The musician's responsibility: empathy is our crucial skill
“Imagination is what, above all, makes empathy possible." - Maxine Greene
It is mid-morning on a Friday in Texas in the early 2000’s. I have never been so nervous in my life waiting backstage. I go over my key questions, thinking about blasting my sound into the large crowd. Connect, connect, connect is what I WANT to be thinking, but what I am actually thinking is: I hope they don’t totally hate this music, and ME.
I run onstage with my string quartet in an auditorium packed with 800 middle school students, all in varying degrees of the tween/teenage experience. We have developed a presentation for this audience that features genre-bending music, music written by our friends, music we hope will hold their interest. We divide the crowd into four parts, each focused on one member of the quartet, we play up our characters, we start challenging the students’ listening.
After a few minutes of being onstage I begin to relax, I start owning the presentation, and the spontaneity of interaction and performance returns. The thrill of connection with this audience overweighs anything else happening, and I am in my element as a Teaching Artist…
Is empathy something that can be taught? After reflection on my years as a Teaching Artist, and now as a teacher of Teaching Artists, I have grappled with how to impart cultivation of this essential skill. Some people are naturally gifted at relating to others, some people have developed empathic skills as a result of life experience, and others seem to need years and years of “awareness training” to be able to notice what people around them are doing.
Eric Booth, master teacher of Teaching Artists and my mentor as a graduate student at Juilliard, always encouraged us to think like “samurai Teaching Artists.” This was the idea that we would be able to go into ANY environment and connect our artistic experience with others’. He challenged us to continually imagine what it would be like to live in another person’s shoes.
Teaching Artists on the whole are trained to put their audiences first. We spend years practicing our art, whether it is music or drama or dance, but when it is time to go in front of an audience of second graders, it doesn’t matter if we play a few notes out-of-tune or miss a line. The 8-year-olds don’t care about that. What they DO care about, however, is our energy onstage. They respond to our excitement, how our activities are relevant to them.
In my own classes I strive to impart this awareness as well. This past semester I decided to put EMPATHY as the overarching goal of my Teaching Artist class at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. From the moment the college and graduate school-aged musicians walked into the room, I wanted them to first imagine the complexities of someone else’s experience to the end of creating a musical presentation geared towards varied audiences.
1. 1st in-class assignment: pick a color out of a hat and present this color via music or sound.
2. 2nd assignment due the following week: pick 2 audiences and present your color via music or sound to each of these audiences.
*Audiences from which to choose: 1st graders, prison inmates, community center (all ages), college biology class, high school band class, non-English-speaking 5th graders, high-powered business executives, retirement community ages 80 and up, etc.
This kind of assignment set the tone for the class. We experimented with what it feels like to be outside of our comfort zones, how to think creatively while engaging with the music that we make. Every year it is inspiring for me to see how the Teaching Artists grow as they uncover multifaceted layers of their piece of music while planning for their audiences’ reception.
When the TA’s go into schools at the end of the semester, they feel relevant, they know WHY they are doing what they do, and the kids listening are treated to performances geared especially for them. We can only hope that this experience for both the TA’s and the kids sets seeds for further exploration.
In the days since the horrific massacre in Orlando, I have been seeking a space where I can be involved, where I can contribute or somehow make a difference in this fight against fear and hatred. My voice has seemed small and powerless in comparison to the overwhelming block of anger and confusion felt by so many of us. What can I do? As a musician, what is my path forward?
What eventually revealed itself: 1. as a performer, I have extraordinary privilege—the ability to participate in a transcendent activity on a daily basis that I can offer to others. This privilege acts as a voice in and of itself, and a refuge for myself and audiences; 2. as an educator, however, my role in the wake of increasingly catastrophic realities such as rampant shootings seems ever more like a call to action. I MUST involve myself in the practice of empathy in every way possible.
"Empathy training” for musicians feels critical moving forward. Why not start training young artists (younger than college-aged) in elementary, junior and high school to prepare programs for varied audiences and thus be more involved, engaged members of their communities? Why not expect this of them at a young age, so that it is not just the older, more technically competent musicians who are starting to think outside of their practice rooms? What if part of the musical training involved not only weekly lessons and orchestra/choir/band practice in advance of a concert, but also classes on community presentation, from the very beginning? Obviously some teachers, families and music programs already emphasize this(!), but imagine if it was universal? Perhaps getting outside of our living rooms and school auditoriums is something we just NEED to know how to do?
I realize that this may sound like a pollyannic missive to some, to believe that, in the words of David McPhail’s children’s book Mole Music, “music can change the world.“ But why not, right? As we are fighting for gun control and other changes, why not fight for continued artistic relevance to the same end? The artistic mindset already demands a full participation in life and our art, and we MUST know that it has the possibility to make a global difference. Particularly carrying the torch of empathy, of creative inspiration geared towards others DOES matter, and it HAS to. Keep imagining and dreaming and working and we will do this.