Hitting all the Right Notes


“If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician,” said Albert Einstein, who nicknamed his violin Lina and was famously ardent about Mozart and Bach. “I often think in music,” he added. “I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.” 

The Nobelist was hardly alone among his fellow scientists. Music and science, it seems, have gone hand in hand through the ages: physicist Richard Feynman was an avid bongo player; Russian chemist Alexander Borodin composed Romantic-period music; and Queen’s guitarist, Brian May, is a respected astrophysicist. Here at Caltech, a sizable number of scientists also wield a bow, pluck a string, or tickle the ivories.

Paul Asimow

(MS ’93, PhD ’97)

Eleanor and John R. McMillan Professor of Geology and Geochemistry

Instruments: Piano, flute, tuba, conducting

Caltech groups: Wind orchestra 

Musical beginnings: I come from a family of musicians. My great grandfather played violin and trumpet and built his own instruments and my father plays piano. Music has always been around, and I’ve been appreciating classical music since I was very small. I started playing flute in 6th grade and I suppose that is really still my main instrument, but I never had any illusions I was good enough to be a professional musician. At Harvard, I tried out for every group on campus on flute. I didn’t get into any orchestras expect the Gilbert and Sullivan Society pit orchestra, which was a lot of fun, and the marching band, and I talked myself into the wind ensemble as a percussionist. It was really through the Harvard University band that I began taking on more of a leadership role in music, training to be student conductor and learning to arrange music for the marching band, and it was also there that I took up the tuba because I realized playing piccolo in a marching band didn’t make sense. And so I was transformed accidentally into a band musician rather than an orchestra musician.

His Caltech musical debut: I auditioned for the concert band on flute and because I knew how to conduct [then band director] Bill Bing gave me the wonderful privilege of being permanent guest conductor and doing one piece of my own choosing every quarter.

On working with Glenn Price as band director: I got to chair the search committee and we were fantastically lucky that Glenn applied. He’s taken a good group and made it outstanding, with more ambitious programming, larger scale works, and higher expectations. Now I definitely have to show up for rehearsal every week prepared and on my best game, because he can tell if you’re not! 

Why it’s worth his time: I’m eternally grateful to be here at Caltech because of the scale of the place and the fact that groups like the wind orchestra and the chamber music groups are open to people other than students. As a tuba player, if I weren’t here I certainly would have given it up years ago because I wouldn’t have had an opportunity to perform.

On the role of the conductor: Most good groups don’t actually need a conductor standing up there and waving their arms. That’s mostly to give the audience something to look at. Conductors do most of their work in rehearsal, where they can stop and talk to the group and express their vision for the piece, so you can get to a place where all the individual voices in the orchestra or band can agree on what the message is and then try to project that. The technique with the stick and hands is one way to express how fast you want to go and also the feel you’re going for, the articulation and the dynamics, and for people who are not paying attention you can cue them when they need to play. 

How playing the tuba and conducting are not so different: The tuba is the bass line. It’s not necessarily what people are listening to when they’re listening to a group. But to me playing the bass line well and conducting a group have a lot in common. You have to be aware of the ensembles so you’re playing at the right volume, and you’re also leading the group and giving them cues both in rhythm and in pitch.

Some favorite musicians: My favorite composers for concert band include Gustav Holst, who was a genius at writing melodies for band. I like playing Wagner when I’m in the mood, and in a completely different mood I once did a long cycle of all of the overtures of Franz von Suppe that had been rearranged for concert band. I also have a love-hate relationship with Charles Ives. 

How music and science connect: At some level I’m sure there are deep connections in the mathematical foundations of science and the mathematical foundations of music, but if you play music too mathematically it’s not very interesting. By the same token, any mathematician will tell you if you do math too mathematically it’s not very interesting. 


Julia Greer

Professor of Materials Science, Mechanics and Medical Engineering

Instrument: Piano

Caltech group: A Caltech trio with cellist Monica Kohler and violinist Tony Kukavica (Class of ’21).

Why music is still part of her life: I’ve been playing since I was 5 or 6. I grew up in Moscow. Every little Russian girl has to take piano lessons. I just never quit. As amateurs, we have the best of both worlds. Because we've built the tool set to get to the technical level that allows us to actually produce the kind of sound that we want to hear, it's enjoyable. When you don't quit, you preserve that skill. You preserve the mechanics of your fingers, your digits.


Why she didn’t become a professional musician: I don't think I ever seriously considered being a professional musician. I just always had something else going on. And I was in a math high school as well. In Moscow, you have to make the decision whether or not you're going to be a professional when you’re 14. It's very young and I wasn't ready for that. 

Why she never stopped playing: I kept on taking lessons. And then we moved to the U.S. when I was 16, and it was the math and the music that really helped me to integrate into the community. Because I had been to a math high school I had taken all the classes that a regular New York state high school had to offer, so the kids would come to me and I would tutor them. That was how I practiced English. I practiced piano in the school auditorium and the director of their music program suggested that since I was in Rochester, I audition at the Eastman School of Music. I got a scholarship and for the whole of high school I studied there. Then I went on to undergrad at MIT and got into the advanced music performance scholarship program. And so, I couldn't stop playing. 

Musical highlight of her life: When I lived in the Bay Area, I was the principal pianist for the Redwood Symphony. And so I got to play Brahms’s second piano concerto with them because I won the Redwood Symphony Piano Concerto competition. That was probably the highlight of my whole career. It was amazing to play. That's a monumental piece. And it's so beautiful. 

 How music helps her be a better scientist: It allows your mind to relax. We're all of us type A, overachieving academics. We're constantly thinking about work and about our students and about proposals. It’s this constant, constant exhausting stream of thoughts. When you play the piano, it allows your mind to let go. It's just me and the universe and the music, and I have to focus on it so much that it allows me to let go of all the other minutia.


Austin Minnich

Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Physics

Instrument: Trombone

Caltech group: Jazz band


Early years: We had a piano at home, and I started taking formal piano lessons in 2nd grade. In 5th grade, I started to play trombone in the school band, and I also played in the jazz band and concert band. In college, I mostly played trombone, and am still doing that out here amazingly.

Why he makes time for it: It’s great that Caltech has a lot of bands. I didn’t expect that when I came here. There are a great directors for instrumental music, and it’s a good mix. I would say the jazz band is composed of around half students, plus faculty, postdocs, JPLers, and community people. A lot of college bands would just be college students. In bigger schools the community band is usually a separate band. I think it’s nice here because everyone who plays is part of the community.

Why he has less time for it: I have two kids so I don’t get a whole lot of time to practice at home. They like to see me play the trombone, though. They’re five and two and they come to the performances. They can already recognize lots of instruments. I really love the big band jazz and modern, small-group jazz as well. For people that do improv it’s fun to be able to listen to what other people do because you can recognize certain phrases they play, just like you recognize word phrases by different writers.

What his life would be like without music: I know what that’s like because when my first daughter was born, I took a year off playing. I really noticed it. After a few months I felt there was something missing and something just wasn’t quite right. After my second daughter, I kept playing. It’s fun to play music because you’re using one part of your brain in a certain way for work, and so it’s nice to be able to use it in a different way.

Why the trombone?: My family moved when I was between fourth and fifth grade and at my new school they needed a trombonist. I do think the trombone has a very nice sound, a very pure sound. It doesn’t have any valves, so there are no interruptions of airflow. I spent a summer playing trumpet, and I’ve  played baritone horn. I think the sound is better on the trombone and there are usually pretty good parts to play in jazz band. They pair well with other instruments like the tenor sax. It’s a hard instrument, though! 


Les Deutsch 

(BS ’76, MS ’77, PhD ’80)

Deputy Director, Interplanetary Network, JPL 

Instruments played/owned: Organ, trumpet, saxophone, clarinet, piccolo, flute, drums, violin, banjo, piano, French horn, euphonium …

Caltech connections: I've played just about every instrument in the Caltech-Occidental Wind Orchestra. I've played most of the instruments also in the Jazz Band. There used to be a Caltech Dixieland band, which I played in. Starting in 1974, I've been the Caltech organist playing at every Commencement.

I've also done a lot of composing for Caltech over the years. For our 100th anniversary, I composed the “Centennial Suite,” which is a four-movement suite for band that was performed at Bandorama. In 2013, when the Concert Band played in Walt Disney Concert Hall, I wrote and performed as soloist a concerto for organ and band. In 2017, I did a 20 minute piece for Concert Band in honor of the 40th anniversary of Voyager, which we also performed at Bandorama. 


Outside of Caltech: I also play in a professional Dixieland band called the Night Blooming Jazzmen. I wish I’d thought of that name, it’s so clever.

Musical background: I started organ lessons when I was 11. My father was a chief scientist at North American Aviation at the time and they were looking for something to apply their electronics towards in the commercial market. He decided they should work on a digital electronic organ, something that didn't exist then. In 1970 I think, the product was released by Allen Organ Company. My father went on from there to do two more projects. One with Yamaha, one with Kawai. I got to work on the Kawai technology with my father because at that time I was already a grad student at Caltech, so I could contribute something of my own in mathematics. My father's first cousin, Herb Deutsch, independently had an electronic music career. He was teamed with Bob Moog and helped develop the first Moog synthesizers; the first analog keyboard synthesizers. 

When I became a student at Caltech I studied the organ as a private student at UCLA. My teacher was also the chair of the music department there. I play a lot of instruments, so pretty much all the time I was a student here, and for the first maybe 10 years after graduating and starting a family, I worked as a professional organist at either a church or a synagogue. Then I was invited to join a traveling jazz band, so I started doing that as well. 

Why he has always found the time for music: I guess it’s because of the fun and the challenge. I never thought about not having the time. I've always done both. I've been lucky that my career at JPL has allowed me the flexibility to do this kind of thing. It's an outside-employment activity, but it's something that doesn't interfere at all with the science and mathematics and management at JPL.

House band: I have three organs at home: a concert organ, which is configured for playing classical music; a theater organ, which is a style of organ that was developed mostly for accompanying silent movies; and an organ built by Kawai that uses the technology my father and I designed together. I also have a stack of synthesizers connected to the computer, a drum set, and a closet full of instruments. I play all the brass, so I have everything from tuba to piccolo trumpet. I play most of the woodwinds, so I have piccolos, flute, various sizes of saxophones, and clarinets. I own a violin, but I don't play it very well. All these instruments are there for me to learn something about them so that I can compose better. We chose our house partly because it had this room over the garage that we knew would make a great studio. Because it's in a neighborhood that's also zoned for horses, it has large setbacks from our neighbors and we're very well sonically isolated. We can make a lot of noise, and nobody's ever really complained.

Solos vs teamwork: As an organist, typically you play alone and you don’t get the experience of playing with a group, so playing in the bands is important to me. The same thing is true in doing research. There are things that you do by yourself, and there are things that you do as part of a team. The two fields are very analogous.