Opera star sings praises of music’s power to heal

Everyone knows music can heal the soul, but opera superstar Renee Fleming knows it can heal the body as well.

World-renowned soprano Renée Fleming has become a leading voice for the connection between music and health.

In the new book, Music and Mind: Harnessing the Arts for Health and Wellness, Fleming curates a copious collection of essays from leading scientists, artists, musicians, creative arts therapists, educators, and healthcare providers about the powerful impacts of music and the arts on health and the human experience.

Fleming — a 65-year-old soprano who’s won five Grammys, the National Medal of Arts and was a 2023 Kennedy Center honoree — has presented on this material in over 50 cities across North America, Europe, and Asia, collaborating with leading researchers, policy-makers, and practitioners. Music and Mind is praised by Sting, Katie Couric, Deepak Chopra, Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews.

In 2023, in recognition of her dedicated advocacy for research and awareness at the intersection of arts, health, and neuroscience, Fleming was appointed Goodwill Ambassador for Arts and Health by the World Health Organization.

Fleming, 65, in a June 3, 2024 interview with Our Quad Cities News.

“I became extremely passionate about this – it made so much sense to me,” she said in a recent Zoom interview with Our Quad Cities News.

She started working with Dr. Francis Collins of the National Institutes of Health in 2015, as an advisor to The Kennedy Center, and Fleming wanted to get the word out more to the public. The NIH now has funded $40 million in research on how music affects the body.

She’s balanced this additional role – on top of the many hats she already wears – since, as she tours, the soprano offers “Music and Mind” presentations at the venues where she performs.

“We bring in health care providers and researchers who are local,” Fleming said. “I bring in the audience and it’s really been successful.”

Music has a similar role as our interaction with visual arts and nature, in assisting the healing process, she said.

Contributors to “Music and Mind” (published by Penguin Random House) include Yo-Yo Ma, Ann Patchett, Daniel J. Levitin, Anna Deavere Smith, Rhiannon Giddens and Rosanne Cash.

“The idea is to get people actively making art themselves,” Fleming said. “It’s such a stress reducer and that’s something we all need right now.”

There’s a specific chapter in the 592-page book (among 41 essays) that addresses visual arts.

“It’s all about our connection in terms of our evolution, and neuroanatomy and hearing sounds,” Fleming said. “All these things come together. We experience the world through our senses.”

The Sound Health organization she’s part of is a resource center at University of California-San Francisco, funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. The Sound Health Network aims to promote research and public awareness about the impact of music on health and wellness.

Pictured (L-R): Barry Gibb, Dionne Warwick, Renee Fleming, and Billy Crystal at The 46th-annual Kennedy Center Honors (Photo by Mary Kouw/CBS via Getty Images).

The Renée Fleming Foundation has joined forces with the NeuroArts Blueprint initiative to establish the Renée Fleming Neuroarts Investigator Awards. The awards will support both basic and applied research that expands the evidence base of the emerging field of neuroarts and furthers the mission of the Neuroarts Blueprint.
Neuroarts is the study of how the arts measurably change the brain and body and how this knowledge is translated into practices that advance health and wellbeing. This work can help people prevent, manage, and recover from physical and mental challenges across the lifespan. The mission of the NeuroArts Blueprint is to have the arts — and their use in all their many forms — become part of mainstream medicine and public health.

Reducing pain and depression

Since last year, Fleming has been the first World Health Organization’s Goodwill Ambassador for Arts and Health.

“In a lot of the world, people haven’t stopped doing this,” she said. “It’s been exciting for me to learn, the person who runs the World Health Organization is incredibly concerned about depression in the world, up by 30%. There’s a lot of research about arts activities coming together – joining a choir or getting involved in arts activities reduces depression.”

Listening to music can increase endorphins in the brain and reduces pain, Fleming said.

“Actively playing music, for children, it changes the brain after two years,” she said. “They do better in school, but also in life. This is all based on rigorous study. Science has to know, in order for us to create programs that reach a lot of people.”

Fleming wants the arts to be embedded in health care treatment, across the spectrum of conditions.

“Medicine treats disease, not people – if we can combine to do both, because creative arts therapies can create healing,” she said. “If we do both, then we have a better, stronger health care system.”

Often, a patient’s attitude and state of mind can increase positive treatment results.

Fleming in an exclusive interview with Our Quad Cities News June 3, 2024 (photo by Jonathan Turner).

“There’s no question, the brain has more power over the body than we know,” Fleming said. “Our emotional life has more power over the body than is even understood by science. They’re definitely researching it quite a bit.”

After COVID shutdowns, it drove home the realization that everyone (well before humans spoke) has needed the arts and creative expression.

Government support for the arts is much stronger in Europe than the U.S., as in Germany, they gave artists their full salary when they couldn’t perform during the pandemic, Fleming noted.

“That’s another reason art can make a huge difference in our health and well-being,” she said. The European system in general has universal healthcare coverage.

Singer Renee Fleming performs at the Carnegie Hall 125th Anniversary Gala at Carnegie Hall on May 5, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Steven Henry/Getty Images)

“In France, the arts are already embedded in healthcare; we don’t even talk about it over there,” Fleming said. “It’s just done. The same with the U.K. – you could go to a doctor’s office and they’ll say, what you really need is go to a concert, or take a walk in the park, so here’s your pass or your tickets. It’s interesting that this is already happening in other parts of the world.”

Similar to nature’s healing

Getting out in nature is incredibly therapeutic as well, similar to the benefits of music, she said. Fleming released “Voice of Nature: The Anthropocene” in 2021. It explores nature as both inspiration and casualty of humanity, looking back to the Romantic era and forward with new commissions from Nico Muhly, Caroline Shaw and Kevin Puts.

Fleming’s album “Voice of Nature: The Anthropocene” won the 2023 Grammy Award for Best Classical Solo Vocal Album.

“The music on the album begins in a time almost two centuries ago, when people had a profound connection to the beauty of nature,” Fleming said. “Now we have reached a moment when we see all too clearly the effects of our own activity, and the fragility of our environment.”

“These are my two loves, my two passions, and we as artists have a platform and really, if we’re lucky, we get to use them to share these ideas,” she said in the recent interview.

When Fleming sings outdoors (like the famed Music Shed at Tanglewood in Lenox, Mass., on July 7), that combines her passions as well.

“There’s something healing and transcendent about singing to the sky,” she said. “And still having the shared experience. When I’m performing, the audience and I, our brain waves align. That’s been proven by science now. This is why I tell people, go out – get out of your houses and go to a concert, go to something. It’s healing to have this alignment.”

“Having that fresh air, I’m outside all the time,” she said. “There’s no question it makes a big difference. I’m doing a wonderful tour with National Geographic, I’m touring ‘Voice of Nature’ around the country. It’s a beautiful program and they made these incredible films.”

Music equals life

Music also can help extend a person’s life.

At the end of her introduction to “Music and Mind,” Fleming recalls meeting her idol Leontyne Price, at age 97, who still sings every day.

“She’s beautiful, radiant, happy – every time I visit her, I’m the one who feels great because I came here,” she said. “It’s a gift to me to see her.”

“Learn an instrument, or pick up an instrument you used to play,” Fleming said. “Join a choir, start painting; do something creative. There’s no question there are tremendous benefits.”

Music is the last memory to remain, often for people with dementia or Alzheimer’s, and science is trying to figure out why.

“Maybe extend those moments of lucidity. And if nothing else, it gives caregivers and families a sense of connection again, which is really helpful,” Fleming said.

A sparkling career

In Fleming’s acclaimed career, she’s sung for momentous occasions from the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony to the Diamond Jubilee Concert for Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace. In 2014, she brought her voice to a vast new audience when she became the first classical artist to sing the National Anthem at the Super Bowl.

Actors Kelli O’Hara, Renee Lynn Fleming and Joyce DiDonato perform during a rehearsal for “The Hours” at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City on Nov. 18, 2022. (Photo by ANGELA WEISS / AFP) (Photo by ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images).

In November 2022, she starred in the world premiere staging of The Hours, a new opera based on the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel and award-winning film, at the Metropolitan Opera. In March, she appeared as Pat Nixon in a new production of Nixon in China at the Opéra de Paris.

Fleming recently ended her second run of “The Hours” in May, with the same cast, at Metropolitan Opera, with fellow superstars Kelli O’Hara and Joyce DiDonato.

“We loved it. We had such a sense of family in that cast,” Fleming said. “Young people came to the show and were screaming and yelling. The relevance of looking at suicide, young people struggling, LGBTQ relationships, and doing it in such a beautiful, complex way.”

Inspired by Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and made a household name by the Oscar-winning 2002 film version starring Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, and Nicole Kidman, the powerful story follows three women from different eras who each grapple with their inner demons and their roles in society.

Fleming loves premiering new works.

“As I was in a position to choose things I wanted to do, that was a direction I wanted to go – still loving Strauss, still loving all the classics,” she said. “I always have new music in my programs, and I try to find a sweet spot between things that are quality but also accessible to the audience.”

Opera singer Renee Fleming performs the National Anthem during the Pepsi Super Bowl XLVIII Pregame Show at MetLife Stadium on Feb. 2, 2014 in East Rutherford, N.J. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/WireImage)

Fleming’s recording Voice of Nature: The Anthropocene, won the 2023 Grammy for Best Classical Solo Vocal Album. Known as a genre-spanning musician, and for bringing new audiences to classical music and opera, she’s recorded everything from complete operas and song recitals to indie rock and jazz.

She has sung not only with Luciano Pavarotti and Andrea Bocelli, but also with Elton John, Paul Simon, Sting, Josh Groban, and Joan Baez. She earned a Tony nomination for her performance in Carousel on Broadway, and her voice is featured in two Best Picture Oscar–winning films.

Impact on music therapy

Sarah Weinert of Quad Cities Music Therapy said the connection between music and the mind is something that board-certified music therapists like her think of every day.

“In the established health profession of music therapy, board-certified music therapists use music within a therapeutic relationship to address physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs of individuals,” she said recently. “In a range of clients, this could look like using singing to improve speech and communication skills, using preferred music to recall memories in those with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, or providing a creative space to build confidence and social skills through music-based collaboration.”

Board-certified music therapist Sarah Weinert of Quad Cities Music Therapy.

Books like Fleming’s accent the importance of the arts not only in our everyday lives, but on a much more individualized scale – one that looks at mental and physical well-being, Weinert said.

“Music therapy is a safe, non-pharmacological treatment that utilizes a highly versatile and accessible tool that is already a major component of many people’s lives,” she said. “The publication of information related to music and wellness combined with clinical training, strong musicianship, and a deep understanding of health not only moves forward music therapy as a profession, but it allows the rest of the world to see the impact music has on people as a whole.

Music therapists have completed a bachelor’s degree or higher at an approved university program, completed 1,200 hours of a supervised internship, have passed a board-certification exam, and abide by a code of ethics and standards of practice.

In Illinois, a music therapy license was established on May 27, 2022, when Gov. JB Pritzker signed into law a bill establishing such a license within the Department of Financial and Professional Regulation and a Music Therapy Advisory Board to assist the department.

In Iowa, music therapy title protection was established on May 20, 2021, when Gov. Kim Reynolds signed into law HF 285. Individuals may not refer to themselves as a music therapist, a board-certified music therapist, or an MT-BC without holding the MT-BC credential.

Other QC reactions

Brian Baxter, executive director of the Quad City Symphony Orchestra, said of “Music and Mind”:

“The book and the contributing writers look fantastic. I have not had a chance to check out the book, but I look forward to reading it as soon as I am able. The connection between music and wellness is indisputable. The writers in this book outline many aspects of the ways that music-making and music listening have positive impacts on both individuals and collectively that of communities and frankly humanity as a whole.

The Quad City Symphony under the baton of music director Mark Russell Smith.

“It is so good to have literature like this available to reinforce why investing in music in our communities is so vitally important,” he added.

“These truths are at the core of our mission at Common Chord,” said Tyson Danner, executive director of Common Chord, Davenport. “Not only does music play an important role in the development of communities, it also is a crucial part of our personal development.

Common Chord

“Music helps us connect with others, think creatively, and express our inner selves. When we experience musical moments, we’re living our lives most fully,” he added. “At Common Chord, we know how important it is for live music experiences to not be a luxury that only some people can participate in. It’s important that our community have accessible and inclusive live music so that everyone can gain these benefits.”

A doctor’s personal experience

Dr. Archana Wagle is medical director for the UnityPoint Health – Trinity Pain Management Clinic in Moline, and is a longtime violinist who performs with the Muscatine and Clinton symphony orchestras. She has a very personal experience with the impact of music on health.

Her middle brother suffered a massive stroke at 47, seven years ago, in southern California. After a great deal of care in the ICU, use of music had a profound effect on his recovery and improvement, Wagle said.

Dr. Archana Wagle is a violinist and strong proponent of using music in medical treatment.

“California is always a little more progressive, so in their healthcare world, these things are funded more regularly,” she said. “When I would walk into the hospital, daily for a month, they would have live musicians playing in the lobby there, every day.”

“From being a physician for 30 years, I am 100% positive that music and the arts in general play a very key role,” Wagle said, noting when her brother was in the ICU, they played music for him.

“We were encouraged to bring him music he would love and listen to on a regular basis before his stroke,” she recalled. “In his inpatient rehab, he was not speaking at all. During that time, he worked with a speech therapist. She worked with him to sing songs that would be recognizable to him.”

A music therapist had regular sessions with him, Wagle said. The first thing he spoke was to sing “Happy Birthday.” “It was fascinating. I’ll never forget that day. We didn’t know if he would ever speak again,” she said.

Today, his speech is not normal, but can carry on limited conversations, Wagle said.

Use of music and calming therapies to improve a patient’s mood and attitude is “extremely important” to improve health outcomes, she noted.

Much of her day at her pain management clinic is spent doing spine injections using needles (guided by X-ray). “I play music all day in my suite,” to calm her patients, Wagle said.

“I have a Bluetooth speaker in there and patients love it,” she said. “Getting a needle placed in your spine is anxiety provoking. Playing music is so wonderful for these patients, to decrease their anxiety levels.”

She has notes in their charts, which specifies what music they would like. Many surgeons use music in their operating rooms, Wagle said.

“It helps especially the surgeon, because it places a calming effect,” she said. “It really does elevate their confidence and allows them to concentrate more on what they’re doing. “My husband is an ophthalmologist and he is very particular about the type of music he listens to. I worked with one of his partners who only wanted to listen to Enya, that was it. It provided him the concentration he needed to do delicate eye surgery.”

As a classical music nerd, Wagle finds that genre extremely calming and helps her. “It helps me balance myself and focus on what I’m doing,” she said.

Not enough training

Doctors aren’t trained in how to capitalize on use of music since their training has so much to cover already in a limited time, Wagle said, noting she went to med school at University of Kansas and did her residency at Northwestern University Medical School.

“Even though the arts and music are so vital, I think it just gets pushed to the side,” she said. “People don’t value it…It was never a part of our training. I hope it’s changed now.”

Renee Fleming giving a “Music and the Mind” presentation to the National Institutes of Health.

Her clinic is focused on chronic pain management, including many geriatric patients.

“In my patients with chronic pain, music works as a distraction. If they’re having a really bad day, they can use music and the arts as healing and distraction,” Wagle said.

Mental health benefits are huge, as music can certainly diminish depression and anxiety, she said.

Songs by popular artists (like Taylor Swift) help crystallize and reflect universal emotions for people struggling, letting them know they’re not alone.

“Chronic pain can be very isolating, as can depression and anxiety,” Wagle said. “People isolate themselves and music can be very, very helpful.”

“A lot of my patients, music is very much like a meditative experience,” she added.

Music also induces stress relief similar to use of recreational or medical marijuana, in reducing anxiety, Wagle said.

“We know definitely, we have data to show depression and anxiety escalate when patients are dealing with chronic pain,” she said. “There are mental health effects occurring secondarily with chronic pain. In that way, music and the arts are very similar, because music also diminishes anxiety.”

Bigger benefits as performer

Being a performer, the benefits of music are much more pronounced compared to just listening.

“As a violinist, playing in an ensemble, there is a profound euphoria with that – especially when I’m playing something I really love,” Wagle said. “I love the Dvorak New World Symphony. I have found myself in tears, during a concert. I feel a profound euphoria and sense of joy.

Emanuel Ax and Mark Russell Smith at the world-renowned pianist’s gala performance with the QCSO April 27, 2024 at the Adler Theatre, Davenport (photo by Jonathan Turner).

“It’s a different experience when I’m in the audience listening,” she said. “When I’m playing, it’s like 10 levels higher for me.”

Wagle would love to see more patients get involved in performing music. “It’s never too late to pick up something.”

“Even after a long day of work, I go to weeknight rehearsals. I love it so much,” she said. “It is my outlet for stress. It allows me to function better in all aspects of my life. Even if I’m tired, I’ll still go to rehearsals. I commit to every concert that I can.”

Last year, Wagle also started playing with the Knox-Galesburg Symphony.

“I love music so much, I cannot live without it,” she said. “It’s such an important part of my life. I’m either listening or playing every single day.”

Even when Wagle was at Northwestern and Kansas, their medical schools had orchestras she was part of.

“They were comprised of medical students, residents, doctors,” she recalled.

“I look forward to reading this book,” Wagle said of “Music and Mind.” “Going forward, we need to be better stewards as physicians, of making sure that our patients incorporate music and the arts in their own healing processes.”

“Especially even in the field of oncology, where there’s so much trauma in that patient population – how much they would benefit from using music and for healing and distraction both,” she said. “I think the other reason to utilize something like music and the arts – then we’re not so dependent on some of our medications, for mental health, for instance.

“It would be fascinating to do a study, for reducing the dosages of those medications, and maybe we could reduce those if we elevate the presence of music in the healing processes,” Wagle said. “Wouldn’t that be fascinating to observe and study?”

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