Q & A: Soprano & Neuroscientist Indré Viskontas On Her New Book

By Nicole Kuchta

Dr. Indré Viskontas is fulfilling two dreams, establishing herself as an opera singer while satisfying her intellectual side with the study of neuroscience.

Having earned a Masters of Music in Voice Performance and a PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience, the lyric coloratura soprano teaches at San Francisco Conservatory of Music and at the University of San Francisco. Additionally, she, together with Dana Sadava, formed Pasadena Opera, where she serves as Creative Director.

OperaWire recently had the opportunity to chat with Viskontas about her fascinating career and book “How Music Can Make You Better,” a new addition to Chronicle Books’ “How” series.

OperaWire: You have two very different passions, opera and neuroscience. Did you always plan on finding a way to incorporate both into your work?

Indré Viskontas: For a very long time I kept them separate. Part of that was because opera was a real outlet for me passionate-wise and emotion-wise, and neuroscience is really an intellectual pursuit. And it’s all very different, the ways in which I worked in those fields. When I was working in opera, it was very much wearing your heart on your sleeve, expressing your emotions, and being dramatic. In science, you have to be objective and rigorous, and you really have to think about things from a controlled perspective. So for a long time I didn’t really see how neuroscience could make me a better opera singer, and I certainly didn’t see how opera singing could make me a better neuroscientist. It took for me to do my Master’s degree and then observe in a conservatory setting how so much of what musicians do really can be aided by what we know about how the brain learns and remembers. That’s why I started thinking, well, maybe I should actually apply some of the knowledge I have from neuroscience to my own practice. Then I started teaching others how to do the same. That made me a better singer, and it occurred to me how in fact neuroscience can inform musicians and can help us do our job better – how it can help us manage our time, help us manage our expectations and emotions and all the other things that we struggle with in ways that are much more productive. Then I also realized that there were ways in which music could help me understand the brain, and so instead of trying to use science to dissect music, I decided to use music to dissect the brain. And that’s what I’ve been doing over the last few years with my podcasts (“Cadence,” “Inspiring Minds”) and with the book I just published.

OW: Achieving success in either one of those disciplines requires intense study and dedication. How were you able to balance your studies of neuroscience with those of voice/music?

IV: Well, they have different requirements, and what we know from the way the brain learns is that it becomes unproductive to do the same thing for hours and hours and hours in a day. Your brain needs to take breaks, it needs to reset. There are times of the day when certain types of learning are more productive. For example, in the afternoon when your concentration and focus are a little bit more spread out (you’re not quite as focused as you are in the morning), that’s actually a really good time to do motor learning, to do creative work. I actually think that switching between different types of tasks is effective. Now, as for multi-tasking itself, if you’re trying to work on a paper and watch TV at the same time that’s not effective! But, understanding the times of the day that you will be better at different tasks is a really great thing to know. One of the reasons I did a Ph.D. rather than a clinical degree or medical degree is because in clinical and medical professions you have very little control over your schedule. But as a Ph.D. student, you can work, as long as you put the time in, whenever you want. That meant that I could save the times of the day when it was best for me to practice singing for singing, and I would still have plenty of time to work on the intellectual stuff on the science side. And the same thing now, I’m very regimented about my schedule, so I make sure that I plan months if not years in advance so that I can make sure that my days are set up so that I can optimize the times of the day that are best for either singing or neuroscience.

OW: As a stage director, how do you apply your knowledge of music and the brain to enhance a production? And/Or how do you apply that knowledge when you yourself take to the stage?

IV: It’s harder to do it when I’m the actor. In terms of setting strategies and goals and figuring out how to hone the technique or skills that I need in order to perform well, I usually leave that to the practice room – that’s where I apply my neuroscience knowledge. But once I get on stage, especially if it’s not a recital but a staged performance, I work with the director. I rely on them to essentially give me the right feedback so that I can perform my best.

As a director, I also recognize that, and there are certain strategies that I use in terms of rehearsal practices and how I give feedback to singers in order to get the best performances out of them. You have to balance the types of feedback and the criticisms that you give with how you’re going to shape the performance. I try never to criticize but only add information, and encourage the actors to play as much as they possibly can in rehearsal. My strategy is not “I’m going to give you very detailed notes about every little thing that you’re going to do” and then you have to go home and memorize it. My strategy is “Let’s start running this as soon as possible, and then shape what we’re doing so that it becomes a kind of habit by the time you get on stage.” We’ll have gotten rid of all the things that don’t work, and hopefully, we’re left with the things that do work. So in terms of my work process as a director, that’s how I prefer to spend time.

Initially, we do a table read and focus on understanding the characters, understanding motivations, and making sure that actions are really coming from the actors so that they won’t have trouble remembering their motivations. Then we shape their behaviors so they are effective. An example is when I directed “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,” which is an opera based on an Oliver Sacks case study. I actually worked with Oliver – he was one of my mentors in neuroscience, so I know his mannerisms really well. We worked a lot with the actor who played our Dr. S to sort of shape these kinds of mannerisms. And it wasn’t me saying “You have to do x, y, and z.” I would say “Well, here’s what Oliver Sacks would’ve thought in this situation,” or “Here are the things that would’ve troubled him, how would you physicalize that?” Working like that so that it really comes from inside means that they don’t have to spend too much time in their heads remembering staging. It becomes a natural part of their performance.

And then in terms of the big picture of the kind of show that I want to produce, I’m really interested in having the audience both be moved emotionally and to leave them with a desire to think through what they’ve seen once they leave the theatre, because to me the intellectual side is really important too. I try to find true lines and subtext, and at Pasadena Opera we choose productions that have a lot of layers in this way. We try to get the audience thinking about how whatever they just saw is directly relevant to their own lives. So, in the case of “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,” I really wanted people to think about what it would be like if they were experiencing Alzheimer’s disease, or if they have loved ones who were experiencing Alzheimer’s disease. What is it like to actually be in the shoes of that person? And so a lot of the projections and the tools that we used were really about using music to demonstrate the kind of push and pull and loss that happens with Alzheimer’s disease.

OW: You recently authored a new book, “How Music Can Make You Better,” which begins by proposing a simple question: “What is music?” How can both musicians’ and the general public’s exploration of what music really is impact opera today?

IV: I think that we have this intuitive notion that we know what music is without thinking about it too deeply. It seems like a really stupid question until you try to answer it. And then when you try to answer it, no definitions seem to be sufficient, even if you say something like “It’s organized sound with the intent to communicate emotion.” Well, then you have John Cage’s 4’33” which you can’t really argue is organized sound. So what is it about that experience that makes it musical? I think what people fail to think about, which is one of the insights that I took from a lot of the neuroscience work and from the way that we explore and experience music, is that it’s really in your brain. What you bring as a listener is just as important as what the performer brings as a performer, in terms of your experience of the music.

I’ll give the example of this illusion that Diana Deutsch, who’s a music cognition researcher in San Diego, discovered. There’s a sort of sentence that she says that happens to have a bit of a melody to it (she doesn’t intend to sing it). But, if you repeat a section of it over and over and over again eventually it sounds as if she’s singing it. And then whenever you listen to that entire phrase later on in life – it can be years later – it still sounds like she breaks into song in the middle of the phrase, because your brain now interprets that same signal as music. So, what happens? Basically, what happens is that your brain decided that there was some meaning in the sound that goes beyond just the words. When we’re listening to somebody speak, we’re really paying a lot of attention. Things happen quickly, and we’re trying to understand the meaning of the words – that becomes paramount. But when we’re listening to music, we understand that there’s some other kind of meaning that we’re also trying to glean. That can be emotional, intellectual, physical – it can be in a lot of different ways. But basically, you listen differently. I think that’s something that your own experience will dictate, how it is that your brain processes that sound. You can imagine a person who, for example, is hard of hearing and has a cochlear implant, and that’s sort of the most extreme case where they essentially have very limited input in terms of the sounds coming into their brains. Yet their brains still extract meaning from that sound. However, it’s very difficult for people with cochlear implants to appreciate music because there is this added layer that would be even more difficult for them to find.

For the rest of us, we get bored with the same sentence over and over, the same words and sounds over and over. But, we can continue to extract new meaning. Another example is Barber’s Adagio for Strings, where you have this melody which essentially sounds like someone who is struggling to get to the top of a mountain, or on some other kind of journey, and they’re taking all kinds of side roads and detours with obstacles that they have to overcome. Now all of a sudden you listen to the music and you hear this and you very quickly begin to empathize with the orchestra. You want them to get to their destination. That’s really the power of that piece, that it really reflects so much of what it means to be human – how we struggle, how we have goals and we work toward them, whether it’s getting close to somebody that we love or achieving some kind of career dream. We can all relate, and it doesn’t matter which of those journeys that we picture ourselves being on when we’re listening. Even if we don’t explicitly have that kind of journey, we are still moved by that journey. So I think that’s what is interesting to me about understanding the relationship between the brain and how we turn sound into music. It really depends on our previous experience with sound, it depends on how we extract this extra layer of meaning. And of course the music itself, how easily it lends itself toward uncovering these secret layers of meaning, which amazingly is very rewarding for us. Our brains actually enjoy finding new meaning in things we previously thought we understood.

OW: You go on to discuss certain beneficial/healing properties of music. What do you feel is the most significant way in which music could and should be utilized to help people improve some aspect of their lives?

IV: I think it depends. You use the words “most” and “beneficial,” but I think it very much depends on your definition of what is important. Is it more important to ease the suffering of people who are sick or experience loss, or is it more important to think about how music can benefit those of us who are healthy and not struggling? I don’t know that I could tell you the best usages of music in that kind of feeling way, but I can say that there are many different areas in which you can use music to make people’s lives better. I divide these into three categories. One is making you physically more healthy, even if you’re not sick. Music can help you de-stress, it can help you get the motivation to exercise, it can just make you feel better at the end of the day. If you put on some music, it can lift your mood. These are kind of little ways in which music can enhance our lives.

Then there are the profound ways in which people who have lost the ability to communicate in other ways can still regain a portion of their humanity through music. So people with Alzheimer’s disease, for example, or other dementias who can no longer use language effectively or recognize their loved ones, they can still connect with us through music because of the powerful ways in which music is represented in the brain and how it affects our attachment to others, both in terms of neurotransmitters and feeling empathy. So that’s a profound way in which music can heal losses and these kinds of difficult relationships.

Music is also a really effective way of rewiring the brain. Neuroscientists think of it as a model of neuroplasticity, which is the way the brain changes with experience. So for patients who have had brain damage to their language areas, like Gabby Gifford (who had a gunshot wound to the head), who can no longer produce speech or have other kinds of difficulties, music can be an effective way of rewiring the brain – literally taking the right hemisphere, which is still intact, and having that hemisphere take on some of the language production goals that the left hemisphere previously housed. You can see how that then enhances the neuro-repair processes working in the brain, in ways that are more difficult without musical stimulation. That includes Melodic Intonation Therapy, a type of therapy where music therapists pair a beat and a melody with a new phrase. It’s very strategically used. It’s not just like you can play music and it will heal the brain. They use music in very strategic ways in order to drive this kind of neuroplasticity.

We can do the same thing with kids who have language development problems, maybe due to being raised in an urban environment where there is a lot of noise they had to tune out. Their brains actually don’t develop in the same way, in terms of their language areas, like those of kids who are not raised in such environments. If you teach kids who have that kind of problem, teach instrumental music or even intensive individual lessons in a choir or singing.  They actually rewire these parts of their brains to process sound differently. You can overcome some of their language problems by harnessing the power of music to reorganize the way their brain processes sound.

There’s another way in which music can help kids, which is by just encouraging them to go to school. In places where attendance is a problem, you put a music program into a school and all of a sudden kids show up. They want to play in the band – they want to go to school. All of a sudden you can raise attendance rates, and if you raise attendance rates you decrease the amount of potential crime that these kids are exposed to outside of school. You keep one kid out of jail because they go to school, that pays for ten years of a music teacher’s salary! So you can argue that this is a better deal, that we should have music in schools because it potentially saves hundreds of millions of dollars if we can solve this mass incarceration problem. Not that music is the only solution to that problem, but it can play a role.

OW: Music has the power to better not only the individual but society as a whole. How do you think opera can bring people together today in a way that other genres may not be able to?

IV: The definition of opera is somewhat changing. In my own view, and this is kind of an old-school view, I see opera as sung music, without amplification, that tells a really great story about something related to humanity. To me, what’s really important is the story, that you have no filter between the audience and the singers, and that there’s a theatrical presentation. That’s a really powerful way of helping people experience some part of humanity that maybe they weren’t really in touch with. I like to say that in terms of science, we try to extract general principles that apply to everyone and try to be objective. In terms of art, what we do is we use the individual experience to highlight what’s universal. Opera is doing that – you take the experience of some kind of character and you have the audience respond to that character, and they can very quickly build empathy toward that character. I think that’s really important in an opera production, that the audience cares about what happens to those characters. Then you can put those characters through experiences that help us understand our own lives.

Opera can be very powerful about that because it’s multi-sensory, visual and auditory, and it’s also experienced live, which means there’s a kind of urgency to it. Already the stakes are even higher from the audience’s perspective. People come in wanting to listen, wanting to be moved. I think that’s a very powerful situation, where people’s minds can be changed. For example, I’m really delighted that there’s been a kind of trend recently in a lot of new works to try and address some of the issues that are facing society today. Even in a lot of modern interpretations of old works, that seems to be a trend. I think that’s really powerful because it allows us to see ourselves in the people on the stage and understand the consequences of our actions.

For example, at Pasadena Opera a couple of years ago we put on Carlisle Floyd’s “Susannah,” which is essentially the story of a woman whose beauty makes her hate it. She becomes a victim of gossip. In a time when social media is making kids depressed, there doesn’t seem to be privacy anymore, and we’re sort of changing the way that we think about how we put ourselves out into the world, it seems to be really relevant to talk about why is it that we sometimes, as a group, want to take down someone who we envy. I think that’s a really profound question that we have to ask. And because the character of Susannah is so immediately relatable and warm, the audience can put themselves in her shoes and then watch how society can really be destructive. Then maybe they can even reflect upon their own use of things like social media and how they react, and maybe try to change some of their own behavior.

Ultimately, I think the reason that opera is powerful because it really is an immersive experience. It brings the audience into the lives of the characters in a fully-immersive way and allows them to understand and express the deepest parts of what it means to be human through music when words just aren’t sufficient.

OW: What do you ultimately hope readers will take away from your book?

IV: I hope that readers will see that music has many different purposes and that it will reengage them with different ways of experiencing music. So, a person who has not gone to a live show will hopefully be inspired by some of the discussion of how powerful music is as a social glue, and that will encourage them to go and see some live shows. Or for a person who’s been stuck in a genre, my hope is that, by understanding that music can tell us about many aspects of the human experience and that exploring different genres is actually a way of keeping your brain young, they will try to change up their Spotify playlist and listen to things that they wouldn’t normally listen to. And then I think people who are struggling will find ways in which music can help them through difficult times, whether it’s a neurological injury, or a child facing some kind of developmental struggles, or a person who’s going through some kind of trauma – I hope that they can understand that music can be used strategically. Even if you think about playing music when a person is about to go into surgery, it decreases the number of pain killers they will ultimately need to use.

Now music is so easily accessible, and we can bring it into so many different aspects of our lives – we just often don’t think about it. Even in my own life, I’ll forget to turn on the music stereo in our house and, having written the book, I’m much more likely now to be thoughtful about, “It’s morning time, maybe we need to play something that’s going to be uplifting,” or “It’s evening, we should play something that can wind us down but also keep our brains active.” So I think that’s the goal of the book, to help people revisit their relationship with music and try to see how it can enrich their lives.

OW: Can you offer any advice to young artists who may be at a crossroads, trying to decide whether to pursue a career in music or in another more “practical” field, like the sciences?

IV: I think if you were a magazine that was talking to science students, you might actually say “Do you think that people should consider a more practical career than going into the sciences?” It can be really hard to make a living in the sciences. I think that the grass is always greener, whatever field we are in we see other fields as being easier, and I think that’s just not true. I think it’s especially not true in terms of “What does it mean to be a professional musician?” I think that has changed dramatically in the last thirty years. And I think that in some ways, just as music is a model of neuroplasticity, the musical career is a model of the way that entrepreneurship and hustle are changing the modern workforce.

In some ways musicians are getting incredibly well equipped, as the landscape of the workplace changes, to pivot and adapt and find new ways of making money and having successful careers. That’s what we do – every musician nowadays has to be an entrepreneur. I think that this idea of having a steady career for 30-40 years is just not going to be viable in the vast majority of industries. Machine learning, animation, and climate change, all of these different factors change the workforce. I would encourage people to do what it is that they love and do it well. Work hard, be adaptable, and find ways to monetize the things that you think you’re really good at. We are living in an unprecedented time when you can actually have a direct link to an audience through all these social media and internet platforms. You can build your own audience and be whatever it is that you want to be. But the important thing is to not try to get there too fast. Sometimes we don’t put in the time that it requires to make something of really high quality. I think that’s going to be more and more important if you want to compete in the world – it’s going to be really important to do whatever it is that you do better than anybody else or as well as anybody else. Just being mediocre, it’s going to be really hard to survive.


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