top of page

Empathy: Gifting Ourselves

3 March 2020

For a creative artist, ‘feeding the spirit’ is as much a matter of attitude or intent as it is of any specific action; the attitude is, at base, the kind of humility that prevents the artist from drawing the essence of creation into the personal ego (p.151).

When he describes this material respiration in the language of gifts, Walt Whitman speaks of his inhalation as ‘accepting’ the bounty of the world, his exhalation as ‘bequeathing’ or ‘bestowing (himself, his work) (p.174).

The artist’s gift refines the materials of perception or intuition that have been bestowed upon him; to put it in another way, if the artist is gifted, the gift increases in its passage through the self. The artist makes something higher than what he has been given…(p.194).

Lewis Hyde


The Gift

On first glance, it seems a bit out of the norm to begin a with a blog on empathy. But these are not normal times for artists. I have decided to begin a series of blogs as we all try to deal with the new realities of “sheltering in place.” I miss my students, I miss rehearsals, I miss sound and miss seeing those people I love. This “exile” requires us to equip ourselves with different psychological equipment.

The greatest musicians I know are empaths. The word “empathy” has not been used as a key ingredient as a way into musicianship, or rather artistry, that is based on a daily gathering and sharing one’s empathetic human experiences. Without knowing it, I believe I experienced firsthand empathetic music making, certainly with Elaine Brown and others, but didn't have a label for it, just the memories of that experience. Empathy should be at the top of all our syllabi on conducting and certainly should be the first things in our hearts when we walk into the rehearsal room with our choirs. But I’m afraid that our awareness and understanding of empathy is simply not occupying the place in our spiritual/human cognitive “DNA.” In fact, I’m starting to begin to understand that empathy is that magic thing that creates the synergy for the most compelling and life altering music-making. Without empathy, it seems that we create a flow and connection in our musicians where life is backed up and stuck. There are truly gifts that we can share with our musicians, but they will never be shared without an empathetic heart. I do believe that conductors long for empathy but simply don’t know it.[1] I think that if we stop for moment, in each of our own lives there is a long lineage of gifted souls who touched us, whose only gift to us was their deep and profound empathy for us as not only artists but human beings trying to express the inexpressible…through honest and sincere empathy.

The act of being an artist should be, and is in reality, an act of human empathy. As Makoto Fujimura points out, industrial organizations that practice a high degree of empathy are successful. But our work as artists should and must live in a constant state of practicing empathy. We should live in a world where through empathy with composers we begin to understand the human logic of the notes on the page. Through empathy we begin to internalize for our own lives the poet’s words rather than creating a false and almost cinematic narrative of their meaning for a quick emotional high that never fully lodges or connects within our souls. Phrases have large shapes and ensembles sing or play with colors because of the empathy present in what they do. Musical phrasing infused with empathy and, if I might add, love, create “in sound” shapes and journeys of sound that simply cannot be taught or rehearsed. Sound should be fused to the human experience of what it is to be alive and fully connected to others.

The Problem and the Challenge

We are all in danger of losing a vivid sense within ourselves of human empathy. If we lose our empathetic souls in the midst of our sheltering in place, we may exit the challenges of these days without the empathetic equipment we took for granted before all of this self-imposed isolation. We must be on the guard for frustration, darkness and a closing off from others. For me I have realized new ways of being connected. Texting, Zoom and Skype have allowed me to stay connected in a very different way. But I now cherish every text, every Skype especially with those I love. I worry that I am being annoying, but these days I take nothing for granted. But truth be told, I am making a special effort to stay connected and to practice empathy whenever I can, because I realized through all of this that I am in danger of losing those things which not only make our artistry but make us human.

I find that I need to stay connected to sounds, especially those recorded sounds that I was a part of. So recordings of Williamson Voices and The Same Stream are a kind of sound estuary that I retreat into several times a day with my Bose headphones. While I’m listening to sounds, I listen not as a critical listener, but as a “listening empath” trying to hear the human “stuff” in the sounds I hear. The sounds warm my heart because I recall the people that made those sounds, and I find myself able to stay connected to my own sense of empathy.

Empathetic "Listening"

Our empathetic sense, of course, is deeply bound to listening. The hard reality is that without empathy, we really do not listen..we only hear. The danger in this sequested corona virus world is that we will begin to lose empathy to protect ourselves. Listening, in itself, is a deeply empathetic act. We listen empathetically so we hear what others are trying to say through the sounds we make. And that musicians must be taught what I am labeling as “listening empathy.” Listening and hearing musical details is fine, I suppose. But listening empathetically elevates music-making to another human level. At the risk of over-simplifying, listening must be the most human inter-connective and “binding to another” act that we do as musicians. And I have come to believe that the depth of our listening is in direct proportion to our empathy with each and every musician in the room. There is an elusive simplicity in this concept, but it is exactly that distilling of self into an empathetic being that opens the ears and the heart. We are in danger as we exist in a sheltered situation to lose touch with our own empathetic gifts. Each of us must fight to stay connected to others and to be empathetic souls in all we do.

One of my students pressed me in a private lesson about this listening with this empathy thing. Empathy, for me, is not only a state of mind, but a deep yearning to put one’s ego on the shelf, and to enter another’s world rather than living in your own small world. In order to empathetically listen, you become less so that others become more. Empathy is that thing which grows connection to human expression that is magical. My favorite quote summarizing, perhaps, what an empathetic listening state is follows:

Said John Cage to painter Philip Guston, ‘When you start working, everybody is in your studio---the past, your friends, enemies, the art world, and above all, your own ideas---all are there. But as you continue painting, they start leaving, one by one, and you are left completely alone. Then, if you’re lucky, even you leave (p.80)

Lewis Hyde


A Primer for Forgetting

The book above, A Primer for Forgetting along with another book he wrote entitled The Gift, have been key to my new understandings of this idea of empathetic listening. As related in the powerful quote above, Empathetic listening happens when one forgets about oneself and cares so deeply about others that he/she hears them in a new and vivid way. And then, when one abandons self to hearing and understanding others, one then gives to each musician and everyone in your life a Gift—a deeply human and life changing gift—the gift of human empathy. When empathetic listening pervades all we do, then I believe the music speaks louder that we ever thought possible because our lived empathy abides in that sound for all who hear it. Be forewarned in these days for the atrophy of empathy within yourself which can be followed only by a handicapped ability to love and care for others. Fight and be obsessed to stay connected in these days to your empathetic self so that when we exit this latest challenge to all of us, we will emerge humanly and empathetically intact to again, make music with others.

    [1] The inspiration for this chapter, and in fact some of my new thought comes from a beautiful YouTube video by my friend and artist Makoto Fujimura. I would encourage everyone to watch his video entitled “Empathy and Leadership.”

169 views1 comment

Recent Posts

See All

Join the Stream of Same Stream!

Welcome to the Same Stream Blog! Here, you'll be able to stay up to date with news, events, and gain insight into our creative process from perspectives of our various collaborators and directors. If

1 Comment

Thanks for these nourishing thoughts, Dr. Jordan.

The atomization of human society in 'socially distanced singletons' would be for sure a painful and sad evolution, but could we not also see the current challenge as a vital call to care for each other, to take responsibility across generations to save and protect each other's lives?

'Am I my brother's keeper...?' Asked Cain to God - the answer is today, in a tragic and definitive manner: YES! Keeper of our parents, grandparents, of the lonely and the weakened.

I am currently living sheltered together with my dear mother (74). Being the only one to leave the house once a week to replenish the fridge, I know that if I am uncareful,…

bottom of page