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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Mozart’s Biggest Influence

As a pianist, I’ve always had a fond appreciation for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. At my monthly piano recitals growing up, I would gaze in awe at the high school students as their fingers glided over the keys playing Mozart sonatas. Eventually I got to study and play Mozart piano sonatas, and, in college, I got to learn even more about him through an inter-disciplinary Mozart seminar that focused on his life, times, and compositions.

One of my favorite discoveries about Wolfgang was that he had an incredibly musically talented sister, Maria Anna (fondly known as Nannerl), who not only was his favorite playmate as a child, but was one of his biggest musical influences later in life.

So who is Nannerl and what kind of impact did she have on her brother’s musical future?

Maria Anna Mozart (The Art Archive / Corbis)

Maria Anna Mozart (The Art Archive / Corbis)

Nannerl, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s sister, had a large effect on her brother’s musical development and output.  Nannerl’s wild imagination and playfulness made the long touring trips around Europe more exciting for Wolfgang.  Although she was five years older than Wolfgang, Nannerl fostered his creativity and imagination by playing pretend with him on their trips in their made-up world called the Kingdom of Back.  This sibling playfulness lasted into Nannerl’s twenties, as she and Wolfgang wrote letters to each other using multiple languages, word plays, and riddles.

In addition to Nannerl fostering an imaginative and funny side of Wolfgang, she served as a skillful musical role model for Wolfgang.  Because Nannerl was a talented musician in her own right, she and Wolfgang were able to make music together, exchange ideas for musical compositions, and share compositions with each other.  Wolfgang recognized his sister’s talent and knowledge, and often included his thoughts on her compositions in his letters to her.  Many times, Wolfgang composed piano solos and duets specifically for Nannerl and sent them in the mail to her.

When Mozart was about 18 years old, for example, he wrote piano sonata in D, K381, which was a duet he composed specifically for his sister to play with him.  It is noted for being “punctuated with wit and cheeky humor,” and reveals some of that playfulness the two of them shared.  See Jane Glover’s book “Mozart’s Women: His Family, His Friends, His Music.”

Portrait by Johann Nepomuk della Croce, 1780-1781.  (The Art Archive / Corbis)

Nannerl & Wolfgang sit at the piano. Their mother, Anna Maria, is pictured in the portrait on the wall because she had passed away by the time this portrait was made. Their father, Leopold, stands on the right. Portrait by Johann Nepomuk della Croce, 1780-1781. (The Art Archive / Corbis)

Nannerl’s story reminds me of the importance of developing and feeding a big imagination, which can serve as inspiration for future artistic creations.  Her influence on her brother’s life as a composer also shows how valuable it can be for artists to have friends and/or family with whom they can share parts of the creative process.

How are the people around you influencing or impacting your creative process?