Peabody Johns Hopkins University Magazine

Exploring Music’s Mysteries

Exploring Music’s Mysteries

Nikolai Klotchkov – BM, musical performance (saxophone); BS, interdisciplinary studies in kinesiology, computer science, and neuroscience; Auburn University, 2019 Winner of the Gulf Coast Steinway Society Concerto Competition and first prize in the Rising Talents of Americas International Competition (saxophone, 2018)

Headshot of Nikolai Klotchkov

Nikolai Klotchkov, a Russian-born saxophonist, scientist, and DMA student, loves how music touches the heart. He’s just as passionate about how music affects the brain. For his dissertation, Klotchkov is researching the cognitive processes for music performance and perception with Jenine Brown, Peabody associate professor in the Department of Music Theory. At the Peabody Performance Health Research Lab, Peabody’s combined effort with the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, Klotchkov also explores the impact of musicians’ injuries. He works with Serap Bastepe-Gray, who holds a joint appointment in neurology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and at Peabody on the guitar faculty and is a clinician in the JHRN Clinic for Performing Artists at Peabody.

Klotchkov embraces big questions— Is there a way music can help people with brain pathology? How can musicians prevent injury?—and big issues. In April 2022, he and three fellow Peabody graduate students organized the Benefit Concert for Ukraine, raising nearly $4,000 for Ukrainian relief through the Johns Hopkins Center for Humanitarian Health.

As for free time? He goes big there, too, competing in cross-country mountain-biking events.

What inspired your research in cognitive musicology?

Music is a mystery. It’s different in every culture, but our brains are more or less identical. To me, the only way to peek into this mystery is to under- stand how musicians’ brains work when making music and how listeners’ brains work when hearing it. I am interested in how the brain processes musical time—how musicians play rhythms and how listeners temporally organize sounds. I started thinking about this as an undergraduate at Auburn University. Very little is known about how the brain works with music, but performing and listening to music do unexpected things in the brain. I’d love for my research to advance the music therapy field.

How did the Benefit Concert for Ukraine come about?

The four of us knew each other because we are all from Eastern Europe. (Klotchkov’s collaborators were Tartar pianist Ramilya Saubanova; Ukrainian flutist Denis Savelyev; and Moldovan cellist Evanghelina Ciobanu.) It was natural for us to play together and advertise for peace in Ukraine. Now we’re good friends. It was a lot of work to pull it together quickly, but Peabody was super supportive. No music exists for our four instruments, so we relied on transcriptions of work by mostly Ukrainian composers. We played for a very serious, real-world reason, and it was very important for us to perform at our best.

What drives you as a competitive cyclist?

Any sport helps to keep a musician’s body in good physical shape and helps to compensate for the physicality of playing an instrument. I find the more diverse nature of cross-country mountain biking, like going up and down hills, less boring than road cycling. You need to read the trail to keep your balance. I am a member of the Hopkins Cycling Club, but I train on my own. I competed in the 2022 Cycling National Collegiate Championships in Colorado. On weekends, I often compete with the Hopkins Club against other collegiate teams and in open competitions like regional cyclocross races.

What is the Peabody Performance Health Research Lab?

Our research lab is part of a relatively new field. We have doctors, physical therapists, and musicians researching how musicians get injured. For example, saxophone players can get tendinitis, carpal tunnel, and dystonia of facial muscles. My research focus compares finger forces in novices and experienced guitar players. Our big goal is to bring awareness to the fact that musicians are getting injured. Musicians are told, ‘If you want to get better, shut up and practice.’ But harder doesn’t always mean better.