Grammy-winning songwriter and physics professor usually don’t find a place on the same resume.
But for Loyola physics professor Willetta Greene-Johnson, PhD, conducting is part of her career and extracurricular: as a professor, she teaches courses on electricity and other physics principles, and as a musician, she conducts, arranges, produces, and performs classical music around Chicago.
One of Dr. Greene-Johnson’s most recent concert appearances included her arrangements for Concert III – The journey, the dream, Chicago Sinfonietta’s annual concert honoring Dr. Martin Luther King on January 15 and 16.
But how did this math and science whiz end up conducting one of Chicago’s most prestigious musical groups?
As it turns out, physics was her back up plan; music was her first love.
“As a child I really enjoyed music,” she says. “In second grade they played a piece, which I now realize was Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, and there was something about the bigness of that music that really impacted, that went zoom zoom zoom on the inside of me. It says, hello I am here! And that began my love of orchestra.”
Dr. Greene-Johnson continued playing music throughout her youth, singing, learning piano and cello, and dabbling in guitar and clarinet. Though she wanted to major in performance in college, her parents, both scientists, pushed her in a more practical direction.
“My parents wanted me to eat,” she laughs. “A music degree wasn’t as shoppable as a science degree.”
In response, Johnson, who says she had always had a natural gift for understanding science and math, received her BS in physics from Stanford University, and later received her PhD from the University of Chicago in theoretical physics, but continued fine tuning her musical talents and finding connections between her academic interests and musical passion.
Today, Dr. Greene-Johnson has been able to find connections between physics and music that have deepened her comprehension of both topics.
“When I go to the studio I actually understand the waveforms of the recording and can understand the process, which we have learned in physics,” she says. “That side [also] pops up when I see the waveforms. It turns out that there are some analogies between standing strings in guitar and quantum physics: if you trap a lot of energy in a small space only certain things can exist, every time you move your finger you are changing a boundary condition.”
Despite this connection, she laughs and says most people (both scientists and musicians) can get confused, and sometimes it is better to keep the two separate. But she says she is happy to be at a place like Loyola, where unique teaching methods are encouraged.
In addition to teaching and personally practicing music, Dr. Greene-Johnson also started her own contractual music group, Strategic Music, Inc. and conducts the choir at her south-side church, the Apostolic Church of God. Mai-Ann Chen, conductor for the Chicago Sinfonietta, chose Dr. Greene-Johnson’s choir to perform three of her arrangements with the Sinfonietta orchestra, and invited her to conduct one of the arrangements.
Dr. Greene-Johnson (though her favorite piece is Beethoven’s 6th Symphony, second movement) says her musical tastes range from the Black Eyed Peas to rock guitar (“the angrier the better” she says), and she saw this same wide range in the music that the Sinfonietta performs.
“My collaboration is a very good match; they are also committed to diversity and introducing new works within the constraints of their classical training and reaching out to other kinds of music,” she says. “This match is good for me, as that is what I also aim to do.”
In the future, Dr. Greene-Johnson says she hopes to go back to school to study conducting, plan a trip to Ireland to study Celtic music (which she describes as “beautifully coordinated”), and continue her work with Strategic Music, Inc.
For now, however, she is happy to strike a balance between her scientific and musical background.
“Music is as much about culture as it is about physical notes and sound compression waves,” she says.