Faculty brings music into classrooms

Joseph Izen plays his banjo in his honors physics class. Izen began playing during his graduate years in 1980. Photo by Aasav Sureja | Mercury Staff.

Joseph Izen, a physics professor, enters the SLC with his class notes and banjo. Today he is sharing with his students not only his love for physics, but his love for music. He, along with many other professors at UTD, find their personal interests intersecting with their professional ones.

Before the banjo, Izen played the violin, but quit in sixth grade, opting instead to take a shop class. He would not play another instrument until graduate school.

“Part of the trouble was those were violin lessons, and I wanted to play the fiddle,” Izen said. 

Izen’s passion for music came from growing up during the folk boom, he said his elementary violin lessons were too classical. However, in graduate school, while working at a particle accelerator at Cornell, he started listening to college radio. In 1980, he rekindled his love for music and began playing the banjo, which he continues to do today.

“Practicing was just a pleasure. I was a grad student. That can be kind of stressful and (playing banjo) was my downtime,” Izen said. ”I never expected to be good enough to play in public.”

Today, Izen performs in an old-time string band, “Squirrelheads in Gravy,” at contra dances in the North Texas region.

“Because I’m a physicist, I can explain a lot about musical instruments, like why they sound the way they do and why musicians do certain things,” Izen said. “But that doesn’t help me when I’m playing.”

Despite his knowledge of physics and how its concepts apply to music, Izen said he tends to keep the two separate.

“People always want to talk about the overlap between physics and music,” he said. “But I do not really see it. Physics is calculating and music is expressive.”

Alex Piquero, a criminology professor, also uses music to engage students. When he isn’t lecturing, he plays the bass guitar. He performs with a group of fellow criminologists called “The Hot Spots.” 

Piquero said he likes to take the first couple minutes of class to engage with his students before lecturing. He often asks students with headphones what they’re listening to, sometimes playing a bit of it before class begins. 

“You want to make learning a fun place to be and everybody likes music, just like everybody likes movies and just like everybody likes T.V.,” Piquero said. “Talking about things like that bring us all closer together and brings us into a place where we’re all interested in the same things. We’re going to have fun, we’re going to learn some things, and the experience of the class is going to facilitate that.”

In addition to using music as an ice breaker, he has used lyrics to drive home points in his academic articles.

“Music really does permeate everyday life,” Piquero said. “You don’t want academia to be a stuffy professor wearing a suit lecturing behind a podium.”

Piquero’s band had its debut at the annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology in 1991. They decided to charge people $5 to enter one of the conference halls at the hotel and play from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. to raise money for minority scholarships.

“We played all the stuff people could dance to and songs everyone knows all the words to,” Piquero said.

His band continued this tradition until 2013.

“All the people I studied with in grad school were there dancing like crazy. We got nothing out of it except for getting the association from zero minority scholarships to two, to three, to four, to five, to six,” Piquero said. “It was meaningful that we were not only giving students a good time but that the money being raised at the door was going toward a good cause.”

The Hot Spots designed concert tour shirts with a list of all the host cities for the criminology conference where they performed.

“I love music,” Piquero said. “There’s something about words and sounds. They just sit in your head. I like all music. It is a part of everybody’s life, regardless of the genre you’re interested in — be it classical, or rap, or reggae — it is something that unifies people regardless of their sex, their race, their ethnicity, their culture. Music is the international language.”

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