Hitting high notes: These undergraduate students are researching topics that affect musical performance

Undergrad music researchers
From left to right: the Faculty of Music's Sophia Wang, Elizabeth Legierski and Shreya Jha (photo courtesy of the Faculty of Music)

Czech nationalism and cardiac response don’t immediately come to mind when one thinks of music studies.

But for Elizabeth Legierski and Shreya Jha – both students at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music – the topics were the focus of undergraduate research. Others, like alumna Sophia Wang, who graduated last year, looked at the study and performance of Canadian wind band music in Canadian schools.

Such topics demonstrate the breadth of research undertaken by undergraduate students in the faculty, which encourages students to think big and to ask questions.

Angela Gu of U of T News caught up with Legierski and Jha to find out more about their undergraduate research and how it impacted their U of T education.

Studying voice performance with a minor in composition, Elizabeth Legierski’s research examined the Czech nationalist movement and how Czech composer Bedřich Smetana was influenced by it through his opera The Bartered Bride.

Legierski’s interest in the topic, which took home a first place prize in a 2018 Faculty of Music Undergraduate Research Showcase, was first sparked while learning an aria from the opera. Her Czech background and her familiarity with the language and history also drew her to the subject.

She says that while preparing for a performance, it is important to study how music has been influenced by culture and history.

“I think that they complement each other very well,” she says. 

While putting together a research poster for the showcase, Legierski built on her knowledge of Smetana and The Bartered Bride, referring to books on the topic, the score of the opera itself and the performance guide by the University of Michigan’s Timothy Cheek, an expert on Czech vocal music. His work is influential in the teaching of diction in Czech vocal music.

Legierski met Cheek last year at Prague Summer Nights, a young artists’ music festival.

“It was very cool to meet somebody who was a great resource for my research,” she says.

Legierski was also contacted to review a book, Bedřich Smetana: Myth, Music and Propaganda by Kelly St. Pierre of Wichita State University, for the peer-reviewed music journal Fontes Artis Musicae.

What’s next? While she is still focusing on voice performance, Legierski is now also looking into the works of a lesser-known Czech composer, Vítězslava Kaprálová.

“I’d really like to start researching those composers that were specifically ignored during some of Smetana’s time,” she says. “I think that would be an interesting topic.”

Shreya Jha, meanwhile, conducted an exploratory pilot study on cardiac responses to musical performance, in a bid to use scientific data to make musicians better at what they do.

The Trinity College student, who is studying composition while concurrently pursuing a double major in neuroscience and physiology, says musicians found her research on flow state to be relatable and applicable. Flow state refers to achieving intense focus with the right balance of stress and self-confidence – otherwise known as “being in the zone.”  

“It’s really about us understanding how we can physiologically define what a good performance is, and what a satisfying performance is,” says Jha, who took third place for her presentation at last year’s inaugural exhibition.

While flow state is usually studied with respect to athletic performance, Jha investigated the physiological phenomenon through the lens of piano performance and rhythm.

She sees the applicability of this research in teaching young performers how to manage stress on stage, noting that “performance anxiety is something that can affect everybody.” 

Jha developed her pilot study with Professor Scott Thomas of the Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education, Associate Professor Robert Nolan of the department of psychiatry, and Adjunct Professor Jeff Wolpert of the Faculty of Music.

Beyond the findings of her work, Jha’s pursuit of undergraduate research offered a personal revelation. “I think that showed me a glimpse of what it meant, when my dad said that academia is the best profession,” she says.

“I’m not sure I would agree with him on that – I don’t know if it’s really what I want to do for the rest of my life – but now I’m definitely in on the experience.”

Outside of the academic sphere, Jha’s passion for both music and science came together in a different way: She wrote a piece of musical theatre titled Statistics, which was staged at U of T’s Drama Festival. Statistics tells parallel tales of women in science, with the story of present-day students playing out alongside an historical account of Rosalind Franklin racing to discover the structure of DNA.

Looking ahead, Jha is open to seeing where her research takes her.

“I’ve learned so much after this project,” she says. “It would probably be wise to start afresh with something, maybe with something related to this, but with a new hypothesis, related to music physiology, music and the brain.”