NIH Director Plays Guitar/Cello Duet With Famed Cellist Yo Yo Ma


People in distinguished positions occasionally get to have extraordinary experiences: Going very, very special places, or meeting people whose lives are somehow magical.

Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, recently had such an experience when he, a self-described “amateur guitar picker,” spun a duet with world-renowned classical cellist Yo Yo Ma. They played what Dr. Collins described as, in his blog on the NIH web site, “a creative interpretation of the traditional song, ‘How Can I Keep From Singing?’”

The occasion was when Mr. Ya visited NIH for its annual J. Edward Rall Cultural Lecture, where he participated in conversation on the intersection of music and science.

The blog post said:

Brain Arias Involved in Playing MusicBefore the rapt audience at the NIH Clinical Center’s Masur Auditorium, Ma demonstrated various ways to interpret the notes and dynamics of Bach, opening the door to the fascinating topic of the neuroscience of music. As you can see in the image [above], when a person plays a violin or other musical instrument, a variety of areas throughout the brain are activated. [1] Another recent study suggests that the human brain possesses its own “music room” in the cerebral cortex, composed of populations of neural cells that are selectively dedicated to processing the sounds of music, as opposed to sounds of speech. [2] What’s more, neuroscientists have found that certain brain cells release dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps control reward and pleasure, both before and during the times that people listen to musical passages with the power to give them ‘the chills’.”

Another topic raised by Ma was how the open exchange of information has served to accelerate progress not only in biomedical research, but in the making of world-class string instruments. We even touched upon the question of why music exists: what evolutionary advantage might it have provided to Homo sapiens as a species? Perhaps it was a way for social groups to join together around a common purpose and improve their chances of survival?

Alas,” Dr. Collins said, “we could reach no firm conclusions on such a complicated topic in the short time allotted. Maybe we can pick up that conversation—and pluck a few more strings on our instruments—at another time!”

Alas, indeed! Those are some deep issues, issues that deserve the investment of more money this country can afford in grants, etc. – and that’s before the new president is spending part of his time in Washington. (He seems to want to run things from the ‘Gold House’, the one with his name on it on Fifth Avenue in New York City.)


Dr. Collins is a physician-geneticist noted for his landmark discoveries of disease genes and his leadership of the international Human Genome Project, which culminated in April 2003 with the completion of a finished sequence of the human DNA instruction book. He served as director of the National Human Genome Research Institute at NIH from 1993-2008.