Stephanie McGuire

Stephanie McGuire sees many parallels between classical music and science: Both can deeply move and inspire people, both have rich traditions and histories—and both, at times, have the capacity for elitism and insularity. The New York City–based mezzo soprano opera singer with a Ph.D. in psychoacoustics tries to invoke the better angels of both when she’s performing or talking about science with young students—seeking out people’s common emotional resonances whether they’re listening to a piece of music or learning about an experimental finding.

McGuire spent her early years traveling the country as her scientist-parents moved around for different academic positions. Though her scenery frequently changed, her love of music was a constant. Today she sings with several professional opera companies around the country and is in the process of developing a show of her own that explores how baroque music and hip-hop, both inextricably linked to dance forms, are connected to each other and can even inform one another.

“I’m often told that my intonation is very good, and I think that may be because I inadvertently trained my ear to detect small differences in sounds during my research.” —Stephanie McGuire

Science Careers spoke with McGuire about her musical and scientific upbringing, her approach to science and art, and her thoughts on the gender and ethnic divisions that exist both in music and science. The responses below were collated from both e-mail and spoken interviews and edited for clarity and length.

Q: Did you have any experiences as a child that influenced your career path?

SM: Both of my parents were academics. We moved for their various academic appointments. My father is a physicist and my mother’s Ph.D. is in chemical education. She’s not a research scientist, but she was a chemistry professor and then later in her career she became a learning expert. My mother sang in the church choir, and my father loved music. He always had various records on in the house. When we lived in Huntsville, Alabama, we would always drive across country to Livermore, California, during the summer and he would always provide the soundtrack. And he just sang a “Happy Birthday” on my voicemail that was beautiful and amazingly in-tune.

I started singing in choir at church when I was 5 years old, and I remember really enjoying it. I was also successful in school—I was promoted to second grade when I was 5—but I don’t remember really loving science until I took biology in ninth grade, when I was 12.

Q: What made you decide to focus on science as a career rather than music?

SM: I actually had a lot of performance anxiety when I was younger. As a kid, I never thought about my singing or my performing as something that I would do for a living. Science just seemed to me the much more intuitive, available path.

Q: How did you find your way to psychoacoustics?

SM: I graduated with a bachelor’s in biology and a minor in brain and cognitive science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. My plan was to use molecular biology to investigate neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. And I got a scholarship to go to the University of Oxford in England specifically to study with Susan Greenfield, who was working on Parkinson’s disease at the time. There was a new 1-year master’s they were introducing, and during that year I had to do two 10,000-word mini-theses. One of them I did in a psychoacoustics lab.

I just loved the psychoacoustics work. I was helping a Ph.D. student take data and analyze it according to a statistical model that he had already developed. This just seemed like heaven. I’d go into a box, put on some headphones, press some buttons, run some data through the computer, and it would spit out some results and I could immediately draw conclusions and interpret them and have really fun ideas about what was happening. Whereas all my previous research background was in biology, where the experiments are like 18 hours long and you’re waiting for gels to run, where you’re waiting for things all the time and then bacteria get contaminated and somebody moves your stuff in the fridge.

Of course, it wasn’t until later that I figured out that designing a meaningful experiment and getting your apparatus to work in psychoacoustics is just as challenging, but at the time, I thought, “Wow, if something opens up in this lab, then this is something I’d really enjoy thinking about and doing.”

Q: When did you decide to commit more fully to your musical passion?

SM: After I finished my Ph.D., I went straight to the conservatory at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, Massachusetts (now merged with Bard College), and never looked back. In fact, I defended my doctoral dissertation between my first and second semesters at Longy.

Q: Are you currently doing any scientific research?

SM: You know, I’m not. I could pursue an academic career in music. I could pursue becoming a professor. I could pursue publishing articles in journals. The only reason I don’t is because there’s 24 hours in the day. I have to minimize the number of tasks that I ask myself to do. I know that some scientist-musicians find it very easy to do both, but I really feel myself using quite different parts of my brain and being when I’m doing science or performing. All the research I do at this point in my life involves how to make better, more expressive sounds and how to communicate more effectively onstage or with students. 

Q: Would you say your scientific training has influenced your musical career?

SM: While it’s true that I do not need to have a doctorate in psychoacoustics to do what I’m doing now, my scientific background and temperament absolutely influence my work as a singer. First, I think that the basic process of having a hypothesis and testing it is something that successful artists do instinctively. Let’s try this—does it work? If it doesn’t work, we try something else until it works. I approach my own work in a very systematic way.

Another impact of my scientific background on my singing comes from the actual experiments I did as part of my doctoral work. I had to find so-called “just-noticeable-differences” between very similar sounds for thousands of trials. I’m often told that my intonation is very good, and I think that may be because I inadvertently trained my ear to detect small differences in sounds during my research.

Finally, my connection to science has resulted in some actual performing opportunities. Playwright and Nobel laureate Roald Hoffmann presents a series at Cornelia Street Cafe in New York City called Entertaining Science, which pairs artists and scientists. I had the opportunity to sing art songs on the same bill as Johan Sundberg, the renowned psychoacoustician and voice scientist. And then I did another show there, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Lab which interspersed music with humor pieces written by scientists Vincent LiCata, Benjamin Cohen, and David Ng.

Q: Does your scientific understanding of music ever creep into mind as you’re performing?

SM: Absolutely not. I had to learn the hard way that performing is not intellectual at all. If I’m having analytical thoughts in the moment of performing, something is wrong. It’s all about sensations and responses and being completely in my body. Whether I can consistently produce a warm, open, ringing sound has nothing to do with what I know about psychoacoustics. It’s all about what I have trained my body to do. It’s athletic, not intellectual. 

Q: Both classical music and science are sometimes accused of being elitist. How do you help the general public connect to and understand both?

Because it’s art, it’s built of human emotions. Whatever I just sang about, whatever emotions I was having on stage, everybody in the audience has had the same emotions from the time they were children. Human beings are human beings. We love, we hate, we’re jealous, we’re curious, we try and fail to be objective, we blame, we love imperfectly—we are who we are and have always been.

The trick is to make that clear. I think not using jargon, or at least explaining the jargon, is hugely important. The more simply we can speak, the better, though without dumbing things down. During interactive recitals, I use musical terms, but I just explain what they mean. No matter how complicated a concept may be, deep understanding is possible for the listener as long as they have all the information they need for something to click. Not just for science, not just for music, not just for art, but for education in general, we know people learn best when they have experiences and when people treat them like they’re smart and interested.

Q: Classical music and science also share the problem sometimes of inadequately recognizing contributions from underrepresented groups. What can scientists and artists do to fix this?

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