M4Arts cello student and Staff Scientist at National Eye Institute, Dr. Ivan Rebustini talks to us about how he fell in love with the cello and the important relationship between music and science.
Hi Ivan, can you tell us how you started to get inspired by music?
I was inspired to pursue music by many events in life. I have always loved music and had a grandfather who was a trumpeter. But somehow, I kept the process of learning music as an inaccessible dream in my mind. I was exposed to science at a very early age in life, and I was always a very avid reader and dedicated student, and always knew that I wanted to be a scientist, but also knew that science and arts are intimately connected.
I decided to pursue only science as I was afraid of focusing on multiple things at the same time or I was told that I couldn't do it and felt intimidated or discouraged.
When did you realise that you wanted to learn music more seriously? I started to regain interest in learning and in practicing music when I went to college and to grad school. When I was living in Brazil, where I was born, I was constantly attending concerts by the local city orchestra. While pursuing my degree in Biochemistry, I had many opportunities to attend performances of classical music at concert halls and operas, and became an avid pursuer of classical music events in Sao Paulo, where I was studying.
The "Sala Sao Paulo", formally known as "The Júlio Prestes Cultural Center", located in the old north central section of the city was my constant "hang out" place. I used to go there and chat with musicians and conductors. I had to brave the wild and the hazardous metro system of Sao Paulo city because I lived on the other side of town, but the reward was incredible!
So what happened when you moved to the States? When I moved to the US in 2004, I became an active goer of concerts and operas in Washington DC, an incredible city for opportunities like these. The National Institutes of Health, where I have worked ever since, also sponsors classical music concerts by the NIH Philharmonia whose conductor, Nancia D'Alimonte, is a really inspiring person and talented woman conductor.
Discovering the Cello
How did you discover the cello?
I attended a recital of a cello soloist in 2016 and realized that cello would be the instrument of choice for me: it resembles the human voice, and its range of notes is the most attractive for me among the string instruments. Also, by watching solo performances of cellists, I fell in love with the physicality involved in playing the cello. I later fell in love with the craftsmanship involved in building a cello, and the history associated with string instruments. I researched music for adult learners and found an entire "parallel universe" populated with amateur musicians and music enthusiasts and aficionados, those who decided to have a career in life different from music careers but wanted to support their dream of learning and playing music.
When did you decide to dive into music learning and making?
About three years ago, I woke up on a cold Saturday and told myself: "today, I will rent a cello". I went to an instrument shop in Washington DC (Potter Instruments), and simply rented a student cello. I brought the instrument home, and for the surprise of everyone, I started learning scales and positions. I was learning music on my own and made a plan of getting acquainted with the instrument first, without a commitment more serious than just a curiosity for it. It took one year for something inside me to "click"; I started researching repertoire, composers and performers of cello music, and populating my social media activities with engaging cello web pages.
I started to consider cello as a long-term, and eventually a life-time companion to my activities. A year later, I went to M4Arts and met the director Susanna and one their cello instructors Emma, and from there, it has been two years of joy, accomplishments, pitfalls, challenges, and above all, receiving the benefit of learning music for my mind and for my soul.
Music and Science
As a scientist, what do you think is the relationship between music and science?
And one of the most important aspects of learning and playing music is the science that supports the benefits of doing it so. As a scientist, I have worked with many sensorial aspects of our biology including hearing and vision. I have learned that music can be in fact therapeutic, and helping increase our brain synapses, which can keep our brains from aging and even alleviating the effects of neurodegenerative diseases. I learned through work how hearing is perceived by our ears and processed in our brains.
Have you found any parallels between your work as a scientist and your work as a musician?
Yes, both require an inquisitive mind to decipher complex concepts and languages; both require discipline and persistence; both require studying and organizing ideas and a lot of patience; both require multitasking and resolving problems. Both can be frustrating sometimes, but extremely rewarding at a personal level.
Are there any principles that are similar between music and science?
Music as a complex language requires much more multitasking than my job as a scientist. The multitasking of physically playing an instrument that include body language and finger positions while listening to the music and reading the score and memorizing a piece, all of these happening at the same time, are unique to music. Sometimes, scientists multitask but usually we prefer not to. Multitasking usually compromises focus for a scientist, but for a musician, focusing while multitasking is actually imperative.
What about the laws of physics and science in music?
This is an interesting topic particularly when we are playing the cello. The concepts of harmonics, sound waves, the materials through which we produce sound waves (animal gut or metal for the strings, horse hair for the bow) or through which the sound waves resonate and travel, the location where we are playing (rooms vs. open spaces) and the environmental conditions are all important elements under the laws of Physics.
What insights a scientist can share about music?
As a Biochemist who has worked with hearing biology, I know that the physiology of hearing allows the synapses of our brains to better develop and repair as we age.
A Physicist could give you a more profound insight into the physics of sounds, and a neuroscientist would offer a deeper insight into the effects of music on brain synapses.
A psychologist or a psychotherapist could even tell you whether the music of Bach or Beethoven could improve the mood of patients with neuropathologies or clinically depressed (and there is serious science behind music therapy, as Renee Flemming's work with Dr. Francis Collins at the National Institutes of Health has pointed several times).
A Mathematician could certainly tell you that the logic involved in composition of any Bach music is definitely undeniable.
In general, I can tell is that studying music has helped me become a better scientist because I apply concepts I use in music such as multitasking to my daily activities without losing focus. Multitasking has become increasingly important for scientists these days when we are all working from home.
As a person, I am becoming more patient, less anxious, more diligent, more detailed-oriented, and more aware of how I communicate in languages other than music. And above all, my memory has improved, significantly.
Music is just too good for your brain and for your soul!
Dr. Ivan Rebustini is currently Staff Scientist at National Eye Institute in Washington DC. He holds a MS and PhD in Biochemistry from the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil.