The Lee Hysan Concert Hall drew a full house for the ‘Music and the Mind’ event presented by the globally acclaimed soprano Renée Lynn Fleming (left), who is described by The New York Times’ chief classical music critic Anthony Tommasini as ‘the most sought-after lyric soprano of her generation’.
In 2013, US President Barack Obama awarded her the National Medal of Arts, America’s highest honour for an artist. She is a four-time winner of the Grammy Award for Best Classical Vocal Solo, who has sung on occasions from the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony to the Diamond Jubilee Concert for Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace. I am fascinated not only by her distinguished achievements but also her passion in exploring the healing power of music.
Prior to her presentation, the Hong Kong Philharmonic performed Haydn’s string quartet ‘Emperor’. The composer’s arrangement in the symphonic richness of sound and the cello’s low-register harmony gave me a soothing vibe. To neuroscientists, the unwinding effect is due to the release of dopamine in the striatum triggered by music. They are curious about how music engages different regions in the brain.
Fleming is the Artistic Advisor at Large to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. and plays an important role in the Center’s future programming and public engagement. Her passion in music connects her to another music lover Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). They have been exploring together the connections between music, wellness, and science.
Though a famed soprano, Fleming admitted she sometimes found it hard to memorize lyrics in foreign languages. To learn how her brain supports her singing, she partook in a study at NIH to have her brain go through an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scan while imagining herself singing an excerpt of ‘River Songs’. It revealed that her imagined singing activates regions in amygdala that deal with human emotions, and the inferior frontal cortex, which plays a role in musical syntax and motor preparation.
Knowing how music plays a role in the brain, Fleming has worked with leading neuroscientists, physicians, music therapists, and educators to explore how music can change lives. Topics include childhood development and cognitive neuroscience as well as music therapy and its impact on health care. Ever since 2017, she has presented ‘Music and the Mind’ in over 30 cities across North America, Europe, and Asia.
Music is a universal language. To date, the well-structured music of Haydn, Mozart, and Bach has been a popular basis for therapeutic interventions. Through music we learn much about the brain and human nature.
This article was originally published in No. 551, Newsletter in Jan 2020.