Music and the mind

A conversation with Renée Fleming

She is known as “the people’s diva,” and when you meet famed lyric soprano Renée Fleming you immediately know why. She’s open, engaging and friendly. Perhaps it’s her upbringing in Rochester, New York, as the daughter of two public school music teachers.

Photography by Andrew Eccles

It’s easy to see Fleming as approachable and one of us. Yet, Fleming has flown through the stratosphere in the arts. She’s performed at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, the Beijing Olympics, the Brandenburg Gate to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Buckingham Palace for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, the Lincoln Memorial for the inaugural celebration of President Barack Obama and every major concert hall in the world.

In 2013, Obama awarded her the National Medal of Arts, America’s highest honor for an individual artist. In April, she added one more achievement, making her Broadway musical debut in a new production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel.

A project close to her heart and head is a collaboration she’s spearheading between the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, where she serves as artistic advisor at large, and the National Institutes of Health, in association with the National Endowment for the Arts. The initiative, Sound Health: Music and the Mind, explores how listening to, performing or creating music involves brain circuitry that can be harnessed to improve health and well-being.

Recently while Fleming was on campus for a Stanford Live performance and a presentation on neuroscience and music, she sat down with Paul Costello, executive editor of Stanford Medicine, to talk about the left-brain/right-brain initiative, which she launched with NIH Director Francis Collins, MD, PhD.

Costello: It almost sounds like the setup to a joke: Three Supreme Court justices, a renowned scientist and a world-famous opera singer walk into a Washington dinner party.

Fleming: Well, it really was an extraordinary event. I had never met Francis Collins. I had met Justices Scalia, Ginsberg and Kennedy at a concert series at the Supreme Court. Dr. Collins brought his guitar and we kind of interrupted the band and took over with an impromptu sing-along with everyone. I had just been appointed artistic advisor at the Kennedy Center. At one point during the evening I turned to Dr. Collins and said, “What do you think about all of this research about the brain and music? Might we collaborate and bring these two great institutions — the Kennedy Center and the NIH — together?” My idea was to amplify the research to the larger public. I didn’t feel people really knew how powerful it was. He completely embraced it.

"When I sing the Four Last Songs of Richard Strauss, which I’ve sung more than anything in my repertoire, in the last piece, I am in a meditative state. My breathing slows down. I can suddenly lift out of my daily life, and that happens every time." 

Costello: Was there a particular aspect of the research that intrigued you?

Fleming: One of the things I learned over the years was that, for some inexplicable reason, many doctors are amateur musicians. I’ve always wondered: What’s the connection between medicine and music? I started to read and learn and found there were extraordinary connections with basic science, therapies or treatments, and child development. Those were the areas I thought were really interesting.

Costello: Do you have specific goals for the collaboration?

Fleming: The first goal is to move music therapy forward as a discipline, make it more widely understood and more widely supported. The second is to educate the public and enlighten people about the power of music to heal. Take Alzheimer’s. Why can somebody who doesn’t recognize anyone around them sit down at a piano and play beautifully or remember the words to songs and sing along? There is an emotional power, an underpinning of who we are as human beings, that exists in this realm of music.

Costello: Does your voice heal you?

Fleming: That’s an interesting question. I think singing, definitely, and music in general have a huge power over me. When I sing the Four Last Songs of Richard Strauss, which I’ve sung more than anything in my repertoire, in the last piece, I am in a meditative state. My breathing slows down. I can suddenly lift out of my daily life, and that happens every time. So, I would say, yes.

Costello: Have you ever analyzed the process of what you’re going through while you sing?

Fleming: I went to the NIH and participated in an fMRI imaging study that actually looked at my brain when I was performing. It’s an incredibly fascinating scan and it’s remarkable how much the brain is activated by music. It has a broader impact on the brain than almost any other activity. This is what scientists are beginning to understand.

Costello: You were in the fMRI machine singing?

Fleming: I was in the machine for two hours. I didn’t quite understand what I was signing up for. (laughs) I sang a snippet from a folk song, The Water is Wide, for about 60 repetitions. I had to sing it over and over again, lying down, without being able to move. I sang the words, spoke them and imagined the words. It was all quite interesting. The most powerful impact on my brain was imagining singing. It was more far-reaching than either singing or speaking. The researchers said, in my case, because I sing all the time, it’s second nature. I could relax a little in the singing part. But in the imagining part, I had to really focus. The MRI is very loud!

Costello: You chose a Scottish folk song. Why that particular song?

Fleming: I’ve always found power in folk music. One of the questions I have is: Why are certain songs universal and universally loved?

"The most powerful impact on my brain was imagining singing. It was more far-reaching than either singing or speaking."

Costello: What are the universal songs for you?

Fleming: In my own performances, it’s definitely Puccini’s O mio babbino caro. No matter where I sing in the world, people respond to that. Others are Amazing Grace, Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, and Ave Maria.

Costello: Were there moments in your career when you were especially intrigued by the connection of brain to music?

Fleming: There are two things that have plagued me throughout my career. One was stage fright. The other was somatic pain, caused by performance pressure. In order to understand these two things, which in my 30 years of singing have not been widely supported or understood by medicine, I had to do a great deal of reading and try to figure it out myself. I’ve been extremely interested in the mind-body connection.

Costello: What do you tell young opera singers about how to deal with stage fright and self-doubt?

Fleming: I break it down. One is to understand the root of it. The other is to really change the way you think about it, in terms of your cognitive approach. People don’t come to a performance to be judgmental, by and large. They don’t come with a scorecard. They come to relax and enjoy themselves. Beverly Sills wrote a book about public speaking. When she approached an audience, she talked about having a benevolent sense of sharing. I immediately understood: Turn the way I approach my experience on stage away from thinking the audience is looking at me to thinking that I am sharing with them. That really clicked.

Costello: What do you hope comes out of the brain and music initiative?

Fleming: That we, as a society, appreciate the arts more, value the arts more and understand that when the arts come into a community and rejuvenate it, that’s important. We still kind of think of the arts as soft and light. Yet, the science is there. It’s been proven that kids benefit tremendously from studying a musical instrument. The actual playing of an instrument improves auditory processing. Kids are able to do better in school. They can focus better.

Costello: When you travel doing concerts now, you’re also meeting with biomedical researchers, like here at Stanford. What do you want to leave behind?

Fleming: Only one thing: my interest in their work. I want to serve and spread their work. I can’t really teach them anything. They can teach me.

Music and the Mind

In this 1:2:1 podcast, opera singer Renée Fleming talks about the Sound Health: Music and the Mind initiative, which explores how listening to, performing or creating music involves brain circuitry that can be harnessed to improve health and well-being. 

Paul Costello is the School of Medicine's chief communications officer. Email him at paul.costello@stanford.edu.

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