Educator Terry Wolkowicz keeps finding new ways to use music to expand listeners’ horizons.
Blind and visually impaired people experience the behavior of whales through a convergence of science, sculpture, and live music. Young readers learn about endangered right whales through a charming book paired with music, video, and interactive web-based games. Complex scientific concepts are made accessible to a broader audience through the magic of melody.
The New Bedford resident, who is familiar to many as education director for the New Bedford Symphony Orchestra, is co-founder of Sound Explorations. In the enterprise, which began as a COVID lockdown project, Wolkowicz partners with music director David MacKenzie to interpret science, art, and environmental concepts through music.
Sound Explorations has done projects for museums, science foundations, researchers, and government agencies such as NASA, the Museum of Science in Boston, the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, and the LJ STEAM Foundation in La Jolla, California.
An example of the interdisciplinary approach of Sound Explorations is a children’s book, “Right Whale, Wrong Letter,” co-authored by Wolkowicz and MacKenzie. It tells the tale of a young whale, Robley, who has a problem: The mist from his blowholes just won’t form the typical “V.” How he uses his creativity to turn this shortcoming into an asset makes for an engaging story on its own. But a wealth of information about right whale behavior and environmental challenges enriches the book, making it more than just young reader entertainment.
The video that accompanies the book features narration and music composed by MacKenzie, former artistic director of the NBSO, who now lives in Hawaii. Olivia Coucci, a teacher at Our Sisters’ School who has been a story artist for Pixar Animation Studios, created the book’s whimsical illustrations. They are augmented in the video by live clips captured by specially permitted marine scientists. Justin Wolkowicz, Terry’s son, creates the online educational games that provide another vehicle for the messages in the book as well as other projects.
Wolkowicz, who earned her bachelor’s degree in music education from the New England Conservatory of Music and a master’s degree in education from Harvard University, has garnered many accolades during her career. Recently, she was appointed chair of the national League of American Orchestras’ Education and Community Engagement Leadership Committee.
About her appointment, NBSO President and CEO David Prentiss said in a press release that “Terry’s incredible talent and energy has made such a large impact in New Bedford and surrounding communities, and now we are glad — and very proud — that she will be able to have even more impact on the national level.”
Her work with Sound Explorations is yet another way that the educator’s vision is enriching audiences far beyond the South Coast.
In this conversation, Wolkowicz tells The Light about the inspiration for her work and what it’s like to collaborate with scientists on interdisciplinary projects.
New Bedford Light: How do you dream up these ideas?
Terry Wolkowicz: I guess the answer is that I understand one thing in this world, and it’s music. So anytime somebody talks to me about something other than music, inside my head, I’m making sense of it through music — that’s just the way that I work. … My son was trying to explain to me something within his business that had to do with mathematics, and in my head, I just had to understand it in relationship to chords. …
When I meet with a scientist, I’ll say, “Talk to me about your work” and then in my head, I’ll go “Oh, yeah, we have the same thing in music. I can show this musically.” …
I’ll visit a place like a museum, and I’ll see an exhibit that is only visual, nothing else. And I realize that if you are blind or visually impaired, there’s nothing for you there. So I’m always thinking about ways to represent through interaction, through sound, through music, a way to engage people in those situations. So, coming into a museum and helping them discover how they could create a more accessible representation of the content that exhibit is trying to communicate.
NBL: Your children’s book and video “Right Whale, Wrong Letter” communicates concepts about right whale behaviors and the need to protect this highly endangered species that visits Massachusetts waters. Is it equally about how an individual’s differences can be an asset?
TW: It’s the way that we can perceive a characteristic in ourselves being a fault. Right? Or not fitting in, not being what we think everybody else is. And then how that perspective can be changed by certain circumstances. And in Robley’s case, it was a bit of trouble for him and his mom. He found that he could use creativity — I’m going to say with a capital C — because I think when I first started the story, I thought about, like, maybe he’ll spell something to warn the ship. But I think “big C” creativity is about not seeing something for what it is, but for what it could be.
So for Robley to take two letters and realize that the combination created a symbol, two letters become a sign, I thought that was important, because that demonstrates something about — especially for kids — about how to look at something and not just see it for what it is, but what it could be.
For him to realize that what he felt was a flaw, a problem that he needed to fix, and in the end, it aided him in a difficult situation, being able to use his creativity to create that symbol with his mom and him (working) together.
I almost think like the two felt equal to me. It wasn’t just the whole thing of how he viewed something as negative and changing that to be positive — in the end, he still can’t make the V. Sorry! — but also about how I think about creativity. What does it really mean to be creative? I think that is an important part, too, about the “listen, learn, create” activities on the website. It’s not enough to read the book and think about the book, but we really want to take those concepts and then encourage children to be creative humans composing music themselves.
NBL: Many people think of music as a creative discipline and science as an analytical discipline. Is it that simple?
TW: No. There is so much cross-pollination. You need one to understand the other. Right?
I can be extremely analytical about music. Oh, my goodness. When I listen, sometimes I forget to just listen and experience it. I’m working in my head, figuring out what’s happening: What’s the form, what’s the structure? Is there a hierarchy? What is the evolution of an idea? I’m not going to say data analysis, but in some sense, I think we really are analyzing what is going on.
But yet it’s an aesthetically emotional, beautiful experience, right? How can you not see the beauty in those scientists studying the whales, and seeing the most graceful motion of something that’s so big, and it’s just — it’s a beautiful thing.
So I think that we’ve come a long way. I remember, growing up, it seemed like all the subject areas were extremely modular. And now I think there’s just so much more sharing, to understand that to be able to understand something, we need to be able to think across disciplines.
NBL: What is it like to collaborate with scientists in your work with Sound Explorations?
TW: I find that scientists I work with seem to get quite excited, because they are passionate about what they do, about the field they’re studying, or maybe it’s a really important message they’re trying to get out there to conserve a species or working to help the planet exist. (We give) them a new way to communicate that is not just another (scholarly) paper, but using music to communicate the key concepts.
When they realize the emotional aspect that we add to communicating their messages, which is what’s so wonderful about music, they get quite excited by it, because it’s allowing them to reach people who might not have a degree in science or who might not have felt a connection to their subject area, by using the arts to add that whole human element to it. … I think it gives them a whole new way to push out what’s really important to them, to communicate to the general public, to children, to the blind and visually impaired, that they would have never reached. They get very excited when they’re given the product back, and the nice thing so far is that everybody we’ve worked with, they just want to keep doing more.
NBL: You partnered on a project that helps blind or visually impaired people interpret humpback whale anatomy and behavior through a sculptural model created by your artistic director, Emilie Grossman, linked with a live music interpretation. How do the participants respond to this experience?
TW: Very strongly. It was a very impactful experience for them, to not only have a tactile representation of a whale moving through water but then to be paired with a live musician who was not just playing along but very much reacting to the motion of their hand, how they traverse the sculpture. To create something together was an incredibly powerful experience. One of the gentlemen I worked with this week talked about how he had listened to a whale documentary over the weekend, but yet now, he was able to experience it.
Students we work with are just, first of all, completely blown away by understanding how large a whale is in comparison to themself, using two models to allow them to compare that, but then to have this experience that uses all their senses to come to understand the beautiful way in which these whales are foraging and moving through water — the reaction from our participants has been so incredibly strong, and so incredibly thankful for having the experience.
NBL: You have served for several years on the education and community engagement leadership committee of the national League of American Orchestras, and recently were named chair. Tell me a bit about that work.
TW: It’s broadened over the years. It used to be just involving children and youth, but what an education director does now with community engagement for the professional orchestra has kind of reached equal status to youth programming. Community engagement means … performing outside of our concert hall, connecting to different communities. So that’s definitely changed since I started with the New Bedford Symphony, this whole idea of community engagement. It’s not just building the next audience, but building new relationships with people in your area.
NBL: So, this dovetails with your other efforts to make music part of everybody’s life.
TW: Yes, exactly. Exactly. Each orchestra (in the league), they all have their certain programs that they are really engaged with, and it can be very different from orchestra to orchestra. But I think basically, there are a lot of commonalities among education directors and what it’s like to work within our organizations, and how to forge these partnerships and connections with people outside of our standard concert audiences.
Editor’s note: Joanna McQuillan Weeks is a volunteer for the New Bedford Symphony Orchestra as well as a freelance writer and frequent correspondent for The New Bedford Light. Its newsroom is scrupulously independent. Only the editors decide what to cover and what to publish.
“Right Whale, Wrong Letter” is available at the New Bedford Whaling Museum and Buttonwood Park Zoo in New Bedford as well as on Amazon. Visit rightwhalewrongletter.com to view the storybook video and lesson samples. Visit soundexplorations.org to learn more about its work, and to view examples.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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