Goodman's discovery: Science, music complement each other

By Aline McKenzie / August 2010

As a child, Dr. Joel Goodman loved to watch his wind-up toys march off the end of a piano, an amusement that led to his lifelong devotion to music and his favorite instrument.

“Our family had a spinet piano,” said Dr. Goodman, professor of pharmacology. “My teacher, Paul Schoop, would wind up the toys and put them on the top, and every now and then one would go over the cliff, which made both of us howl with laughter.

Dr. Joel Goodman, shown here in performance with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, played Variations Symphoniques by César Franck. Dr.Goodman was one of six master players selected to perform with the orchestra.

“I always looked forward to my lessons. By the time I was 10 or so, I was hooked on piano. I owe much of that to Paul’s playful teaching style.”

Dr. Goodman, now a master amateur pianist, was recognized in June for his passion and skill when he performed with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra as part of the PianoTexas International Academy and Festival, sponsored by the Texas Christian University School of Music.

“This was the pinnacle — to play with a professional symphony orchestra,” he said. “Memory lapses are unforgiveable. You just don’t ask them to go back four bars and start again.”

Dr. Tamás Ungár, executive director of PianoTexas and professor of piano at TCU, said Dr. Goodman performed “fantastically” with the symphony.

“The concerto he chose, Variations Symphoniques by César Franck, is one of the most difficult pieces in the repertoire, so he did not spare himself,” Dr. Ungár said. “He played with accuracy and beauty, and at times he reached into the depth of true music-making.”

The annual event brings together professional and amateur pianists for a 10-day program of classes, recitals and competitions. Dr. Goodman was one of six master players who were selected from among 24 competitors to perform with the symphony.

Dr. Goodman called Variations Symphoniques, a piece composed in 1885, “accessible and melodic.” And as a bonus, it fit in the 20-minute time limit, allowing him to play the entire piece rather than being limited to a single movement of, say, a Beethoven concerto.

Dr. Goodman’s love of music runs through several generations in his family.

His grandmother, who emigrated from Ukraine to New York in the 1890s, loved Yiddish theater and vaudeville. “I remember my grandmother acting out Yiddish numbers — singing and dancing around the room at family gatherings,” he said.

“The family made sure that her three daughters always had music,” Dr. Goodman said. “They’d barely have food in the house, but they’d always have piano lessons.”

For a wedding present, Dr. Goodman’s father bought his mother a spinet piano — the future deathtrap of many a wind-up toy. When the young family moved to Los Angeles, Dr. Goodman often played at parties that included movie stars — and the young man believed that was normal.

At age 17, he got a job playing piano in a bar. “I kept that job for several weeks until the owner found out I was too young to even be in there,” he said.

He attended college with ambitions of becoming a ballet accompanist. In every dorm room or apartment where he lived, he rented a piano until he could afford a “beat-up baby grand” of his own. (He now owns a 9-foot concert grand Steinway that he bought on eBay.)

But in addition to music, he began to develop an interest in math and science. A class in molecular biology at the University of California, San Diego, grabbed his interest and turned his plans upside-down. He majored in biology, with a minor in music.

“How you get from DNA to RNA to protein was just amazing to me,” Dr. Goodman said. “Remember, this had all just been recently discovered.”

His professional and scholastic interests continued to alternate between music and science until he decided to enter a graduate program at the University of Southern California School of Medicine, where he earned a Ph.D. in pharmacology.

His research focuses on how cells assemble lipid droplets — small intracellular bodies that store the body’s fat and perform other functions. In humans, improperly assembled lipid droplets can cause lipodystrophy, often a childhood killer.

Dr. Goodman also is director of STARS (Science Teacher Access to Resources at Southwestern), a program established in 1991 to improve science education in North Central Texas.

Science and music fulfill him in complementary ways. “In research, the limit to my success is my imagination, not how fast or efficiently I can move my fingers,” he said.

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Dr. Goodman holds the Jan and Bob Bullock Distinguished Chair for Science Education and the John P. Perkins, Ph.D., Distinguished Professorship in Biomedical Science.