UBC Opera and the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health embark on the Wall Opera Project, an exciting interdisciplinary study of how opera training sculpts the brain
By Tze Liew
What happens inside the brain of an opera singer?
Prof. Nancy Hermiston, Chair of the Voice Division and Director of the UBC Opera, has wondered about this for nearly 20 years. She suspects that opera training can rewire the brain, given how cognitively challenging it is as an art form.
“Opera is very complicated,” Hermiston says. “Singers are required to multitask on so many levels. They must perform difficult music, sing in a foreign language, act, dance, keep an eye on the conductor without the audience noticing, coordinate with the rest of the cast, feed off the energy of the audience without getting distracted, all while wearing a costume weighing up to 45 pounds!”
It is no doubt incredibly taxing on the body – and the brain. But over the span of her 24-year teaching career, Hermiston has time and time again been amazed by the marvellous feats and learning leaps achieved by her students. She has observed many cases of students with learning differences – various forms of dyslexia and attention-deficit disorder – improving drastically in their academic abilities over years of opera training.
“I once had a student who would take two months to learn a ten-minute excerpt,” says Hermiston. “As the years progressed, her learning speed increased significantly: so much that when she was given two weeks to learn a lead role in a contemporary opera – and contemporary ones are especially difficult – she was able to do it.”
Hermiston has also worked with students who found it difficult to learn foreign languages in a traditional classroom setting. Many canonical operas are sung in German, Italian, and other European tongues, so a measure of fluency is essential for aspiring singers. Hermiston noticed that when language training was combined with singing and music in opera, the students learned much more quickly.
Based on all these observations, she was convinced that opera training must be sculpting the brain somehow, and she saw the need to investigate deeper. After 16 years of trying to build a research team, she finally succeeded in kickstarting the Wall Opera Project, bringing together experts in opera, neuroscience, linguistics, education and kinesiology – one of the largest interdisciplinary projects combining the arts, humanities and sciences across UBC.
“When I first proposed the idea for a research project years ago, it was rejected. People thought I was out of my mind,” says Hermiston. “But now the climate is changing. The importance of interdisciplinary research is much more recognised. I’m so grateful to the Peter Wall Institute for seeing the potential in this project and funding it so generously.”
Indeed, music has become a hot area of study among brain researchers. In recent years studies on everything from how creativity works in the brains of pianists to how musicians process music differently than non-musicians have been published to great public interest.
The study will begin in spring 2019, and run for a span of three years with Prof. Lara Boyd, Canada Research Chair in Neurobiology of Motor Learning, Prof. Janet Werker, Canada Research Chair in Developmental Psychology, and Dr. Rachel Weber, Director of the Faculty of Education’s Psychoeducational and Research Training Centre Neuropsychological Assessment Clinic, as principal investigators. In one experiment, three groups of students will be compared: opera students, students in a usual language program, and students who are trained athletes. As they go through their second, third and fourth years of university, each group will complete neuropsychological tasks and receive MRI-based myelin water imaging and electroencephalogram (EEG) scans to evaluate changes in neurocognitive functioning, brain structure and electrical activity. In another experiment, opera students with learning differences will be compared with those without, and their rate of learning improvement throughout the program will be evaluated.
“A lot of what we learn is registered in our brain through myelin. We want to find out what the distribution of myelin is like for an opera singer to begin with, and in which parts of the brain it increases over years of training,” says Dr. Alex Mackay, physicist and developer of the myelin water imaging method, and MRI scientist on the project.
“We hypothesize that opera training increases plasticity in the brain, and that it would be more extensive and involve more critical parts of the brain, compared to those who have gone through language or athletic training alone,” says neurologist Dr. Robin Hsiung.
Hermiston believes that if the study were to yield conclusive evidence, it would be valuable not only for opera singers, but also for the fields of education, childhood development, brain health and rehabilitation.
“Nowadays, music and the arts are slowly getting put out of the education system, which is a huge mistake,” says Hermiston. “If we could have black-and-white evidence that opera has positive effects on the brain, we could start integrating music performance early on in kindergarten or Grade 1. It could help students overcome their learning difficulties since [from] a young age.”
There is also substantial scientific and anecdotal evidence that music has healing effects for patients with brain diseases.
“We know that music can be therapeutic for those with Alzheimer’s disease, and that music lessons early in life can change outcomes for people who experience a stroke,” says Boyd.
In a similar, separate study spearheaded by opera singer Renee Fleming about the effects of music on the brain, a patient who couldn’t speak or move regained his abilities after going through music therapy.
Hermiston herself has an interesting story to share. “Once I brought my students to perform in a nursing home: there was a dementia patient who had never spoken a single word to anyone before. Then a student stood up and sang an old song called “Old Dog Shep” – and the man quietly sang along. At the end, he looked up and said, “Come over young man, I want to talk to you.” The caregivers’ mouths fell open – they just couldn’t believe it. Something about the singer’s performance had brought him alive again.”
The Wall Opera team hopes that the project will yield a deeper understanding of the benefits of multi-faceted training such as opera, and whether the changes in brain structure are permanent. With this they will be able to apply the knowledge to all sorts of situations: finding more efficient ways to teach, helping dementia patients to improve memory, treating patients with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, stroke – the possibilities are wide open.
“People think of musicians too often as entertainers. But we do much more than that,” says Hermiston. The Wall Opera Project is itself a testament to the importance of the performing arts in people’s lives.
With files from Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health, UBC
Photo of Prof. Hermiston: Takumi Hayashi/UBC