The science and emotion of musical performance

  • October 7, 2013
The science and emotion of musical performance

Naomi Woo believes musicology and musical performance can combine to make classical music more accessible and offer a deeper experience of it.

Musical performance and musicology can enhance each other and make classical music more accessible to a broad audience and explain why the experience of music is so profound, says Naomi Woo.

Steeped in performance from the age of four, she has a background in musicology and plans to combine those two elements in her MPhil in Music Studies which she begins this month.

She says:  “I think musicology can benefit from understanding what performance can offer which is more temporal and experiential and that performance can make musicology more accessible. Musicology can in turn inform performance and a more academically engaged understanding of performance can help performers communicate their ideas and make them better able to tell their audience what pieces of music are about. By captivating audiences through a combination of performance and scholarship, I believe I can cause them to listen to and experience music in ways that are not necessarily common in our society — and that this listening can be a force for good on both a personal and a societal level.”

Naomi applied to Cambridge to do her MPhil because its course brought together musical theory and performance. She says her music major at undergraduate level was very theoretical and prompted her to do a performance-based masters at Yale. “I realised that in my education the academic and performance elements had been quite separate and I looked for projects which could integrate the two. The Cambridge course sits at the intersection of musicology and performance,” she says. She cites as an example of how the two disciplines can inform each other a recent performance she helped to produce and performed as a pianist in by the ensemble Cantata Profana. Entitled “Of Time and Space and Nonsense”, it used a diverse spread of repertoire and theatrical elements in order to challenge the audience to think about the way music can help bring a better understanding of space and time.  

Piano

Music has been a central part of Naomi’s life from early on. Both her parents loved music, but are not musicians. Her mother is a doctor and her father, who is from Singapore and did his masters at the University of Cambridge, works for the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, a think tank which focuses on Asian and Canadian relations.

However, Naomi’s siblings and her all played piano from a young age.  They would teach each other and play together. Naomi began playing the piano just before her fifth birthday, but had been asking for lessons since she was three. “I really loved it right away,”she says.

Born in Newfoundland, her family moved to Vancouver soon after she started lessons, but her piano teacher recommended a great teacher in her new town.

That teacher encouraged her to duet with another girl. “I’m really grateful that my teacher started me playing with others so young. What I have come to enjoy most is making music with other people, that collaborative energy,” says Naomi.

At high school she played piano in a chamber music trio for five years as well as playing violin in the school orchestra. She also entered many local competitions and loved to perform. In 2002 when she was 12 she entered the Canadian Music Competition and made it to the national finals and won her age category. She won again the following year and was selected to perform in a gala concert with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra. “It was very exciting and magical being part of something so much larger than yourself and feeling that support,” she says.

In her second last summer at high school she took part in a music camp in Shanghai with musicians from around the world and played in a chamber music group. Despite language barriers, the students communicated through their music. “It was very moving,” she says. “I realised that music was something I could not live without.”

Yale

At Yale, however, she studied a wide number of subjects, from maths to philosophy, although she had applied to several music schools. She felt she was too young to commit to music only and it was only in her third year that she realised she had fulfilled many of the requirements for music accidentally. She had started conducting in her second year. There were a number of student-run orchestras at the university and she started conducting a number of operas. She found it incredibly stimulating. “You use so many different parts of your mind and it requires so many different skills at the same time such as musical analysis, interpretive skills and physical skills for communicating what you want. And it is very collaborative – you feed off the energy of the players,” she says.

She ended up majoring in maths and philosophy and minoring in music, doing a thesis on Ravel’s first orchestration “Une barque sur l’océan” from the suite Miroirs. As music director of the Berkeley College Orchestra, she was also able to work on it in performance and the orchestra performed passages she was talking about in her written work. She says she saw new things in the work with each performance. Meanwhile, her senior research for the Mathematics & Philosophy Major was about using mathematics as a metaphor for understanding the mind.

During her undergraduate years, Naomi also found the time to take part in many extracurricular activities, including grading other students’ problem sets for the mathematics department and interviewing prospective students for the Yale Admissions Office. She was co-music director of a contemporary music ensemble called SIC Inc for a year and a half which included working with dancers to choreograph music composed by students. She was also president of the literary society, played violin in the Yale Symphony Orchestra and took part in a Music in Schools project, teaching piano at a local middle school. “Part of what we did was about boosting students’ self confidence by getting them involved in making something so beautiful,” says Naomi.

She hopes that her experience at Cambridge will further her appreciation of all that music has to offer. She says: “Music has been so important to me. It has opened my mind to new ideas and experiences.”

 

 

Latest News

Provost wins top Royal Society award

Gates Cambridge Provost Professor Barry Everitt has been selected for the Royal Society’s premier award in the biological sciences. Professor Barry Everitt FMedSci FRS has been awarded the Croonian Medal and Lecture 2021 for his research on the application of his findings on brain mechanisms of motivation to important societal issues, such as drug addiction. […]

Addressing energy injustice in the Global South

A new framework which uses artificial intelligence to analyse textual data on energy use and behaviour could help policymakers develop a deeper understanding of energy injustices in the Global South. The study, Grounded reality meets machine learning: A deep-narrative analysis framework for energy policy research, was led by Gates Cambridge Scholar Ramit Debnath [2018] and is published in the journal Energy Research […]

Scholar wins top German prize for PhD thesis

A Gates Cambridge Scholar has won a prestigious international award for her PhD dissertation on the relationship between offshore finance and state power. Dr Andrea Binder was named winner of the Körber Foundation’s German Dissertation Award 2020 for social sciences. The prize, one of the most highly endowed for young researchers from Germany, honours excellent PhD research which […]

Developing a farm for impact model

Shadrack Frimpong has not yet started his PhD, but already his and his team’s work has earned him awards from the Queen, the Clinton Foundation and the Muhammad Ali Foundation. The awards are for their outstanding work in creating a potential new development model for rural crop-growing communities starting from Shadrack’s own village in Ghana. […]