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Renée Fleming Is Singing the Health Benefits of Music

Acclaimed soprano edits new book, ‘Music and Mind: Harnessing the Arts for Health and Wellness’

spinner image Renée Fleming against blue ombre background
Photo Collage: MOA Staff; (Source: Decca Timothy White)

As artistic advisor-at-large for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, acclaimed opera singer Renée Fleming, 65, spearheads the Sound Health Network, a collaboration with the National Institutes of Health that explores how music and the arts affect the brain. To highlight the music-brain connection, Fleming has edited Music and Mind: Harnessing the Arts for Health and Wellness, which features essays from leading scientists, artists, educators and health care providers. Here, she shares with AARP the music that resonates with her, how she quiets her mind for sleep and the goals she wants to accomplish before she retires.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

spinner image Book cover with words Music and Mind: Harnessing the Arts for Health and Wellness, edited by Renée Fleming
Courtesy Viking/Penguin

When did you first become aware of the powerful music-brain connection?

It was [when I first met] Deepak Chopra. He said, “You’re so fortunate, because every time you sing, you’re stimulating the vagus nerve.” Of course I had to go and look up “What’s the vagus nerve?” [Vagus nerves carry signals between the brain, heart and digestive system.] But it made me realize that when I sing and I’m singing well, I feel wonderful. I’m in the zone. I am in a flow state, and the communication with the audience is something that I really treasure, and it’s powerful.

What music have you noticed gives you that mind-body connection?

Well, I’ve always found folk music to be extremely powerful. I have often wondered, What are the elements in folk music? I’m talking about Appalachian folk music and music that’s been around for a long time. Sometimes I think it’s the [unique musical] instruments that have that power, because of the vibration that they send out to us.

You’ve performed in venues around the world. Is there one special place where you’ve loved singing?

Oh gosh, there are so many. I love my travel life, and I’m still touring like crazy. I enjoy that. There’s no favorite place. I would say over time it has something to do with the quality of the concert halls or the opera houses that I’ve performed in. Sometimes it’s the history; sometimes it’s the acoustical quality. For many years, I said my favorite place is the Metropolitan Opera because I could be home with my children. To do what I do and have children is always a challenge … but now they’re adults on opposite ends of the country — one’s in New York and one’s in L.A.

When you’re on the road, do you have any tips or tricks to help with sleep?

I started reading again in a big way, to get away from the news at night. I just thought, You need to stop, because it would not only just interrupt your sleep, it’s very upsetting. Now I just stick to [checking the news] once a day briefly to make sure that I know what’s going on, and then at night I’m reading books that I love and that I feel that I’m learning from. It’s been such a gift to expand my horizons in that respect.

What are you currently reading?

I’m reading a book about the life of Alexander von Humboldt [The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf]. There’s so much about his life that is remarkable, modern. It’s enlightening.

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And what are you listening to?

I’m mostly listening to what it is I have to learn and memorize. I don’t have very much time for a major listening, but when I do, I’m a big jazz fan. There are so many great young singers right now. I find that extraordinary. I love Kurt Elling. Cécile McLorin Salvant is an incredible singer. I listen to jazz instrumentalists Brad Mehldau, Fred Hersch and Christian McBride. Of course, the singer who won the Grammy this past year [for best jazz performance] is extraordinary, Samara Joy. I like to stay current with what’s happening in the music world because I have a series at the Kennedy Center called Voices. I just went to hear Shakti, with Zakir Hussain and John McLaughlin, which was the most joyful concert I’ve been to in ages.

How do you maintain your voice?

To maintain my voice I have to stay hydrated, live moderately — so that means getting enough rest. The most important thing for me is not being in loud restaurants. If I start speaking over noise, I’m done. For the most part, I’m not bundled up in scarves or taking a magic rabbit’s foot with me. It’s not superstition. Knock on wood, I have a pretty tough constitution. You can’t get sick all of the time or you don’t work. We don’t get paid if we cancel.

spinner image Renée Fleming holding microphone and singing on stage
Fleming perfomed at the December 2023 Kennedy Center Honors celebration in Washington D.C.
Michele Crowe/CBS via Getty Images

You turned 65 this past year. What’s your perspective on aging?

I was just with my college roommate, and we were just looking at each other and said, “Wait, how did [we] get here? It just flew by so fast! Can you believe it?” Many of us feel like we’re young. We don’t connect with the number, which I think is a good, healthy thing. I’m committed to staying active and trying to maintain a quality of life. It’s so important. The arts absolutely should be part of it for everyone. Particularly for anybody who’s less mobile, it’s a fabulous way to stay cognitively with it. They talk about cognitive reserve, so learning a new instrument or just learning something artistic — not only can it feed the soul, but it can feed the brain.

Do you have retirement plans? Or are there certain goals you want to accomplish before you retire?

Well, I definitely think about it. I would say I’ve been kind of actively planning for doing other activities. Certainly I love working with young artists. That’s something that really feeds me. Honestly, this arts and health advocacy [work] is a real passion, and it’s a gift. One of the things that I would like to achieve [is] licensure for creative arts therapists. Another is an appreciation for what art and artists bring to the table.… At the Kennedy Center in December, a woman came up to me and she said, “I saw one of your [Music and Mind Live With Renée Fleming webinar] presentations, and I just want to thank you, because my father was suffering. He was becoming violent. He had dementia, he had sundowners, all of that. I heard your talk, and I remembered that he loves opera. And we started putting opera on, and now he’s happy and smiling. [It’s] a completely different experience.”

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