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Professors Find Sweet Harmony in Collaborations of Music, Psychology

Breathe in. Breathe out. Relax.

That’s one of the calming techniques Barbara Murphy and Jacob Levy teach music students to use to control performance anxiety.

Murphy is an associate professor of music theory. Levy is an associate professor of psychology.

For nearly 14 years, the two have been collaborating on research and teaching on a variety of topics, including performance anxiety, that transcend both of their fields. For their work, Levy and Murphy received the College of Arts and Sciences 2020 Interdepartmental Collaborative Scholarship and Research Award.

Levy and Murphy met in 2008. As an advisor to the Crescendo Living Learning Community, Murphy was arranging programming for the music student residents. She heard that Levy taught a popular First Year Studies class about performance anxiety and asked him to speak to the Crescendo residents.

Since then, Levy’s session on performance anxiety has become a regular part of the Crescendo curriculum. And as Levy and Murphy discovered the various ways their interests in music and psychology overlapped, they’ve published papers together, teamed up on presentations at national conventions in both fields, and served on numerous dissertation committees together.

“I have loved working with Jake on a range of topics from the musicians’ learning styles to the mental and physical health of music majors,” Murphy said.

Murphy, at UT since 1995, grew up playing the piano and flute and performing in the marching band in high school and college. In graduate school, she focused on music theory and pedagogy, but she also enjoyed taking psychology classes.

Levy, at UT since 2005, was a psychology major in college, but he also played baritone and performed in a drum and bugles corps.

Though he never considered a music career, Levy had friends who did. And he was intrigued watching those highly talented aspiring musicians excel in rehearsal, but struggle when it came time to perform.

“I knew they were amazing, awesome performers and  something was just getting in their way,” he said. “The scientist in me wanted to figure out what that was.”

Levy said working with young musicians helps him stay relevant.

“I see that the stuff I’m interested in actually has utility,” he said.

Murphy and Levy also practice what they preach; both use the same anxiety-lowering techniques they teach their students when they’re in nerve-wracking situations.

Although she doesn’t perform a lot these days, Murphy occasionally plays the flute at her church. When she does, the nerves are real. She also gets jittery when speaking at a conference or addressing a new class of students.

“The minute I realize people are listening to just me, I worry they are judging me,” she said. “I start to shake.”

Levy competes in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu tournaments. He won a bronze medal at the world master championship last year. Before hitting the mat for a match, he often feels nervous—proof that performance anxiety affects athletes the same way it does musicians.

“It’s been interesting to see it from that side,” he said.

Story by Amy Blakely