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Developing Empathy Through Group Music Lessons

"You play your personality," a good friend of mine often says. In all my years of playing the violin professionally, I have never found this to be wrong. Playing an instrument is a lot like driving a car during rush hour; a person's character has a way of coming through, even in wordless interactions.

So if there's one good reason to learn an instrument in a group setting it's this: making music with others helps to develop empathy.

You're probably thinking, "of course group settings are great for kids. It's like hockey, or dance class, or any classroom. Music classes are no different." And I'd almost agree with you. It's important for our kids to learn in groups with their peers so that they develop basic life skills. Many team sports will teach kids things like discipline, leadership, and how to work with others.

But music is different. In a Suzuki music class, the kids aren't just learning that it's important to work together for a common goal (although that's a big part of it). They are learning how to synchronize themselves with others in order to reach that common goal. When they make music together, they feel connected to one another, which is the foundation of learning empathy.

There are many nuances involved with making music together. When playing in unison, the students must learn to match pitch and rhythm, even if it's not objectively correct. When playing in multiple parts, the skill level becomes even more advanced. A student may have to play their own part softly, but still audibly, to complement the main line. They must read visible and audible cues, interpret that information to predict what is coming next, and respond before the next note. It's a musical conversation, but one in which you must also speak at the same time as the other person.

Making music in groups also forces students to think, "is this an appropriate sound to make in the presence of other people?" My daughter, whose face scrunches up like she's eating a lemon if I make an ugly sound on my violin, understands this concept very intimately. If we believe that the sound we make affects others, there is a very real concern to make beautiful sounds, or at least thoughtful, intentional sounds. It's a lot like thinking before you speak (and everyone knows that is an essential life skill!)

Shinichi Suzuki, the father of the Suzuki method, said it this way: "Beautiful tone, beautiful heart." To play an instrument with a beautiful tone means to listen intently, and to intend to play beautifully. To ensure that the sounds you produce are good enough to send out into the universe takes great effort. Or, you could say, it takes empathy.

This post is the first in a series called "Character and Musicianship." Read the second post about learning to do hard things here.

Rebecca Lane is the director, founder, and owner of Upper Beaches Music School. She teaches at the school on Saturdays, but most days you can find her chasing after her three young children, one of whom is in the Suzuki violin program at UBMS.

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