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.

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)

St. Paddy’s Day: Six Songs about Drinking

It’s St. Patrick’s Day! Time to celebrate that good ol’ English saint who came to Ireland to spread the dominating religion of Christianity!

For some interesting misconceptions about this holiday, check this website out: http://paddynotpatty.com/.

Whether or not you are celebrating St. Paddy’s day as a reflective Catholic holiday, or crowded around your family and an Irish soda bread, or out with friends getting completely un-Irish, friendship and hospitality are valued by all of us. This are a few of my favorite songs about that people-connector, socializer, and friend-maker, the drink.

Note: These are not “drinking songs.” These are songs that sing about drinking, and the social life surrounding it. If you have any songs you would like to share, please do so in the comments!

FUN.: We Are Young

Mason Jennings: Drinking As Religion

What Made Milwaukee Famous: Cheap Wine

Big Bad Voodoo Daddy: You and Me and the Bottle Makes 3 Tonight

Billy Joel: Piano Man

This last is my favorite. The recording by Liam Clancy is probably the most evocative and true to the lyrics of the song. Folks like Loreena McKennit and the Wailin’ Jennys have recorded beautiful, whispering renditions, but this is not the type of song that is meant to be sad. The character is content with himself and happy to be surrounded by friends, which I hope you yourself will be tonight. Slainte.

Liam Clancy: The Parting Glass

Imitation, Improvisation, and I


You know you're in a picture just like this one.

What could that cute-as-a-button baby have anything to do with this?

Notice the girl passing notes...

Or what does that cute-as-a-button baby have to do with this?

Did you know that babies will imitate facial expressions within hours of birth? (No one has proved that they do it immediately, since they’re usually busy crying and getting power-sprayed). What these activities have in common is imitation. Learning jazz involves extensive time not spent playing, but listening. Imitating other musicians that are admired is key until different elements from all those artists are chosen to create a unique sound. In the classroom, students are imitating more than we probably want them to. A their teacher’s attitude, their peers’ behavior, even speech patterns.

Humans, particularly children, learn naturally through imitation. It is one of the many traits cute-as-button babies get from ancestors. Darwin’s theory of natural selection at work: new generations are more capable of solving the problems that plagued those that came before. This is typical of basic tasks such as communication and movement.

The sciences of mind can provide a sounder conception of human nature, which ultimately underlies all educational policy. What is the mind of a child inherently good at? What is it bad at? ….An emerging view is that the human mind is impressively competent at problems that were recurring challenges to our evolutionary ancestors – seeing and moving, speaking and listening, reading emotions and intentions, making friends and influencing people. It is not so good at problems that are far simpler but which are posed only by a modern way of life: reading and writing, doing mathematical calculations, understanding the world of science or the mechanics of a complex society. We should not make false analogies that assume that children can learn to write as easily as they learn to speak, that learning math can be as fun as learning to run and throw, or that children in groups will learn to do science as readily as they learn to exchange gossip. On the other hand we can try to co-opt the mental faculties that work well (such as understanding how objects fall and roll) and get children to apply them to problems for which they lack natural competence. (source)

This information came at me while I have been learning how to improvise and play popular music on saxophone. I have only been, one might say, “classically trained.” Making music on the spot, without inhibitions, is a difficult procedure for me. A few days ago, I was given a new jazz chart in the university jazz band I play with, and it gave me a good startle. There was a solo. I stared at it. It stared back. Unabated. More frightening than the most complicated classical composition was the lack of any notes at all. Our relationship began there, and I let my eye contact fall to my baritone saxophone lying across my lap. No help came from that. All it was saying was, “I just do what you tell me to do.” The solo had won this round.

Learning to play jazz is a lot like picking up the speech patterns of your friends. I listen to other musicians that I want to emulate, and then listen to myself to see if it’s working. This usually involves playing my saxophone straight against a wall. I probably look like an imp.

“Who do you like to listen to?”
“A lot of Chris Potter.”
“Yeah, I can tell by your sound.”

But, it’s encouraging to read the above quote and think that my hours spent trying to imitate are bridging the gap between inherent abilities (imitating, listening) and complex problems (improvising over a Giant Steps progression. Not on your life, by the way).

I find Indian music very funky. I mean it’s very soulful, with their own kind of blues. But it’s the only other school on the planet that develops improvisation to the high degree that you find in jazz music. So we have a lot of common ground.

John McLaughlin

On the other hand, learning a new language is a lot like listening to jazz musicians. (See what I did there?) Last week, a former Spanish professor asked if I would be willing to record my voice reading a few paragraphs in Spanish. She is researching the depth of accents that both native and non-native speakers have when speaking Spanish, especially those who have spent time in Spanish-speaking countries. Her questions inquired about how much time I had been learning, where I had traveled to, for how long, etc.

“Where did you go?”
“I was in Chile.”
Nods. “I can tell by your accent.”

I am interested to learn about more of her findings over time. Am I some kind of anomaly, picking up an accent after only 7 weeks, while other American students who were with me clearly did not?  Or am I just a musician? Is it all just improv?

Learning through imitation is not cultural, it’s biological. As animals, we’re geared up to learn from day one, literally. Our environment and our genes is what does the teaching.

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.

Nelson Mandela

Just as a thank-you for reading, I present you with some Balkan-flavored improvisation. Enjoy!