Lab mates who sing to themselves while working can be a particular kind of annoyance—unless your lab mate is Indre Viskontas. Then, it's a free performance. Viskontas is a cognitive neuroscientist (on faculty at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music); an affiliate researcher with the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), Memory and Aging Center; and a professional soprano opera singer. (She's also a budding reality television host; more on that below.)
Viskontas grew up in Toronto surrounded by music and science and wound up pursuing both professionally. But it wasn't until fairly recently that she found a way to merge the two. Today, between performances in and around San Francisco, nationally, and abroad, she juggles several research projects studying how musicians can make the most of their practice time and better emotionally connect with their audiences. Science Careers spoke with Viskontas about her scientific and musical training and how she learned to appreciate the insights one can bring to the other.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: When did your interest in opera begin?
I.V.: To be honest, I don't really know. It's just something I always remember loving. I'm really impassioned when I listen to opera. There's nothing else in the world that moves me as much as it does. Even through high school, I would spend my time listening to opera, and never the contemporary music of the day. I've been singing ever since I was a child. My mother is a choral conductor, so by the time I was 5, she already had me singing in choirs. My entire upbringing, my main activity besides school was singing.
One of the formative things that happened to me is when I was 11. I was in the Canadian Children's Opera Chorus, which, when the Canadian Opera Company needs kids on stage, they'd get them from this chorus. I was in my first full-fledged opera at age 11. I played an altar boy in Tosca, and I just remember how much fun it was to be one piece of this huge production. One night, it was actually taped to be on national television and at the end of that night, they handed us these big fat checks. It was like $1000, and as an 11-year-old kid, I was like "Wow, you can get paid $1000 to have a good time," and it was unbelievable. So I think part of my love for opera stemmed from that extremely positive experience.
Q: So when did you develop an interest in science?
I.V.: When I was in high school, I had to make the decision about what I wanted to do for college, and I came from a family where you got your medical degree first, and then you can do whatever you want after. My parents were immigrants, and that's kind of the mentality: Make sure you have something you can fall back on.
I was always interested in psychology, reading Oliver Sacks's books, and he made neurology sound really fascinating. So I decided that's what I wanted to study in college at the University of Toronto's Trinity College, with the dream of eventually being an opera singer, but not really sure how to make that happen.
Q: Did you manage to keep up both interests in college?
I.V.: Trinity had a policy of encouraging its students to do extracurricular activities, and in particular they had a strong bent toward the arts: drama and poetry and music and everything. That was where I was able to be exposed to a lot of extracurricular activities and realized for the first time that combining singing and science was possible. I remember meeting with the dean as I was finishing and asking her what I should do with my life, and she basically said, "Just do it all until you find that you can't."
I was also involved in the Toronto Mendelssohn Youth Choir, but it was separate from the university. I continued to study privately with a teacher. I took lessons every week and practiced most days, and in the summertime I would go off and try to do some immersive activity in singing.
Courtesy of Indre Viskontas
Q: What happened after you graduated?
I.V.: I had applied for a Ph.D. program in psychology, but I took a year off and deferred my acceptance at UCLA [UC Los Angeles] for a year to go to London. In London, I did singing almost exclusively. I worked as an usher at an opera house. I listened to opera 6 nights a week and I had a teacher and worked very hard to make a life for myself surrounding singing.
But that's when I realized that any job I was likely to get in my twenties would be an entry-level position. Part of my decision to do a Ph.D. was related to my desire to be a singer, because I thought a Ph.D. was one of the few things I could do in my 20s that was flexible enough that I could set my own hours, and if I needed to take an afternoon singing lesson, I could do that and go back to the lab in the evening.
Q: Was it difficult to juggle both singing and science as a grad student?
I.V.: By the time I matriculated at UCLA, I knew that if I was going to do both, I'd have to do both really, really well. There was no room for slacking. So I worked very hard both in the lab and in my singing. In the summers, I continued to train. Two summers I went to Italy, and other times I would go to various other training programs. But then I would have to make up for the fact that I had taken 6 weeks off by putting out a paper as quickly as possible. Outside of singing and science, I didn't do a lot in grad school.
I chose advisers who were mostly interested in results and not in face time. As long as I produced results—and I always published more than anybody else in the lab—they didn't really have an opportunity to complain. I just made sure that when we had a paper ready to go, I didn't stall, I made sure it was written up, responded to their e-mails, and even when I went away, like when I was in Italy, if there was a draft that was going to come back, I would still turn it around in a few days.
Q: How aware were you at this time of the literature on the psychology of music?
I.V.: Completely unaware. In fact, I was a bit of a cognitive snob at the time, so I didn't really think there was any good research out there, and I kept the two parts of my life separate for a very long time. Not until the last 5 years, I would say, did I even consider the psychology of music as something I would be remotely interested in. They just felt like very different experiences. Psychology worked for me on an intellectual level, but it was not something emotional, whereas music was highly emotional and not at all logical. I thought, why tarnish either one with the other? I didn't think there was anything I could learn from the psychology of music that would make me a better performer, and vice versa, which was totally short-sighted.
Q: What changed your mind and got you interested in psychology of music?
I.V.: I think life happened. After I finished my Ph.D., I had to choose which path I wanted to take. If you want to compete at the height of your career, you have to dedicate yourself 100% to whatever it is you're doing. I decided that since I'd gotten my Ph.D. in psychology and I'd given it 5 years, I wanted to give that same time and energy to music. So I got my master's in music after I'd finished my Ph.D.
While I was doing my master's, I was very, very lucky to get a part-time postdoc position at UCSF. Then one day, somebody sent me an e-mail saying, "I'm a producer from L.A. and we're putting together this reality TV show about investigating miracles and we need somebody to play Scully, like from the X-Files, and would you be interested? And I totally thought it was spam, but I had just signed with an agent to help my performance career, and I sent it to her and she said, "It's not spam. This is one of the biggest production companies in L.A., and this sounds like a really interesting opportunity. Why don't you pursue it?" Long story short, I got the job and I hosted six episodes of this TV series [Miracle Detectives] in which I was a scientist investigating miracles. It was the first time I really applied my scientific skills and knowledge to investigate something mysterious. It made me realize how much science can teach us about everything. Then I thought, why am I not applying science to my music?
A couple of years later, I pitched an idea to the dean of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music to try to see how we can apply the neuroscience of learning and memory to practice strategies for the students there. She was really on-board, and so now I'm on faculty there. And I just got a grant from a family foundation to study the connection between music-making and empathy. It's the first time I'm really going to be doing original research on something related to the psychology of music. For me, I want the research to be interesting to musicians, not just scientists. It's really important for me to design a study that can tell them what will make them better performers, make them able to move their audience more effectively, or something to that extent.
Q: How has your neuroscience research influenced your singing career?
I.V.: The moment of performing is so fleeting, and the vast majority of the work of a musician is in practice. The performance is just the very end of your work. I do apply a lot of the neuroscience of memory and learning to the way I practice. It has completely changed the way I approach my singing career. For example, what I used to do, let's say there was a piece I needed to learn. I would sit down at the piano and I'd start from the beginning, plunking through the notes and trying to learn this piece in a whole way.
Now what I do is try to break down each practice session in terms of the goals I need to accomplish. Let's say it's about translating the words from the Italian, or something with the rhythm, or understanding the pitch relationships. Whatever is the goal, I work on that and I think about what types of brain circuits are going to be involved and how to most effectively engage them. If it's a matter of me learning a particular rhythm, I know that that's going to be a basal ganglia/cerebellum activity, which means what's important is to tap into this unconscious, habit-learning system, so I can't just do the same thing over and over again if I'm making mistakes. I really have to be conscious of feeding it the information it needs without putting down bad habits.
Q: Do you think more scientists should explore the arts and vice versa?
I.V.: As the economic world is changing, both scientists and artists share this uncertainty in their career paths. We have to become more entrepreneurial than we had to in the past. Although I think it can make it a more stressful career choice, it also makes for much more exciting and novel ways of applying both science and music to the way that we work. We're not going to have as many tenure-track positions and we're not going to have as many tenured artists in opera companies or symphonies, so we're going to get a lot more of this cross-pollination, I think.