How We See Empathy

You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

“Please don’t yell my name and poke me. Can you see that I am having a conversation with someone else?”

“We don’t call people ‘stupid.’ They have a right to their opinion just like you.”

My daily life consists of phrases like this coming out my mouth every few minutes. In children like my students, empathy is still being developed in their brain. Why do we need empathy though? After all, glory be, it seems as though children are not the worst offenders.

As you know, empathy is our understanding of another person’s condition. When someone is sick, we console them because we have felt illness too. Or when, say, millions of people flee their home country from violence. How does the empathy of other countries’ citizens come into play when those refugees are welcomed or not welcomed?

Empathy is a different animal in the adult world. There are always things for which empathy is easy, like illness and other physical discomforts. However, things become murky in a world where our personal gain is at stake: business, competition, collecting resources, survival, or belief systems.

Forbes published an article on empathy in business, asking the question of whether empathy is “indulgence or invaluable?”

President Cabrera [President of George Mason University] often challenges graduating MBA students to capture the essence of a business with a simple question: What is a business? To his dismay, most students respond that a business is a function where money goes in and more money comes out. Cabrera sternly corrects them. His answer: “At its very heart, a business is the beauty of bringing together people and things to make the community better off—these are the businesses we admire. Empathy is the one tool that makes it all happen.” (…)

The question remains, what is next? Will we embrace the potential of empathy as a foundational element for better business, team and individual performance, or will we continue to look at it as a mere indulgence, a soft skill, a “nice-to-have” attribute?

When my students are not showing empathy towards one another, I pause all activities and teach the emotional lesson now at hand. One of the organizations mentioned in the Forbes article, Ashoka, is a social entrepreneur network that focuses on programs and companies for social change. One of these is Start Empathy, which published this article about the connection between music education and a student’s capacity for empathy. The original research can be found here, but below is a snippet:

Researchers at the University of Cambridge observed 28 girls and 24 boys, all between the ages of 8 and 11, from four different schools in the United Kingdom with a similar socioeconomic makeup.

Roughly half of these children were randomly assigned to a special music program that the researchers designed, where children met once a week in small groups for an entire school year to play games that encourage interaction, imitation, and “mindreading” through music. (…)

The other half of the students also participated in weekly games that encouraged interaction and imitation, but their games were without music, using techniques like storytelling and drama instead.

Before and after participating in either of the two groups, all children in the study took an array of tests to measure their “emotional empathy,” or their ability to experience another’s emotional state as their own. (…)

The results show that after the school year ended, empathy increased significantly among children in the music group but not in the group that played non-musical games. (…)

The increased empathy among children in the music group suggests that interacting through music may hone our general ability to share the psychological states of others.

Will music education be the key to help both children and adults develop their sense of empathy? I don’t know, probably not. Yes, we all like music. We all listen to music. We are surrounded by music in elevators, shopping malls, public transit. However, the consumption of music is not the point. It’s the doing, the performing, the making.

Solution. Politicians, businessmen: begin every meeting, summit, or United Nations gathering with group music-making.

Weird? Yes! But you think part of me is not being serious?


“Stay safe, and be peaceful to one another.”

~ Mark Wheat

Passport Approved: My Summer Travel and Music Plans

Bizarre travel plans are dancing lessons from God.
Kurt Vonnegut

I am currently listening to the latest from Passport Approved, which credits itself as “an internationally syndicated tastemaker import radio show.”  That can only mean one thing: there is travel on my horizon.

I have noticed particular peculiar propensities that power up inside me when the travel bug bites.  The first is, as you might expect, an adjustment in the music that I listen to.  Normally, I sail down the street each day listening to my local Minneapolis radio station The Current (which I highly recommend), but there are some international feels that it does not satisfy.

My plan is to go to Austria in July and participate in Mid-Europe, an international wind band festival in Schladming, Austria.  After reading about this small town, I learned that it has hosted the World Championship for the International Ski Federation twice, which means pretty mountains live there.

I am going to teach my saxophone how to yodel.

I am going to teach my saxophone how to yodel.

Mid-Europe has an honor band call the World Youth Wind Orchestra Project that I have submitted an audition recording for, and now I simply lay in wait for the result.  I am not getting my hopes up; in fact, I am quite prepared for a rejection.

I wanted the most well-qualified recording that I could come up with, so I thought it would be a good idea to have a piano accompaniment.  Unfortunately, the microphone was a bit too close to the piano, and our recording process was very rushed so I did not have the wherewithal to do a sound check. (We were pressed in between the end of the school day when I finished teaching and when the pianist had to go pick up her daughter from school.  Safety Warning: No tempos were injured in the recording of our music.) Additionally, I have learned that because I play the saxophone, I must always be prepared for rejection.

Accepting that rejection is all right was actually an easy conversation to have with myself.  If I do not pass the audition, I will simply attend the conducting masterclasses as a passive participant and bask in the beautiful light of wind band knowledge.  Then again, nothing is stopping me from at least applying as an active participant and actually conducting (SCARY).

I will come clean, though.  This week-long conference is going to be couched in about a month or more of personal travel that, for all intents and purposes, will be #@$%ing amazing.  So whether or not I perform at Mid-Europe, I will still learn a great deal about wind bands, meet important figures in our shared field, and take time to explore new parts of the world.  Now would be a good time for you to set up a date for coffee with me in Prague.

Can culture and politics be separated?

You can teach a student a lesson for a day; but if you can teach him to learn by creating curiosity, he will continue the learning process as long as he lives.
Clay P. Bedford

I teach two classes of 8th grade band, and my colleague teaches a third.  We coordinate our lessons and the repertoire that the students are working on so that it comes together well for the concerts, and that they are learning the same concepts.  We recently passed out new music that we selected for the Spring concert, which we tried to make diverse and international.  Selections from movies, history, and other continents are going to piece together the program.

One of the pieces that we selected was a wonderful composition that is a tribute to Ugandan folk music.  We had rehearsed it for a few days when my colleague read about Uganda’s new law against homosexuals.  When the law was first proposed several years ago, it was going to declare the death sentence on anyone discovered to be homosexual.  The law that actually passed a few weeks ago changed the death penalty to life in prison.  Additionally, if a person is caught hiding their knowledge of a person who is homosexual, they will receive the same sentence.  We had a long discussion about whether or not we should play this piece due to the connotation and reception that it could possibly receive from the friends and families of our students (if they are staying up-to-date on the news).  Between the two of us, we were not able to come to a clean conclusion, so we went a different route.  We asked our students.

First, the issue was presented as bad things that the government in Uganda was doing, without specifics about the new law.  Then, we discussed whether or not the culture and music of a society could be thought of as separate from its politics.  Could we play the music as a celebration of their society?  Or was that impossible?  Then, we went into the details of the law.  We emphasized that we were not interested in each student’s opinion on homosexuality (the community that we teach in is fairly conservative), but hoped that they still do not agree that a government should commit an act of such aggression towards its people.

After our discussions, it was beginning to be clear that the students were not interested in playing the piece any longer.  One student eloquently stated that it would not possible to separate the politics from the culture, because all that we digest from our news is what we learn and perceive about the globe.  A mature, intelligent response.

I said that we were going to look for another piece from Africa.  A student responded, half-jokingly, that no matter what, we would still find something in the news that could warrant the same issues.  At first, I was not impressed by that comment.  However, I can now see some opportunity.  If this event made some students more sensitive to the current events that surround the music that they perform, then they have gone far in their maturity as musicians and people.  Even many professional musicians do not take such an interest in current events, probably because their concern is with an accurate and successful performance.   Students in school, on the other hand, seem to be wanting to find how the music they perform (or all the material that they learn in all subjects, for that matter) relate to and enhance their lives in some way.  I do not think that students are taught to be curious, but “come that way.”  Just as in my classroom, I do not believe that anyone lacks a sense of rhythm or a sense of pitch.

I was thrilled to have had our discussion, and to see that curiosity and musicality are alive and well, and are the two states of mind that will probably end up saving the world.

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Masked LGBT supporters at a protest against Uganda’s anti-gay law. Source.

A brief journey with the classical saxophone

My name is Linus. I am a saxophone player, and I do not play jazz.

Gasp.

I have spent many, many hours in agony.  I take my saxophone out of its case, put on the mouthpiece and reed, and just before I play my first note, I weep.  The saxophone in my lap lays in silent sadness, unable to make a sound since there is no music besides jazz.

Well, no.  Not really.

I am certainly disappointed in myself for not tackling jazz while I grew up, but I had a different set of experiences instead that I need to justify to myself as good.  If I get around to studying jazz more seriously, I will be a late bloomer.  Or, I could learn how to rock climb.

“What else do saxophone players do?” you ask. The answer:

Marijuana.  Salsa music.  Rock music.  Funk.  Ska.  Fusion.  Punk.  Rap.  R&B.  Mostly, I myself have trained to play classical saxophone.

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Linus, you’re confusing the babies.

The saxophone was invented in France by Adolphe Sax 173 years ago.  One of the primary reasons for its invention was to invent an instrument that could sound like both a brass instrument and a woodwind instrument.  Mr. Sax actually invented a lot of bizarre instruments, like something called the “saxotromba” — which has gone extinct — and the expanded the clarinet family with the bass and contrabass clarinet.

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From left: Phillis, Billy, Susan, Bass, and Contrabass.

One of the most recognizable pieces of classical (orchestral) music that includes saxophones is Bolero by French composer Maurice Ravel.  Last night, I attended a performance of the Minnesota Orchestra, which included this piece on the program.  The sound of the saxophones playing was so liquid, so sultry, that it was difficult to discern whether it was really a saxophone or another reed instrument like the oboe or English horn.  Even though I have performed this piece and heard it many times, I was still fooled and found myself looking through the wrong section of the orchestra when I heard the saxophone.  D’oh!

My future family, from left: Sopranino, Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Baritone, and Bass. (Not pictured: John and Susan)

The recording below is the second movement of a sonata for alto saxophone and piano by American composer William Albright.  If you are interested in a bit of explanation about this piece, read below the video.  Otherwise, enjoy a performance of classical saxophone.

Sonata, Mvt. II: “La Follia Nuova”
William Albright

William Alright wrote in his program notes:

Of all of the movements, the second perhaps most deserves comment. This
movement is dedicated to the memory of the composer George Cacioppo who
died unexpectedly on April 8, 1984. Co-founder of the ONCE group and mentor
to two generations of composers, Cacioppo and his music and personality rest at
the foundation of my thinking. He would have very much appreciated the use of
the traditional title “La follia” (the madness) in my reincarnation as “La follia
nuova.” Like its Baroque antecedents, the movement is in a chaconne-variation
form, although at one point the sections jumble together, or intersect. The fact that
the key is F-sharp minor may be important, or it may not be.

Throughout the piece, there is a consistent descent.  The piano line is always going downwards, as a symbol for the descent of life into death, and the descent of a body into a grave.  Optimistically, Albright gives ascending lines to the saxophone to highlight the hope for an ascent into heaven.  Despite these efforts, I find this piece is horribly tragic, and it seems as though it ends without completing the mourning process.  The saxophone player is asked to step away from the piano and play distantly; usually, the performer turns their back to the audience and walks toward the rear wall, playing the final hymn melody by memory.  They remain facing away from you while the piano painfully performs the sounds of agonizing funeral bells.  The pianist is told to play as many repetitions of the bell chords as they wish, which can create a very elongated, sad, and uncomfortable moment. (source)

The Weightlessness of Being Yourself

…passing through.  Like the cars and pedestrians along the sidewalk, which were scarce, though, because of the cold air.  Never mind the cold air, I still took my phone out of my pocket and searched for the person I wanted — needed — to talk to.  It was not a “smart” phone, so my thumbs grew numb as I clicked hundreds of times to write one word.

Coffee?

It was not written in the interest of a romantic encounter, but it had to do with romance anyways.  She was the only one I could talk to, because she knew already how to do it.  Or at least that it could be done, happily or otherwise.

When I opened the apartment door, a small gathering of people was inside watching a movie, including her.  I wanted to sneak away to our coffee without telling anyone or being asked questions.  How?  No matter, I was determined and could not take the plunge if I stepped backward on the diving board of my insecurity.  Same ol’ insecurity.

Once the movie finished, I spoke my text aloud.  “Coffee.”  If there was a half-question mark, I would use it.  I said that word in a way that sounded like a question, but functioned like a command.  “Sure.”  One of the roommates asked, “you’re getting coffee? Right now?”  She replied, “I guess so.”  I remained silent, holding onto my sleeves as I put on my jacket.  It was about 10:00 PM.

I babbled nonsense as we walked to the 21-hour restaurant.  Its name, Hard Times, was all at once a hyperbole and understatement.  But oh, the coffee, ’twas flowing and ’twas cheap.  She walked along and listened.  I babbled through the cigarette smoke outside the door, and babbled in between my words to the cashier, who probably strained the coffee out of his dreadlocks earlier that day.  I babbled our path to the creamer, past the free clothing bin, and to a rocky table where we sat.  My goal accomplished — sitting and drinking coffee — I finally stopped babbling and got to the point.

Being bi.

I flooded her with questions.  She flooded me with questions right back, though with the answer intertwined.  I was left either nodding or sighing or both.  We both knew the answers before I asked the questions.   “What would my parents think?”  “What do you think that they would think?”  “If you date someone of the other gender, will you tell them?”  “Well, wouldn’t you want to know if you were them?”

So flowed the coffee of our conversation for the next four hours.  I probably had a car at that point, because I remember driving her back home so she wouldn’t have to bike or ride the bus.  It was not terribly cold anymore, despite the late hour.  Just as I pulled up on the side of the road across the street from the house that she shared with half a dozen strangers, we both noticed an incredible moon sitting in the sky.

“Can we walk through the park to get a better view of the moon?”  “Yes, please.”

We got out of the car and, like 6-year-olds, ran to the playground and climbed on the equipment.  The moon was our goal, but the pettiness of a playground was worth a detour in our adventure.  I tried to balance without hands on low-lying monkey bars.  The river of silver wood chips, very coarse and real and hard on the feet, was far below for the time being.  From the wooden castle, we leaped off of the highest tower and cruised through shadowy woodlands to a large open field, which was grey-green in the light of the moon.  The clouds floated beneath it and obstructed our view.  We ducked and dodged to catch a better glimpse, as though the tiny angle we gained by turning our necks would have any effect on heaven.  Tired of our jaunt, we fell to the ground and gazed from our backs.

It would be hard to recall what we talked about.  The stars, the planets, how small we are, how small our problems are, how you can’t see any color when the sun has set, how you can never get perfectly comfortable when you lay on the ground.  A heavy object had lifted from me, gone up into the dark matter where delusions get stuck.  I couldn’t feel the silver ground anymore and I was floating around in outer space among stars and planets and rocks and shit like that, and everything was so amazing and I wanted to stay there and feel burnt by sunspots.

We sat up and ate a picnic of the thoughts that were in between us.  Talking to siblings, talking to friends, hoping that eventually we will have done enough talking about this silly subject that the talking would no longer be necessary.  What phrase is best?  What context does it come out of?  The ground was lumpy, and I noticed a silver wood chip under my thigh.  Maybe the best context is no context at all, because nothing will prepare them anyways.  Yeah, probably not.

We stood, brushed off the silver, and walked back across the field.  To any onlookers, it would have seemed as though we were simply…

stars

Interviewing

There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.
Paulo Coelho

After I graduated with my bachelors, I strongly considered finding a job that was not at all teaching-related (to the point of sending out resumes to museums and theater houses because porque no).  This was in direct opposition to the voices that spoke through their lapels with bad PowerPoint backdrops that said, “find a way to stay involved in teaching, and you will be more prepared when you finally do get that teaching job.”

Yes, teachers think that way: you will not get a job.  Es la verdad.  But there is always a subbing temp agency with a smiling face waiting to call you at 6:00 am and send you off to magical places.

The reality of substitute teaching (at my particular temp agency) was that we had to call them.  Talk about a strange conversation.

“Thank you for calling __________ ____________,” she said, in a happy tone.

“Hi.  This is Linus.  Reporting for, er, calling.  Calling in.  Calling in for work.”

“Hi Linus,” the voice suddenly became dry and ill-humored.  The weight of her oppressive morning — reporting to work at 5:00 AM or earlier, listening to hundreds of voicemails from schools asking for subs, and dealing with subs de mala leche who had petty excuses to skip work — shone through that voice like a Lite Brite.  “Nothing yet.  We’ll call you back as soon as that changes.”

“Okay, thank you.”

Hallelujah!  Now I could continue eating my cereal, or continue lying in bed, or whatever activity that did not involve preparing myself for a long day of educating young minds.  Glory be!

Unfortunately, they usually did call back; but, there were those wonderful days when the phone never rang again.  And I never pushed it by calling them myself to find out if something went wrong.  Too much cat petting was at stake.

At the end of spring, I went in for two job interviews in my campo of music teaching.  One was for high school and junior high band (yay for waving a baton around!), the other for bilingual elementary-general music (yay for practicing my Spanish!).  The first interview was at the elementary school, an urban school with plenty of that savory diversity that I could just sink my teeth into.  Both principal (USA) and associate principal (Colombia) were present, though the principal did the majority of the talking, including the questions in Spanish.  Aunque no sabía mucho español, me puso nervioso porque lo intentó al menos, without fear of failure.  Although my Spanish was decent, my fear of failure was too.  And elementary music was not what I wanted for my life.  Was speaking Spanish worth the intimidation of lying about confidence?

I left in that type of daze “that-they-never-teach-you-about-in-college.”  Several days later, I interviewed for the band position.  This was a subject that was more familiar to me.  I could talk your orejas off about band.  Everything seemed to go well, I think, maybe, whatever, it was systematic and quick and clean and, well, I had no sense of fear in my stomach throughout any of it, though, well, maybe, I think, I wish I had, I wish I had fear, I missed it, I missed having fear, having fear, having fear was more alive.

I was asked to return to the elementary school to teach a mini-lesson.  To second-graders.  On the penultimate day of school.  For fifteen minutes.  If you know niños, or enseñanza, you know that it was going to be a fifteen minute classroom management nightmare.  Which it was.  Pero me dijo que mi español was great.  Then, I had a small post-interview interview thing.  What I did not tell the principal (USA) in that post-entrevista entrevista was that earlier that day, while I was subbing for a fired Spanish teacher for the third day in a row, I received a call from the high school and was offered the band job.  I did not tell the principal that I would not give a direct answer until after teaching the fifteen minute lesson.  I did not tell her that I wanted that band job more than I wanted to feel alive and intimidated and afraid.

No le dije que sentí un miedo que quiero.  Hay un miedo que quiero experimentar de nuevo… el miedo de viaje, de no saber qué or quién or cual… de ponerme en puestos imposibles y luchar a liberarme.  Soy un hombre sentimental y egocéntrico, y nervous, y afraid, porque I’m in my 20s, porque I received advice about nothing but how to better yourself, Linus, because you’re in your 20s and need to find balance.  Linus, oh Linus, you need to.  Then, turn around and say: but it’s not all about you.

When put in such a corner, how can one fear appropriately, productively?

charlie-brown-sigh

The Liebster Award

The great thing about living is that there is too much to “blog” about to ever have the chance to sit down and actually blog.  My friend Lu over at Point of Focus nominated me for a Liebster Award as a way to get us both back into the blogging game, and hopefully to get others to do the same.  Read on to learn about this “award” and check out what we’ve been up to.

The Liebster Award is an award distributed by bloggers for blogs with under 200 followers.  Supposedly, it started in Germany, as a way for readers and bloggers to discover new blogs to follow.  It connects the blogging community and helps web surfers expand their horizons!

liebster-award-e1355858473421

The Rules:
1. Choose 11 other up-and-coming bloggers and link to them in your Liebster post.
2. Answer the 11 questions the previous blogger set for you, then create 11 different ones for the bloggers you will choose.
3. Let those bloggers know you nominated them.
4. No tag backs. No mulligans. No puppy guarding. Okay, just don’t tag the person who nominated you.
5. Display the Liebster logo.

So, Lu sent me the following questions that I’m excited to answer!  Then, I’ve created questions of my own that I want my “nominees” to answer on their blogs.  Here goes!

1. If you could go back and do college over again, what would you major in?

The answer to this question will probably change over time, but at the moment I would say that I would major in global studies or international relations or something of that nature.  I am not terribly interested in politics.  Instead, I am interested in different cultures that live in the same community.  For me, living around others from different parts of the world has made me evaluate and reevaluate nearly everything about myself and my own culture, from my quirky Minnesotan accent to my bathroom ritual.  If we could understand how different people can cohabit in peaceful and productive ways, we would be on our way to amazing things.  Like Tex-Mex.

2.  Who is your favorite TV character, and why?

Lieutenant Kara Thrace (“Starbuck”) from Battlestar Galactica, played by Katee Sackhoff.  She toggles between dangerous spontaneity and calculated predetermination, though always chooses the option that is the most ill-suited for the situation.  In the end, she usually saves the day, whether or not anybody is happy about it.  I do not identify with her character in any way, and that’s probably why she’s my favorite.  Maybe Starbuck could teach me to be more extemporaneous.

kara-thrace

Fun fact: the original Starbuck from the 1978 series was male, played by Dirk Benedict.

3.  You get one question to ask to one famous person who is no longer living. Who is the person, and what is the question?

I want to ask Charles Schulz why Snoopy doesn’t look like a real-life beagle.

CharlesSchulz

4.  What accessory can you “not live without?”

I have two watches that I rotate through.  One of them is a silver metal that I received from my grandfather when he emptied a few drawers after moving to a new elder care home.  The other is a leather-banded Citizen watch that was a gift from my family on my graduation from college.

I should add that I always wear analog watches.  I like seeing the pie graph of time passing by. Mmm, pie.

5.  Paper or plastic?

The nice thing about living in Earth-friendly Minneapolis is that I know where I can recycle both forms of bag.  That being said, I always ask for paper.  Not only is it easier to recycle, but it is perfect to use as a cooling pad for hot, fresh cookies that came out of the oven.  Can you do that with a plastic bag?  No.  Unless you want a plastic glaze on the bottom.

6.  Describe a favorite memory you have with a friend.

The two of us were high school students (or maybe young college students, I don’t remember).  We were laying on the floor of her parents’ basement, wondering what our parents’ lives had been like when they were our age, playing their records on her dad’s record player.  The top choice of the night was Queen‘s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”  The bass is a lot more fuerte when your head’s on the floor.

7.  What is your favorite beverage?

Water.

(You thought I was going to say coffee, didn’t you?)

Even though it is coffee that gets the day started, it is water that keeps the day going.  When I have not had enough water, I lack the mental and physical energy to do anything, sometimes even have an intelligent conversation.  My mind will tell me I’m thirsty before my mouth does by being distracted and unfocused.  On top of that, getting up from my desk to refill my water bottle provides me with a nice movement break after a lot of work.  “When the butt goes numb, the mind goes dumb.”

8.  What smell reminds you of home?

Flavored coffee.

Wild rice soup.

Homemade fudge.

Maple syrup.

Mothballs.

9.  Coffee or tea? Why? (I really need to know. I can’t decide.)

Coffee.  And I will tell you why.  But, before I do, I will say that any tea drinker will probably have the same or similar reasons for drinking tea, so whatever you take away from my opinions is totally up to you.

1) It smells so, so good.

2) It wakes you up.

3) It’s a great socializing drink.

4) It tastes like it smells.  (Believe me on this one, haters.)

5) Making it taste good is an art.  I am still a young painter’s apprentice.

6) I would not have a good day without it.  That’s probably a negative reason, but it’s still a reason.

10.  What is your favorite word?

Blockhead.

lucy-blockhead

And now, the Liebster Award Nominees from Minus the Linus

Rumor has it that the original Liebster Award only requires 3-6 bloggers to be nominated, so that’s what I’m going to do.

1) BAMFT

2) So it goes.

3) Listen Learn and Do

4) Los Viajes de la Hojita

Your questions are:

1) What is a hobby that you wish you had, but currently do not?

2) Where is a place that you would like to travel?

3) What other language would you like to speak?

4) What decade do you wish you were born in?

5) If you could be any animal, what would it be?

6) What are you most afraid of?

7) Imagine yourself as part of a film (production, acting, etc.). Which role or job would you have?

8) What type of food would you never eat?

9) Who do you look up to most, either dead or alive?

10) What is your favorite season?

11) What is your favorite seasoning?