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Moonlight and Music

by Fiona Soltes No Comment


Physics major Calen Henderson has been keen on astronomy since he uttered his first intelligible word: “Moon.”

Even so, Henderson admits he has had “much more than a fleeting thought” about going into music full time rather than continuing on in physics. The graduating senior realizes one must eventually be vocation, and the other, hobby, but it doesn’t help that he is strongly gifted at both. In addition to being an award-winning piano soloist studying at the Blair School of Music, Henderson was recently lauded by the American Astronomical Society for a presentation at the group’s annual meeting. 

“As it’s turned out,” says the 21-year-old from Kansas City, “it’s definitely easier to be the physicist who plays piano than the concert pianist who studies physics.”

Henderson is far from alone in the interdisciplinary approach to his studies. Karen Ann Krieger, associate professor of piano at Blair, says she has worked with piano students who double major in areas as diverse as biomedical engineering, economics and computer science. They all enjoy the therapeutic effects of the music. Even so, Henderson is a little different. He is outstanding, Krieger says, due to his passion and enthusiasm.

“Calen would come in each week and had to tell me about things outside of Blair, the latest updates on his physics research,” Krieger says. “Sometimes I had no idea what he was talking about, but he made me want to know more. These students’ passions, their interests, broaden my world.”

Henderson connects music and astronomy by speaking of sound waves and light waves, but he admits that he finds other commonalities in the two.

“The music I’ve always been drawn to has been impressionistic,” he says. “To me, there’s a fundamental connection between listening to that kind of music and focusing on the kind of relationship it can have with you, and going out on a dark night and being allowed to be one with the heavens.”

Professor of Physics Norman Tolk has been one of Henderson’s mentors in both science and music. He and Henderson “had an affinity from the beginning,” Tolk says, in part due to the professor’s own musical interests. Henderson has visited the Tolks’ home and participated in chamber music parties, in which guests both perform and dine.

“We all sort of agreed that there has been a strong historical connection between music and physics,” Tolk says. “Einstein was a violinist, and a lot of people have done both. Both reflect an underlying order, a pattern that people can resonate to.”

photo credit: John Russell

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