Loves of math, music come together

Barbara Zach

Barbara Zach, who was a math and piano performance dual major at UNL, is now the executive director of Lincoln’s Symphony Orchestra.

The connections between mathematics and music fascinate Barbara Zach.

The executive director of Lincoln’s Symphony Orchestra (LSO), Zach was a dual mathematics and piano performance major at UNL and has found a satisfying career that unites her two favorite subjects.

"I read a book called ‘Mathematics: The Science of Patterns,’ and it points out that math and music are the only two disciplines with their own language that can only be read by someone skilled, but can be appreciated or understood by anyone," Zach said. “In math, that translates into complicated equations that can also be shown visually in graphs that you can understand. In music, complicated sheet music can be understood if someone plays it for you and you can hear it. There is something about the way that you synthesize information for both fields that is similar."

Since graduation, Zach has been working for the orchestra. She started out as orchestra manager, coordinating all of the details for concert production, and then was promoted to executive director in 2005. The position has exceeded all of her expectations.

"I was thinking about grad school or a job in the field of mathematics, and I thought I would find part-time employment in Lincoln while I was looking," Zach said.

As it turned out, LSO was combining three part-time positions into one full-time orchestra manager position, which she was happy to accept. "I didn’t realize that this would be the perfect career for me. I absolutely fell in love with the art form. As a solo pianist, I spent a lot of time alone, and there is something really beautiful about the community in an orchestra and all these musicians coming together from completely different perspectives, even musically, and creating something that is so compelling."

As executive director, Zach focuses on thinking about the "big picture," through strategic planning and fund raising. She oversees the orchestra’s $1 million budget, of which only 25 percent comes from ticket sales and the rest from donations. Primarily, she enjoys sitting with Edward Polochick, LSO’s music director who is on the faculty at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, dreaming artistically, and keeping "a running list of dream projects."

But her favorite part of the job is a performance week. The musicians, who receive their music two weeks before rehearsals begin, prepare alone, but then see one another for four nights before the concert, each with a two-and-a-half hours-long rehearsal. Eighty percent of the musicians are teachers or professors, and all of them but the concertmaster live in Nebraska. Some even have math degrees.

"Ed, our conductor, and our principal flute player studied math as undergraduates, and one of our violinists, Kristie Pfabe, is the math department chair at Nebraska Wesleyan,” Zach said. In fact, Pfabe received her Ph.D. in mathematics from UNL.

Zach also leads an effort to change the image of the orchestra within the community.

"We made a huge push to show that we have a very welcoming personality as an organization. People think of orchestras as being stuffy and only for an elite few," Zach said, "but we exist to serve this community. To see the diversity of our audience grow exponentially in the last couple of years since we lowered our ticket prices and moved to the Lied, and see that the size of our audience has doubled, that has been very rewarding to me."

It was actually an experience singing with the LSO as a freshman in the UNL choir that persuaded Zach to add music as a major.

"I went from just playing piano when I was younger, just popular stuff and playing by ear and not really learning how to read music, to really wanting to pursue classical music seriously so I auditioned for the School of Music," said the Omaha native and Westside High School graduate.

Before the opportunity with the LSO, Zach was thinking of becoming a high school or college math teacher and adding an education degree as well because of her other love besides music: math.

"I love the complexity," she said. "Really intelligent people have the capacity at once to understand that nothing is ever simple so they don’t just take things on face value, and they understand that there are complex underpinnings to every decision. But then at the same time, they are able to take really complex subjects and make them easy to understand. That was one thing I loved about teaching math: it’s not a simple subject but almost anyone can grasp some exciting concepts."

Her experience in Dr. Mark Sapir’s Math 314 course, “the hardest class I ever took in college,” not only challenged her as a student but also helped her learn life skills that she uses today in her profession.

"When I’m giving speeches about music education and how important it is, I talk about the experience of working in an ensemble and how it teaches you to cooperate and listen to other people. In the same way, this class was really great because all of our homework was done in groups of three. Everyone contributed a beneficial perspective, and it was really great to learn from other people. In this class, it was never about just having the answer," Zach said.

For Zach, the critical thinking skills and fascinating mathematics knowledge acquired from upper-level mathematics are worth the struggle through the foundational courses.

"The discipline of thinking logically will serve you well the rest of your life," Zach said. "Math teaches you the discipline of not accepting faulty logic or lazy thinking and forces you to really wrap your brain around difficult and complicated concepts, let them percolate and then find a creative solution."

– Lindsay Augustyn