Katelyn Holub

blogging about music, art, and creativity

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Can You Have Too Much Empathy?

In these last few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about vocation and finding a job. In between informational interviews, some common questions keep coming to the forefront of my mind. Is my personality suited for this type of position? Would I actually be able to help people and accomplish good in this role?

It seems that being an artist carries with it a certain kind of condition—a condition of having a heightened sense of empathy and ability to relate to other people.

*Photo Credit: seyed mostafa zamani, Creative Commons

*Photo Credit: seyed mostafa zamani, Creative Commons

Artists are storytellers, and, like all good storytellers, have the ability to put themselves in different people’s shoes in order to bring a particular story to life. Even without having personally experienced a situation, a true artist can effectively take on a role and convincingly express that character’s perspective—think of Jodie Foster’s poignant portrayal of a woman suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder in the 2007 movie “The Brave One.”

Blame it on an artist’s imagination, but sometimes it feels like having a lot of empathy is a bad thing.

Maybe empathy doesn’t make a person look tough, but is it possible to have too much empathy? Is it detrimental if you have a knack for putting yourself in other people’s situations and glimpsing some of the hardships they face?

In some regards, I think being an especially empathetic person can be a very beneficial quality for a lawyer to have because, after all, lawyers win cases by developing persuasive arguments and telling a vivid, relatable story.

On the other hand, as I read this past week in “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” too much empathy can get you fired. Oprah Winfrey was fired from one of her first jobs as a co-anchor for a Baltimore news station because she often had to fight back tears while reporting stories and couldn’t distance herself enough to maintain a stoic countenance.

*Photo Credit: Tomas Sobek, Creative Commons

*Photo Credit: Tomas Sobek, Creative Commons

Not only can having too much empathy appear unprofessional and get you fired, it can wreak havoc on your own life, burdening you with more than you can carry.

Under the weight of such an added burden, could too much empathy impair a person’s ability to help other people who are hurting? If you relate too well to another person’s situation, are you not able then to provide the strength, encouragement, and advice they need to help them heal?

I don’t have all the answers to these questions in my head right now, but I think there must be a way to keep empathy under a certain level so that it doesn’t overwhelm a person with added stress and also allows a person to still be able to help those in difficult circumstances. What are your thoughts?


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Can Musical Expression Be Taught?

It’s battle week on The Voice, and I’ve been excitedly watching pairs of singers duel over one song in order to stay in the competition.  Although I love watching the singers perform, I especially love watching their vocal coaching sessions leading up to the battle.  There is such a big transformation from their first rehearsal to their performance.

At this stage in the competition, everybody on the show has a good voice; it’s just a matter of who can make the most of their voice in the song they are given by their coach.  When Usher was counseling Biff Gore and T.J. Wilkins on singing “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” he emphasized the importance of conveying the begging, pleading, desperate emotion expressed in the lyrics.  Beyond giving them technical tips, Usher taught Biff and T.J. the importance of musical expression and being able to draw an audience into a performance, which made me realize . . .

What sets the best artists apart from the rest?  Their ability to emote.  You can hit all the right notes, but if you lack expression, people won’t listen. 

*Photo Credit: starmanseries

*Photo Credit: starmanseries, Creative Commons

Some people seem to be naturally expressive, but everyone else must be taught.  And unlike teaching technical skills, it can be really difficult to teach musical expression.

Can musical expression be taught? 

I think so.  And it starts with teaching and developing empathy.  Even if you haven’t experienced a situation first-hand, you can learn to put yourself in someone else’s shoes—vividly imagine how that person would feel, and get into their character.

*Photo Credit: AndyRobertsPhotos

*Photo Credit: AndyRobertsPhotos, Creative Commons

Once you establish what emotions are trying to be conveyed, there are limitless musical tools that can be used to embody an emotion.  For singers, think about how we intuitively use our speaking voice to convey different emotions—angry shouts, joyful exclamations, and heartfelt soft whispers.  Other expressive tools to think about:

  • Breath support.  Varying the amount of breath support given to a particular line can help convey a certain feeling.  Less support creates a more airy, weaker sound versus a fully-supported confident, powerful sound.
  • Phrase endings.  Should the line trail off or end in loud exclamation-point way
  • Special vocal effects.  You can sprinkle in different kind of tones—like raspy, gritty, vibrato, nasal-voice, chest-voice—for different expressive effects.

Alright, now I want to know: Have you ever had to teach someone musical expression?  What have you learned that’s helped you be more expressive?