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

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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.

Image

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

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

Does Band a Scandal Make?

A quick blog post today, while I’m waiting for my frozen pizza to cook.

I saw this article on NPR’s Twitter feed, titled Southern Miss Band Hurls ‘Where’s Your Green Card?’ Chant at Latino Player. It’s a short article, describing a recent event at the free-throw line during the first onslaughts of March Madness. According to the article, “Rob Cassidy, who covers Kansas State for Yahoo!, was in the stands and pinned the chants on the Southern Miss band.” If I were in the crowd, I would silently be seething while this chant was happening, but the article brings up another issue beyond the chant itself, and that is the portrayal of bands in media.

As I have typically seen it, bands are brought to the public’s attention when something bad has happened. Most of us will remember the attention drawn to Florida A&M’s marching band after the death of a hazing victim, which, I might say, is a horrific event to happen in any institution. What concerns me is the image of the band that this casts in front of the eyes of the public.

Often (at least what I have noticed), if an article comes out about a teacher who sexually harasses a student, the subject area that the teacher teaches is not revealed unless that subject is music. Are we taking our love for drama in Hollywood entertainment and associating it with our music students, only because of the correlation with the performing arts?

I do not want to sound as though I am in favor of sexual harassment, violent hazing, or any other such inhuman and incomprehensible cruelties with our students. What I am excited to see is that one day, our future media will ALSO promote instrumental classroom music as a positive and essential part of our American culture and a child’s social upbringing, just as highly as we loft beautiful friendships or dinner with family.

An American Idol Safari: Musical Language

You might believe there to be two universal languages: math and music. I had always thought this was true since I first heard it, and have used it for my own purposes to justify music education (yes, in my teaching classes we learn tactics to save our jobs. Sad). But recently, a friend of mine brought something new to my attention. There are musicians who often cross cultural boundaries — ethnomusicologists and such — that claim music is not a universal language whatsoever.

Wait, what?

Music as a universal language seems like an easy enough idea. We believe it to be so globally understood because melody and harmony illicit physical responses that do not require the weight of words. We can listen to Spanish pop, Italian opera, Mexican mariachi, or Canadian folk and understand the emotional message. So there’s your background. Moving on.

Music is a language, and as a language it evolves, degrades, blends, expands, etc. etc. I think a great example would be American Idol. For the last ten years, it has been at the peak of popular culture in our country and exemplifies — if not pioneers — the way we listen to popular music and popular music’s changing culture. So, rewind to when you were a pre-teen and listen to Kelly Clarkson’s winning performance in 2002:

Mm! Such good memories. Now it’s time for observations. We’re going to act like ethnomusicologists now. Ready?

This American Idol concert is now our “field,” so let’s make some field notes. Start simple.

She sang in English (duh), she was emotional (again, duh), she interacted with the audience, the backup band was a recording (either that or they’re very sneaky), the audience made noise verbally and non-verbally in support, and they were fairly well lit. Let’s stop there.

Make sense? What we’ve observed are “cultural codes.” According to author Mat Schwarzman,

All communities have cultural codes to signify their most important shared agreements and values — “I will cross at the crosswalk because that’s where drivers agree to stop for pedestrians,” “I will go to school because I believe it leads to a more fulfilling career,” etc.

These codes include many things, from team mascots (Go, [Gophers]!)  to historical community incidents (Were you around when…) to maps (That’s where the [Mississippi] river is) to well known individuals. Cultural codes can be expressed through a song, a statue, a phrase, or any image that sparks strong feelings and associations.

Cultural codes are powerful. They shape our thoughts, our dreams, what groups we identify with, everything down to our most basic sense of reality.

You might not realize it, but any concert audience you’ve been a part of has gone through steps that are culturally specific. We know the appropriate moments to applaud, the appropriate way to applaud, the appropriate action to take when the lights dim, etc. (I did lights at an all-Somali high school graduation recently, and realized that very little of the audience had any sense for what to do when the houselights dim. Suddenly, my entire job had no purpose!). The concert-going atmosphere becomes our tiny “reality” and most of us don’t think about how anything else could be different.

Okay? Okay. Now we compare. Here’s Nevena Covena’s winning performance in the first Bulgarian Idol of 2007:

Did you “get it”? If not, that’s okay. We’re talking about music as a language, and if you haven’t grown up hearing Bulgarian music, you just listened to a foreign language.

Field Notes: She sang a Bulgarian folk song in Bulgarian; there was a live bagpiper, positioned equally onstage with Nevena, though not lit equally; the audience’s reaction was non-verbal; only a specific section of the audience was standing in the beginning, and the rest was sitting (did you notice that?); the seats were not positioned in a way that would let the Nevena interact with the audience, and they were poorly lit; outwardly, Nevena’s emotions were in check.

All of these fall under “performance practice” that make up the structure and exercise of a performance, which goes beyond what the musician is doing. It would seem that the Bulgarian Idol focused more highly on the accompanying instrument and less (very little, actually) on the audience’s reaction. Does this mean that Americans are more interested in critical response?

There are other cultural codes that are at work also. We could also talk about the stage, the lighting, the camera movement, the specific audience members seen on camera, the use of the microphone, and Kelly’s clothes, not to mention the actual music they sang.

Maybe music isn’t so universal as we thought. Maybe music is like a language, and it needs patience and practice to understand, both as the performer and as the listener. So, what do you think? Is music still a universal language to you, or not? And is that good or bad?

Who’s plan?

Read this article from the Wall Street Journal:

God at the Grammys: The Chosen Ones — Why do so many musical superstars think that their careers are part of a divine plan?

I often ask working music teachers that I meet what it was that drew them to their career. Often, they come speak to my school’s music education organization chapter and tell their stories about personal high school and college music experiences. Never has anyone mentioned their religion, except if it has to do with playing in music liturgy as another form of employment.

As I understand it from the religious side of things (and you might choose not to believe it), God gave humans the freedom of choice, which is a significant difference between us and angels. That is why I personally don’t believe strongly in fate or destiny. That doesn’t mean that the Dude has no ideas for us. A lot of Christians often think—or worry, rather—that we are not fulfilling God’s goals. I have considered that God has given us inherent strengths through heredity, and learned strengths absorbed through our environment. So if we find something we sincerely enjoy and have a desire to make a career out of it, why would God be unhappy with us?

The justification for taking time, pursuing a career, and eating soup

Right now, we just finished eating a delicious family dinner. One roommate cooked French onion soup, I baked up some biscuits and threw a salad together, and another roommate provided his mom’s apple pie. McNick carved pumpkins with her girlfriend, and seeds are roasting. It’s so warm, and the smells are amazing. I am sitting in my room, which I don’t do enough (I’m always the last person to come home late at night, so I traipse through in the dark so I don’t wake up my roommate. He works for Land Care and usually gets to work by 7:00 AM a few days a week). Turns out, I kind of like this room.

What’s nice about all of that is that I never feel like I’m in one place. Everywhere I am, I’m only thinking about where I’m off to next. Whatever year I’m in, I’m always thinking about what the year up next will bring. It’s nice to just stay put for a little while, and have the opportunity to decide that I like it. With music education, I haven’t quite had the opportunity to “sit” for a while in my major; everything just heaps together as the days go by, like a snowball rolling down a hill. Do I enjoy any of it? I think I do.

If you’ve read my older blog post, Do You Like Beethoven Yet?, you’ll know that I am still on the quest to justify music education. Over this Halloween weekend, while I was dressed as a white spat, I had a discussion with a Ricky Ricardo on this topic. She (yes, she) believes that a large problem with current music educators is that most cannot answer the question, “why is music education important?” How can we stack up against English, Math, and Science? I feel like a little god standing before Titans.

So what was my next step? Wikipedia.

Music education is a field of study associated with the teaching and learning of music. It touches on the development of the affective domain, including music appreciation and sensitivity. The incorporation of music training from preschool to postsecondary education is common in most nations because involvement in music is considered a fundamental component of human culture and behavior. Music, like language, is an accomplishment that distinguishes us as humans.

What a fantastic 4 sentences.

I encourage you to read the entire article Wikipedia has on music education. It’s very good, with great links at the end to external sources (including another article entirely about Music Education Bloggers. How convenient!).

Near the end of the article, the topic of music advocacy is addressed: “Many contemporary music scholars assert that music advocacy will only be truly effective when based on empirically sound arguments that transcend political motivations and personal agendas.” As I said in the older post, shoving sappy inspiration and dead composers down administrators’ throats will likely not win the day over. Political motivation and personal agendas are becoming a common, poisonous thread sewing together education, politics, media, news, and any other field that has the potential for personal gain. Let’s avoid that, eh?

So, after trying to justify music education for these past few hours, I now need to justify how I sat in front of my computer without completing more important tasks than blogging. I’ll venture to say that it helped me stay put and to sit in my major for a while. It has given me the opportunity to decide that, at least for now, I’m enjoying it.