Teaching Empathy through Singing // Kelly Hoppenjans

“In these unprecedented times,” as every commercial unironically intones these days, big things are happening. Historical, world-changing events are occurring that would be difficult to comprehend, if we weren’t living through them. I’d never say I was grateful for a deadly global pandemic, but like many people, I’m trying to make meaning of these events for myself, and to appreciate the time this situation has afforded me to question what really matters. Why do we teach people how to sing? Why is this work important? We’re not doctors or health care professionals—we don’t save lives. We’re not grocery store workers or restaurant workers, providing people with the food they need. We’re not non-profits rebuilding communities, handing out masks, or battling inequality, joblessness, and home insecurity. In the parlance to which we’ve grown accustomed these days, we’re non-essential. But that doesn’t mean what we do isn’t important.

I remember how singing made me feel growing up—I was a shy kid who came out of my shell when I sang, and I felt like I was whole. For many of us, learning how to sing is technical, or at least that’s how it starts. You learn to breathe, you learn to relax your tongue, your jaw, your shoulders; and these are all worthwhile pursuits. But I also remember the first time I heard Aretha Franklin sing. I felt like I knew who she was through her voice—she was resilient, strong, and powerful, with a depth of emotion that I couldn’t fully grasp. I was stunned to learn that as a child, she was shy; just like me. I also learned about the hardships she had to go through because of the color of her skin, unlike me; and my young eyes began to open.

I have always hated learning about history in school. Every history class I’ve taken has felt dry and academic, focused on date memorization and big, larger-than-life events that are difficult to grasp, despite how crucial it is to learn about them. But understanding history is really about understanding everyday people and their experiences—what did it really feel like to live through the Civil War? Martin Luther King Jr.’s march to Washington? The Stonewall riots? It’s difficult to connect to these huge events unless we can empathize with the people who were there, and begin to feel what it must have felt like. But we listen to “A Change is Gonna Come,” and we feel the truth of Sam Cooke’s experience in that music, in his voice.

We’re in a time of reckoning—a time where largely unacknowledged inequities, injustices, and varied human experiences are coming to light in a way they never have, because people are pausing long enough to see them. Movements like Black Lives Matter and celebrations like Pride teach us and remind us to wonder what our neighbors are going through, what they’ve been through; to endeavor to understand and empathize.

That’s why what we do is important. Yes, we teach singing—we teach people how to breathe, how to relax tongue tension, how to fill a room with their voices—and those are wonderful lessons. But really, we teach empathy. When you approach a song, you step into the shoes of the person who wrote it and/or performed it originally, and you begin to understand what they were going through that first moved them to sing. It takes radical, open-minded imagination to fathom what life is like for someone who is completely different from you and find connection with their experience—and THAT is what we teach our students.

In the spirit of lifting up voices that are different than mine, and endeavoring to expose myself and my students to as many facets of the human experience as I can, I’ve compiled a list of Black artists that I find inspiring as singers, songwriters, and storytellers. I hope you and your students find their voices as moving as I do, and that their stories remind us to listen so that we may understand each other a little better. Let’s take this time to reconnect to the reasons why singing is so important, and raise up voices that are too often ignored.

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