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Psychologists at Play

A different kind of instrumentation occupies these academics

Once music is in your blood — or at least in your grey matter — it stays there. For some psychologists, a love of music has meant a lifetime of divided loyalties: pursuing research and teaching by day; practicing, rehearsing, and performing by night. Whether it is a love that has endured through graduate school, first employment, and tenure, or a fling that has faded along the way, for those who study music and the mind, it is not unusual to have music on the mind.

“For me it’s like the two worlds of the brain,” says professor of neurobiology and physiology Aryeh Routtenberg, Northwestern University. “I’ll be sitting at my computer for hours on end, writing a paper, or a grant proposal, or e-mail, whatever. And then I’ll go to where I have my instruments and play, and it’s like a mental vacuum. It clears everything away, or blocks everything out. It’s almost a completely different set of neurons that are now recruited.”

With such passion, what stops musical psychologists from becoming psychology of music specialists? “I never thought about becoming involved in research on music when I first started to shape my career,” says Michael Gabriel, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Gabriel started playing trumpet as a secondgrader and has played music ever since. By the time he reached junior high, he was ready to take on the slide and rarer valve trombone, inspired by the slides and growls of the lower brass’s role in Dixieland music.

The Boneyard Jazz Quintet

The Boneyard: Founding member Mike Gabriel (far right) stands with the Boneyard Jazz Quintet's current musicians.

Soon Gabriel was playing jazz gigs wherever he could. “By the time I was 19 or 20 I was playing all over Philadelphia with a lot of different people,” he remembers. While pursuing his jazz career he attended Saint Joseph’s College. After Gabriel graduated from the Jesuit school, he joined a band on a cruise ship headed for Rotterdam. From there the band played its way across the continent, from Hamburg, Germany to Copenhagen, Denmark. “Everywhere we went and played there were good musicians and audiences who were really enthusiastic about the music,” he says.

Just as music was never far from his heart, however, a career was never far from his mind. In June 1962 he was offered a choice: enroll in the University of Wisconsin’s graduate program or join Woody Herman’s Herd, the orchestra of the popular clarinetist, saxophonist, and singer. He chose academics. “My reasoning was that I could always take my trombone along and keep playing,” he says, “but if I didn’t go to school I would forgo that option. The best possible thing would be to go to school and be able to do both.”

And he has. Wherever Gabriel has studied, he has worked with some of the best musicians to be found. Jazz has remained a constant in his life even while teaching and researching mediation of conditioning, learning, and memory processes, multi-array recording of brain cellular activity, and behavioral neuroscience.

The Synaptic Plasticity Band

Keeping It Real: Members of the Synaptic Plasticity Band James McGaugh (center with the clarinet) and Aryeh Routtenberg (far right with flute) during the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory annual meeting. (Lynn Brown)

It doesn’t stop there. In addition to playing with The Boneyard Jazz Quintet, for more than a decade Gabriel has played with the Synaptic Plasticity Band. Practicing only a couple times a year, Synaptic Plasticity — four psychologist horn players and a hired “rhythm section” of bass, drums, and piano or guitar — has played its mix of jazz styles for the annual Neurobiology of Learning and Memory Conference’s banquet. In fact, the band also made an appearance at an APS convention in the early 1990s. Along with Gabriel in the Synaptic Plasticity horn section is James McGaugh (clarinet and alto saxophone), Len Jarrard (trumpet and flugelhorn), and Aryeh Routtenberg (alto saxophone).



McGaugh, an APS Past President, is a professor of psychobiology and pharmacology at the University of California, Irvine and the founding director of the university’s Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory and Research. Although McGaugh emphasizes that music is an avocation, not a profession, he works often as a clarinetist and saxophonist, playing jazz — from swing to early funk — at receptions, parties, dances, and at the student union.

McGaugh played clarinet as a teenager, later becoming a symphonic bass clarinetist in college, where he was a drama and music major. There he decided to concentrate on voice — he later was a choir director — and he set aside his clarinet for years. His career in psychology followed, but then a fluke brought him back to his clarinet. “One of the faculty members wanted to feature administrators in a performance for the students. At this time I was the executive vice-chancellor for this campus, the University of California, Irvine,” McGaugh says. “So they put together a group of vice-chancellors, and deans, and people like that so the students could see that these were real people. That group was called the Classy Brass.”

That group led not only to McGaugh getting serious again about clarinet and its brass cousin, saxophone, but also to a chair in another big-wig ensemble, Patent Leather, organized by the director of the school’s technology transfer group. They have performed as the opening act for such artists as Ray Charles and Tony Bennett, each time playing to 30,000 people.

Synaptic Plasticity saxophonist Routtenberg came to his instrument later than most, at age 40. But he had some early music training, taking piano lessons at five years of age and later learning trumpet. Like his band mates, he now lives a dual life, conducting research and teaching at Northwestern and playing jazz in Chicago clubs and at parties.

Robyn Dawes

Piano Man: Robyn Dawes composes in a variety of classical styles.

“The interesting thing about playing music and being a psychologist is that you feel so balanced,” Routtenberg says. “You don’t get to a point where you think one or the other thing is so important. It gives you some sort of perspective on life. Most people tend to be one dimensional. I like to think that I’m at least two dimensional.”


Some musician psychologists compose as well as perform publicly, while others make only their compositions public. Robyn Dawes, professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University’s department of Social and Decision Sciences, composes solo piano pieces in a variety of classical styles. His compositions are performed primarily in the Pittsburgh region, and they have been released on CD.

The Blues Disaster Group

Jam Session: Levenson (far left) with his saxophone. Hear APS Past President Bob Levenson (soprano saxophone) perform "Round Midnight" with Aaron Sage (piano). Composed by Thelonious Monk.

When Dawes was a teenager, he considered becoming a professional composer and pianist. But he hates performing. He also found that his music improved as his mood darkened, and he didn’t relish a life of funk. Finally, in the almost-universal disclaimer of the accomplished psychologist musician, he protests “I’m not that good.” Still, when he was in his late 40s, Dawes decided to give piano another chance. He started piano lessons and returned to composing as well, tutored now by the head of the composition department at the University of Oregon, where Dawes was then chair of the psychology department. “He liked the fact that my music had some melody and harmony in it,” Dawes says, “whereas the big thing then in the early ’80s was to be super-deconstructionist.” He has continued composing and studying composition, now with Carnegie Mellon professor of composition and theory Nancy Galbraith.


Robert Levenson, APS Immediate Past President, has perhaps the most intense case of music-in-the-blood to be found among academic psychologists. Levenson, a professor in the University of California, Berkeley’s department of psychology, rehearses or performs about three nights a week as a tenor and soprano saxophonist. He plays venues, parties, and bars, most often in the Bay Area. As with some of the other musician psychologists, he played part-time — classical, jazz, rock, and rhythm-and-blues — while in high school, college, graduate school, and as an academic. But after four years as a professor, he decided to try life as a full-time musician. For the next year and a half he toured with small groups, throughout the United States and Europe.

Though his love of the art has not faded, Levenson has cut back his playing for the sake of his academic work. As a musician, he notes that “The more professional you get, the more compromises you have to make. You can find yourself being much more oriented towards employability rather than the musicality of what you’re doing. I enjoy music too much to let it be held hostage to those kinds of considerations. It is also really hard, draining, tiring work.”

Observer Vol.19, No.4 April, 2006

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