understanding of a given piece of music. “Beyond just a pretty melody or something, I can see why it is what it is,” she explains.
On Sunday, Dec. 20, Cass performs Marcel Samuel-Rousseau’s “Variations Pastorales sur un Vieux Noel” at Community Music School of Santa Cruz’s s 6th Annual Harp Festival. Though Cass’ performance is sure to please, she’s quick to note that the concert’s main attraction is a performance by the Community Music School Harp Orchestra, comprised of harpists of all ages, including lots of kids. Along with Celtic, Middle Eastern, African, Asian and Quebequois harp music, the ensemble will play tunes by Cat Stevens and Kim Robertson. Various soloists and smaller groups will perform as well: While Cass will be representing the classical pedal harp, the event also features Tonie Ogimachi on modern harp, Midyne Spear on electric harp and Jesse Autumn on double-strung harp. The concert is a CD release party for Autumn, who will be playing with folk harpist/Chinese flutist Shelley Phillips and cellist Barry Phillips as well as solo. During the show’s intermission, students from the Harp Orchestra will be leading an instrument “petting zoo” for audience members curious to try out the harps themselves.
Community Music School is helping fill what Cass perceives as a void in today’s education system. The harpist wonders aloud whether the lack of arts instruction in present-day schools is affecting students’ academic success in other areas. “I’m saddened these days—it used to be that I could ask my math students, ‘Who has ever played an instrument?’ and most of the hands would go up,” she remarks. “And I’d say, ‘OK, well, it’s just like learning an instrument: You have to practice your math, just like you practice your scales.’ These days, when I ask that question, hardly anybody puts their hands up anymore.”
Cass will no doubt be uplifted by the sight of all the kids in the orchestra at Sunday’s event, as will audience members. “It’s just very, very cute,” Cass says of the spectacle.
Along with its music classes and concerts, Community Music School of Santa Cruz offers such programs as an annual Kids’ Camp and a service called Music Match, through which the school supplies musical instruments to people and organizations in need. Those interested in volunteering or donating money or instruments can learn more at communitymusicschool.org.
Photo Credit: Bernadette Wilson
The 6th Annual Santa Cruz Harp Festival takes place at 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 20, at Our Lady Star of the Sea Church, 515 Frederick St, Santa Cruz. Admission is free; donations benefiting the Community Music School of Santa Cruz are gratefully accepted. For more information call 426-9155.