Music or neuroscience? Balthazar’s violinist chose music (at least for now)

December 6, 2016 Article BioVox

For Patricia Vanneste, violinist with the popular rock group Balthazar, it wasn’t a choice she made lightly. Patricia has played the violin since she was five. It felt like the perfect hobby, maybe in addition to a career in neurosciences. She applied for an FWO Ph.D. grant, but Balthazar wouldn’t wait. So she jumped. Now she travels the world, and reading up on neurosciences has become her hobby.

Patricia joined Balthazar when she was 16 years old—five friends making music. Passionate about the brain and how it works, she was set on becoming a neuroscientist. She studied biomedical sciences at the UGent Department of Experimental Psychology, and a lecture by Marc Espeel on transcranial magnetic simulation, or TMS, disabling parts of the brain and studying the effects stimulated her to dive into brain research.

Balthazar was an opportunity of a lifetime. It was now or never.

“Combining music and university wasn’t easy,” Patricia explains. “When Balthazar started touring during my master’s, I needed a special dispensation to skip practical courses so I could join the tours. I can assure you, studying in a bus isn’t ideal. Balthazar wasn’t full time, and I was intrigued by cognitive research, so I applied for a part-time job at the UGent Department of Experimental Psychology. I helped study the ‘theory of event coding.’ This theory states that events are stored in our brain as a network, a cognitive representation that includes perceptional as well as action-related functions. Encountering one of the functions of a specific event could activate the whole network linked to that event. This part-time job allowed me to combine Balthazar and a research career. I loved it, and I decided to go for a Ph.D. The grant proposal was already submitted with FWO when Balthazar really took off. I realized that combining both passions wasn’t an option any more. I had to choose.”

Making choices is never easy

“I love to drink coffee, read, and meet people.

“Balthazar was an opportunity of a lifetime. It was now or never. But I had a hard time making the decision. It felt like I was betraying my passion for research. And I was uncomfortable not using my degree or to disconnect from medical sciences. To keep in touch, I signed up for a course from the university of Antwerp: Entrepreneurship in Biomedical Sciences. I often couldn’t be present in class, so I asked a friend to record the courses, which I studied afterwards on the tour bus. It was a fantastic training, but it took a lot of effort—a load of intermediate deadlines I couldn’t skip. But I endured, and it’s truly a course I can recommend to everyone!”

Combining music and university wasn’t easy.

She continues, “Two years later, I was again figuring out what to do next. I was still looking for a perfect match.” Together with a colleague from the Department of Experimental Psychology, Patricia took a different route. She opened a “Pop-up Cultural Coffee Bar” in Gent. “I love to drink coffee, read, and meet people,” says Patricia. “I was looking for an inspirational place where people hang out, discuss, interact. Maybe with a cozy setting for a small music set. It just didn’t exist! And that’s how ‘Huiskamer Ernest’ was born. We found the ideal location in Ghent and got started. It was a non-profit set up: we worked only with volunteers, kept prices low. It was a huge success. And I learned so much! This was for me the best learning school, outside university: setting up a business and making it work. But I also learned that running a coffee shop is not my thing. There’s a lot of practical problems that need solving day after day, and I prefer to put my energy into creative events such as concerts, workshops, and all kinds of different concepts. So we were kind of glad when this project ended. I now drink my coffee at bar Bidon, where Huiskamer Ernest once used to be….”

Committed to Balthazar

“Trying to combine different ventures continued to be a struggle,” says Patricia. “Career advisors at a job fair were pretty clear about it: you will not find a job in research that will allow you to combine a career in a rock group! And Balthazar was doing very well, so I said goodbye to research (for now) and committed to music 100%. Balthazar is a fantastic adventure. At the start we decided not to focus on Belgium, but on Europe. You invest a lot in these international tours, but it is so much fun! And yes, people know who we are now: even my dentist is familiar with our music!”

We’re not in it for the money, I know it sounds like a cliché, but it’s true.

Big money? Not really!

“Being a musician in a popular band is not necessarily a synonym for big money. At least not in Belgium. Maybe if you concentrated on Belgium and the Netherlands and booked every concert you could get, we might become rich,” Patricia laughs. “But we like to experience what people in other countries think about our music. We toured Europe, and did a first tour in the US, and I can assure you the costs exceeded our income! We’re not in it for the money, I know it sounds like a cliché, but it’s true.”

Balthazar’s is taking a year off. The band members are exploring different projects and will get back together in the summer to record a new album. Patricia has time for her own music and is engaged in different projects.

Maybe her passion for science will kick in again?

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