February 15, 2021
Great minds think alike. And lately, some of them have been pointing out the great influence music has on the development of the brain.
On January 15, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) announced what a press release described as “the publication of a groundbreaking white paper on the extraordinary impact of music education on child development.” Titled “Music for Every Child,” the white paper was written by polymath Indre Viskontas, a neuroscientist who’s also a soprano with a master’s degree in vocal performance from SFCM, where she’s been teaching.
A couple of weeks later, soprano Renée Fleming helmed the online launch of the Sound Health Network (SHN), a multidisciplinary program promoting research and public awareness about music’s good agency in health and wellness. This an offshoot of Sound Health, an organization formed in 2016 as a collaboration between the Kennedy Center (where Fleming serves as artistic advisor) and the National Institute of Health (NIH) and National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).
Shortly after she sang for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris at a private morning mass on Inauguration Day, January 20, Fleming perused Viskontas’s 40-page document, and recognized a kindred spirit and mission. “It’s one of the best laid-out cases I’ve even seen for music education, bringing together pretty much everything we know at the moment,” says Fleming during an interview from her Virginia homestead, not far from Washington, D.C. “And [Viskontas] makes the point very clearly that just listening to music does not do it and that being parked in front of any kind of screen does not do it. There are wonderful quotes in the paper, from Einstein [who played violin], and Steve Wozniak [a founder of Apple], who said that all of the gifted people in tech have had musical training.”
Although there has not as yet been a formal connection between the SHN and the white paper, Viskontas has been named “communications core co-investigator” for Fleming’s organization. She’s also tenure-track faculty at the University of San Francisco (USF), where she teaches psychology and conducts interdisciplinary research. Fleming’s 19-episode series Music and Mind LIVE, livestreamed during the pandemic, featured appearances by researchers from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), where Viskontas did her postdoctoral work.
Fleming says she’s looking forward to meeting Viskontas, who thinks she may have actually met Fleming in an elevator in London while working as an usher at the Royal Opera House, after undergraduate study at the University of Toronto. Viskontas had been attracted to science since reading An Anthropologist on Mars by neurologist and popular author Oliver Sacks, but she later began work in Sacks’s specialty, toward a Ph.D. at UCLA, “with the goal of using it to fund my singing training.” At that time, early in this century, she points out, “research on music and the brain was limited to only a couple of labs, in Montreal and Europe. It was something you did once you had tenure.”
Enrolling at SFCM after completing her doctorate, Viskontas “recognized there was a big disconnect between what neurologists know about how the brain learns and how — at least with singers — we practice and try to learn. There was a lot of superstition and ‘wisdom’ based on intuition, and as a psychology student, I knew how often our intuition is just outright wrong.”
She was brought onboard as SFCM faculty after finishing her Master of Music, and developed a course called Training the Musical Brain, as “a real practical application of neuroscience to musicians of all categories, to help them strategize their practice sessions. Over time, some really good research started being done [at other institutions], and people took notice. One of the major catalysts was the movie Alive Inside , with Oliver Sacks one of the people behind it. It pointed out that in the face of terrible neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, music could bring patients alive, pull them back.”
To sustain her musical chops, even after taking on an additional teaching load at USF, Viskontas ran Opera on Tap S.F., presenting opera at bars, worked with a chamber group, and co-founded Pasadena Opera, with productions during the academic summer break. Among her presentations at Pasadena, as director, was The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, composed by Michael Nyman and based on a study by Oliver Sacks. “He’d become a mentor and friend of mine,” she says of Sacks, “so I could use his mannerisms.” She hopes someday to mount that production at USF, and she’ll be directing Janáček’s Katya Kabanová for West Edge Opera this coming summer.
Viskontas attributes part of her excitement about childhood education, the focus of the white paper, to becoming a mother for the first time in 2014. “The way my son A.J. responded to music was fascinating, what a big part of his life it was. Then people ask you about ‘the Mozart effect,’ should I be playing Mozart to my fetus, should I be teaching violin to my child so he can have a better IQ. The truth is more interesting than the myth: Playing Mozart to your baby is not going to guarantee it a Nobel Prize, but taking your child to participatory music classes when they’re 6 months old actually will help them learn gestures and communications more quickly.
“And while I was developing the white paper,” she continues, “I saw there was this disproportionate benefit for kids who aren’t privileged, who come from different backgrounds. There have been interventions that brought music into places where music wouldn’t be, and that’s where the data are very clear, with the Harmony Project and the LA Phil program [both in Los Angeles], and with public schools in Boston.”
“One shocking statistic in [Viskontas’s] paper has to do with one at-risk child’s graduating being the equivalent of ten years of salary for one music educator,” remarks Renée Fleming. The white paper notes that, “When music classes are strategically scheduled, teenagers in high school are more likely to show up,” and cites a report from the California Dropout Research Project that, “Every student who graduates in California adds $115,300 in value to the federal government and $53,600 to state and local governments — after deducting the cost of educating that student.”
Fleming also appreciates the white paper’s user-friendly approach to science, with neurological analysis presented in lively and comprehensible text illuminated by illustrations and charts. “We learn about the plasticity of the brain, and it doesn’t surprise me that science has proven that plasticity will increase with any kind of musical training. And that this training synchronizes the left and right cerebral hemispheres.” Among the benign results — arguably embodied by Fleming and Viskontas – are enhanced multitasking and decision-making skills.
The inception of the white paper, funded by a grant from the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation, involved meetings and symposia of interested parties from several sciences and governmental entities and the SFCM, as well as the Foundation itself. “Mr. Getty and myself, with our advisory committee, and [SFCM president] David Stull had been talking for some time about what kind of impact we could make on early educational music access,” says Lisa Delan, director of the Foundation and herself a performing and recording soprano. “We all agreed that education is one of the single most important factors not only in the quality of life, but in the survival of our classical art form.”
“In 2018, the Conservatory, in partnership with the Getty Foundation, brought together an alliance of interests,” reports Stull. “The Leakey Foundation was having a conference, and we invited one of their leading archeologists to give a talk about the origins of music. Her expertise was in early [vulture] bone flutes from 40,000 years ago, which were played in a cave that was acoustically suited to communal gatherings. It was an essential human experience that predated the written word and modern languages. Then the idea was, let’s have a discussion about the earliest relationship of music to the development of the modern human, but also, how does music impact the development of our children today.”
Both these matters caught the interest of philanthropist and composer [and SFCV funder] Gordon Getty, who attended the 2018 symposium convened in SFCM’s Osher Salon. Getty “tends to be very optimistic about the ability of music to survive over time,” Delan points out. “And within his large heart, there’s significant room occupied by the joy he experiences with children.” She’s observed him as “teary-eyed” and “overwhelmed” in his rehearsals of his choral music with the Young People’s Chorus of New York last year, and of his newest opera, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, with the San Francisco Boys Chorus.
The 2018 symposium was attended by child psychologists, neurologists, and educators, as well as Rhys Williams, chief of staff to then-Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, invited by Delan. “One of our chief interests,” she says, “was being able to create a political platform for advocacy, and to try to make a statewide and eventually national agenda” for returning music to the schools. For Viskontas, chosen by Stull to author the white paper, it was an opportunity to both announce her plans and network with some of the persons and disciplines with input to the white paper.
Now that it’s published, the white paper must take on the role of manifesto, as its author puts it, “the first step in talking to the public and then generating real results in terms of changing policy.” “We have a dynamic plan,” assures Stull about SFCM’s part of the mission. “The Conservatory bought Opus 3 Artists, and since they manage Yo-Yo Ma, Emmanuel Ax, Gil Shaham, and others, we have a vision where great artists become advocates — resource donors — around the importance of this in public education in every state. And then we follow up their concerts with our concerts during winter term, with our students sharing the white paper and encouraging local foundations and donors to seed funding for the return of music to every public school in America.”
“The Foundation also wants a growing path toward a national implementation of music being reintegrated into primary education,” adds Delan. She notes that in her earlier contact with state policy-makers, “what they felt they needed was a stronger focus on math and computer science to create more people to fill the vast amount of tech jobs in California ... so we’re fighting a distorted perception of values. If you want to have innovators for the future, you have to give full confidence to them at the earliest possible age, to make the neural connections and to find creativity. And that doesn’t come from doing math.”
On the occasion of her last booking at Cal Performances, Renée Fleming contributed to the research by letting Dr. Charles Limb of UCSF examine which parts of her brain “light up” when she sings classical music. She wishes she’d known more about music’s benign effect on brain development when her two daughters, now adults, were small, “but fortunately they both played multiple instruments and were, generally speaking, very creative young people. Nowadays I almost don’t meet anybody, particularly in medicine, who didn’t study music at some point.” Physician-geneticist Francis Collins, the director of the NIH with whom she launched Sound Health, is an accomplished guitarist who still performs with the Affordable Rock ’n’ Roll Act, a band of NIH staffers.
Fleming will return to Cal Performances in April as part of their season-long Illuminations: Music and the Mind series where she’ll combine performances by her and other musicians with discussions of neurobiology and creativity. Her own Music and Mind LIVE livestream can be accessed here, and Viskontas’s white paper is available here.