Schery Collins on Mathematics and Music
By Leslie Grace | A! Magazine for the Arts | February 27, 2013Schery Collins came to math and music through her family. Her grandfather, Sam Hyder, taught mathematics at Milligan College for 50 years and her father, Edward Lodter, was a church organist for more than 50 years, while serving as head of the modern language department at East Tennessee State University. Collins has been a member of the Symphony of the Mountains for more than 50 years, in addition to her other musical efforts (see sidebar). She also teaches math at Virginia Highlands Community College and has done so since it opened in 1970. Here are her thoughts on the relationship.
"People think of mathematics as a science and music as an art form, but to me both are creative expressions of life through the history of civilization. Both mathematics and music involve a relationship involving many numbers. As a small child, we learn before the age of 2 to count "one, two, three...' We cannot get far in the study of music without doing the same. I've noticed that most musicians I know have been very good at math, and most mathematicians I know have an interest in music.
"When I study a musical composition, I see it as an enormous mathematical puzzle. Just like algebraic factorization, many math problems can be thought of as puzzles. This can make them actually fun. In music, puzzle pieces to be considered are time signature, subdivisions of beats, rhythmic patterns, metronome markings, vibrato ratios, pitch ratios, markings for slowing down or speeding up, and many more. But there is probably more mathematics involved in the physics of sound and acoustics than in the structure of musical compositions.
"I tell students that Pythagorus was probably the first mathematician to recognize this relationship, though in class we remember him for his Pythagorean Theorem for a right triangle. Also the Greeks were the first to call a ratio involving the length and width of a rectangle "the golden ratio.' We see this ratio appear in subdivisions of the famous painting of "Mona Lisa' and in art and architecture – even in the pyramids. Then in music, the overtone series is a series of golden ratios. In the same math course, we also study the Fibonacci numbers (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21 ...) Even though these numbers appear in nature, art and even in formulas used in economics, they are the basis for the musical scales we study in music theory, and musical frequencies are based on Fibonacci ratios.
"I have been composing church music for several years. I recently took a course in using software called Finale which helps get the music in print format. I took the course twice just to learn how to put the mathematics I know about the music to work. It has been an amazing experience and very rewarding as I hear the congregation or the choir sing the composition."
A Tribute To Collins' Music Career
In addition to teaching mathematics at Virginia Highlands Community College, Schery Collins has an active musical career.
Her father, Edward Lodter, began teaching her to play the piano when she was 5. "Later we had a special bond when he became my piano accompanist for the rest of his life," she says.
In the sixth grade, she began playing the flute in the Training School Band (what is now University School, Johnson City, Tenn).
"I never wanted to practice flute or piano, but it always got me out of cleaning my room or doing the dishes, so I kept practicing on and on, and still do. Parents, don't let your children quit their music lessons. How many times have you heard "I wish I had kept taking piano lessons, and my parents had not let me quit?'"
Collins studied flute with Eugene Orner at East Tennessee State University and when she was in high school, Orner began taking her to play the flute in the Kingsport Symphony Orchestra (now the Symphony of the Mountains), where he was principal bassoonist. She has been there ever since, for more than 50 years, playing under five conductors.
"I have learned so much from these talented musicians," she says. "It has been an amazing experience to have had the opportunity to learn and play the repertoire they have programmed. Different conductors have introduced composers unfamiliar to us, but sometimes music is chosen because it is loved by the greater audience.
"When David Itkin was our conductor, we performed lots of music he composed and many times he sang with the orchestra in a Barry Manilow style. In the "60s and "70s, the symphony was more like a community orchestra. We rehearsed every single Monday night. If a player was particularly tired or had a "bad' day, he or she just didn't show up for rehearsal. Now the players are professionals; we rehearse on only Thursday, Friday and Saturday of concert week, and we are expected to know our music before the first rehearsal and be present for every single rehearsal."
Some of the symphony players are local and others come from Knoxville, Tenn., Asheville, N.C., Boone, N.C., and other places further away. The symphony used to only play in Kingsport. It now performs in Kingsport, Bristol, Abingdon, and in other areas in Tennessee and Virginia.
In addition to Symphony of the Mountains, Collins has been a flutist in the Johnson City Symphony for many years and is the co-founder of the Highlands Chamber Ensemble and the Meadowlark Trio. These latter two groups play for weddings, dinners, parties and other events.
She is also the organist/choir director at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Abingdon, Va.
"Since I moved in Abingdon in the early "70s, I have derived much pleasure from accompanying musical shows at VHCC, Virginia Intermont College, ETSU, Theatre Bristol and Barter Theatre, in addition to my life's vocation – teaching mathematics."
Collins and her husband, David, have five children and will soon have 11 grandchildren. David has perfect pitch and plays by ear. "What I wouldn't give to be able to sit at the piano as he does, in a pitch-black room, and let the beautiful melodies flow. When I ask him how he does it, he can't answer."
Her latest musical adventure takes her to the musical realm of bluegrass. "I bought a stand up bass, took a few lessons and am rarin' to go."
"Music has always given me so much pleasure through my lifetime. It has given me peace of mind and always soothes the soul. I have met many lifelong musician friends. We understand each other in a way that is hard to explain to others."
>> THERE'S MORE: Bill Linderman