Award-winning opera singer explores therapeutic effects of music

This past Tuesday in Nicholas Music Center, Rutgers hosted Grammy Award-winning opera singer and musician Renée Fleming in a presentation alongside a core selection of New Jersey and New York neuroscientists and program directors. The workshop extended itself to how music interacts biologically and emotionally to different forms of medicine and collective healing. 

"It's nice that Rutgers provides this kind of intellectual discussion and its current things that happen in our society. People get injured, and they have to get better, and there's also these diseases like MS (Multiple Sclerosis) or Alzheimer's, and music fits into these in a way that you would normally not think of," said Paul Westbrook, a professor in the Department of Finance and Economics. 

Dr. Eduardo Herrera, an assistant professor at the Mason Gross School of the Arts, began the evening with a series of cordial opening remarks. Fleming took to the stage to introduce a moving series of videos that captured a massive variety of music, and the samples chosen were intimate as well as global in scale. One video, in which she entertained a dinner party with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg the night before same-sex marriage became legalized at the federal level.

Both Fleming's leadership and teamwork within the medical community boasted a wide and long-standing career adjacent to her work as a musician and as an active and robust addition to the world of neurocognitive research. One particular account she showed was her receiving a computed tomography (CT) scan while singing through muscle memory for two hours straight to record and analyze how musical and creative work activate releases within the brain. 

Her hands-on experience with music therapy has led to different forms of understanding how the arts can strengthen and reconnect with one's sense of health. There was another account of how Fleming met a young man named Forrest Allen, who suffered a traumatic brain injury due to a snowboarding accident in 2011, and was unable to speak for two years after a coma. After years of slow recovery, Allen was able to find his own voice again. 

Dr. Daniel Schneider, a board-certified neurologist and psychiatrist in the Departments of Psychiatry and Neurology for Rutgers Health, followed suit by introducing to the audience the idea of amusia. Amusia is when the ability to hear musical intonations and rhythm are lacking for some people or become lost in others, requiring help to appreciate music and rhythm. 

Wendy Su, the lead medical director of neuroscience at Novartis Pharmaceutical, explored how music and the mind interact with one another. Her experience within biotechnology industries allowed her to illuminate music therapy's role within the market as well as the everyday lives of possible patients. 

Sunil Iyengar, the research and analysis director for the National Endowment for the Arts, provided the sprawling network of funding and research being actively invested into different forms of community outreach and empowerment to further how music therapy and medicine can be expanded and explored within the field. 

"It was really interesting to hear how music affects the mind. And what really interested me was that Renée Fleming showed us the video about how kids also reacted to how dads play the guitar, and as well as how overall people with neurological diseases are affected by music, and music really helps them. Which is to me, really amazing. It's unbelievable that someone can emerge being able to speak again and communicate with parents and friends," said Joseph Dodrv, a School of Arts and Sciences senior.

Fleming was keen to point out the social significance that connects music and medicine. "Loneliness is an epidemic," she said. It's no small coincidence that the large support systems of all the patients discussed were able to heal and grow beyond their situations by sharing their music with each other. 

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