World-renowned opera singer Renée Fleming using music to help those suffering from neurological disorders

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CHICAGO (NewsNation Now) — Researchers at the National Institutes of Health are studying ways music could improve the lives of people suffering from neurological disorders like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

And they’re getting some help from world-renowned opera singer Renée Fleming.

Oftentimes where words fail, music can speak. That’s certainly been true for Fleming — one of the most beloved and celebrated opera singers of our time.

In 2008, Fleming became the first woman to solo headline an opening night gala at the Metropolitan Opera.

In 2014, Fleming was the first classical artist to sing the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ at the Super Bowl.

But her rise to success came with its shares of challenges.

“I really was not a natural performer,” said Fleming. “I had to learn how to enjoy being on stage. I had a couple of really bad bouts of stage fright, and that’s something I had to learn about and understand and unpack over time.”

At one point, Fleming said she considered giving up.

“It’s true. Yes. And it was a vulnerable place. It was right between my education and working professionally. I was having difficulty getting started.  And that’s, that’s true for a lot of people. And I was on the verge of really saying, ‘Okay, the world is trying to tell me something, this isn’t for me.’ And suddenly a couple of doors opened, and I never looked back.”

In the years that followed, Fleming’s career soared. She received four Grammy Awards and the National Medal of Arts. She sang at the Beijing Olympics and several times at Buckingham Palace.

“I would say singing the stages of the great opera houses and European opera houses, the Met Opera, the great American opera houses — you can’t beat that,” said Fleming. “If you’re working hard to achieve something and you make it to the very top of your field, nothing will compete with that.”

But even now, Fleming says she still gets butterflies.

“I absolutely do. There are things that still terrify me. Fortunately, most of what I do is a joy. It’s an absolute joy.”

Now, Fleming is turning her passion for music into purpose. She’s partnered with the National Institutes of Health to study the ways music can improve brain function.

As part of a $20 million grant, Fleming underwent a 2-hour MRI — singing inside the machine to help doctors pinpoint how music can activate the brain and even trigger memory.

“We know that patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease very often remember songs at the end when they don’t remember anyone else, not even their loved ones,” said Fleming. “So that music memory is the last to go. Music and emotion are tied together.”

Elaine Labar may be proof of that.

The 92-year old suffers from dementia. But when she sits down at the piano, she plays the entire third movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata from memory.

“Everything we love about expression, whether it’s music or movement or the visual arts, if they stay with us, they lift us,” said Fleming.

Beyond exploring how music as therapy can help people living with neurological disorders, the Sound Health Initiative will also work to understand how the brain processes music, develop strategies to enhance brain development, and look for ways to use music to enhance daily activities.

“This is important and really they’re funding research. So they’re funding the research that shows that in children, for instance, studying a musical instrument helps them do so much better in school. It develops their brain in a different way,” said Fleming. “In fact, and we know it requires focus and discipline and on some of those other things that are, that we can see, but this is another level of understanding.”

Like so many, the pandemic has impacted Fleming’s work, but while she’s not touring the world performing, she is still singing.

She’s working on a Christmas special with her two grown daughters called Christmas in New York. She plans to return to the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in 2022.

And at a time when so many people are hurting, Fleming says music is the universal language that meets the moment and can help us heal.

“It’s really human invariant. There is no culture that hasn’t had music as part of their activities, their ways of being together,” she said.

In addition to the Sound Health Initiative and Christmas in New York DVD, Fleming also released a 19-episode series called “Music and the Mind Live,” where she explores music, loneliness, stress, and the power of music on our health and wellbeing during the pandemic.

For more information on Fleming’s general advocacy work in the Arts & Health click here.

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