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Baton and Brain

Feature Stories

Baton and Brain

AYPO

On January 19, student musicians of the American Youth Philharmonic Orchestras played an integral role in a study currently taking place at Georgetown University.  The study, led by Dr. Josef Rauschecker and Dr. Jessica Phillips-Silver of the Laboratory of Integrative Neuroscience and Cognition, includes studying our Associate Conductor of AYP, Michael Wheatley, in an effort to reveal new insights into the workings of the human brain, and specifically that of orchestral conductors.

Among the differences between conductors and other trained musicians are the methods by which they are trained to listen to music, to anticipate desired changes in performance, and to bring about those changes in other musicians using only physical gestures.  Many conductors have described the art of conducting, in part, as akin to  listening to two musical tracks simultaneously.  As a conductor leads the orchestra, it is as if a first track is heard in advance, like a recording of the ideal performance played in the mind of the conductor.  Almost instantly, the conductor endeavors to guide the orchestra before him wordlessly, using only gesture, to bring about the performance as just heard in the mind’s ear.  And then immediately, the conductor listens carefully to the realization of the performance by the orchestral musicians to assess the differences between their real performance and what had been heard prior, in his or her imagined ideal.

To reveal the brain’s activity throughout this multifaceted musical interaction, Dr. Phillips-Silver has been regularly observing and recording our Maestro Wheatley while in an fMRI scanner.  And we were thrilled when over 40 musicians of the American Youth Philharmonic Orchestras enthusiastically agreed to take part in this study.  Volunteering to perform for an additional hour prior to their normal weekly rehearsal, Maestro Wheatley led them through a rehearsal and subsequent reading of the final movement of Dvorak’s sixth symphony.

Maestro Wheatley’s final session in the fMRI scanner will take place very soon.  And we will be anxiously awaiting word of what this new study has revealed, in the coming months!