Empathy in Music: Where Does it Fit in?

Do you know what empathy is? Empathy is the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling. Can it apply to music? Where does it fit in?

Did you ever wish others could feel what we feel? I’ve heard people say that, not just for music but in other situations in life. I know I have said it my self. As a private music teacher, I want my students to experience what I experience when I perform……..Maybe they do. How do we know what the feel?

Actually empathy is just the opposite. Instead of hoping your student feels what you feel, feel what they feel. Let me explain.

When a student plays even a short phrase for the first time, they usually make mistakes. After a few tries, they might play it correctly, but that could just as easily have been a mistake as well. So, hopefully they keep repeating over and over, and sometimes wrong, sometimes right by accident. As their tutor, I find myself feeling if he owns it. This is one form of empathy. Even though my student repeats the phrase four or five times without a mistake, he might not have it yet. Then suddenly on the next attempt we both share the feeling. Call me crazy but this is one form of “empathy”.

Empaths unintentionally “tune in” to other people’s emotions. Like Yoda, in Star Wars, my daughter felt the pain experienced by the victims of the Paris attack a few years ago. She shared with me afterwards that even tho’ she was in New York City, she had to sit down and sob in private over the tragedy because she felt a disturbance in the force. She also told me that her grandmother (my mother) pulled her sister and herself off to the side when they were quite young and told them they had empathic abilities like herself. My first reaction and thought was “Hey, how come I was skipped over”

Upon further review, I realized that I could tap into other’s feelings, musically, of course.

There have been instances where no one was dancing at a venue. To me it was embarrassing, so I would lean over to the leader of the band and suggested we play a specific song I felt the guests would get up and dance to. (I may have personally hated the song, but it packed the floor!) A common expression for this is “Reading the crowd”. Was it a learned technique or an innate virtue I was learning to tap.

When I was still wet behind the ears, there was an old 1940’s band leader I admired very much. He had a Glen Miller style dance band and was known world wide as “The Ted Herbert Orchestra”. When he was nearing retirement age, he turned the leadership over to one of the band members. Tho’ the orchestra sounded great, it didn’t retain the excitement that Ted himself had. When the owner of ballroom complained to Ted, he walked up on stage, called up three songs, and counted them off. Instantly everyone jumped up and danced. I took note and never forgot that moment.

Today I do a solo act (with back up tracks) in restaurants where I have total artistic control and even young people in their 20’s come up to me and volunteer that I didn’t play one song they didn’t like.

But not all musicians have that gift and play just what feels good to them and not what feels good to the Crowd.

I don’t know if “empathy” is the correct term for my experiences but they occur way too often not to be. Whatever you call it, it was a gift that Ted Herbert had and I have today!