The Empathy Project: Accentuating the Inherent SEL Component of Music Education

Mike Lawson • Commentary • October 1, 2020

Share This:

“We already do that in music education.” How many times have you uttered that phrase under your breath as your district unveiled its latest pedagogical initiative? From high impact outcomes to greater personal meaning, student choice to Bloom’s Taxonomy, from critical thinking to project-based learning, the response is often the same. In a sense, we are the lucky ones, the chosen few who don’t lose sleep over how to incorporate the latest educational trend into our curricula.

These are all concepts inherent to music education, arts education really. So, it was no surprise that I respectfully whispered the familiar refrain when social and emotional learning (SEL) was announced as my district’s focus for 2019-20. That changed when Erin Moore presented to our faculty on the power of student choice and how it fed SEL. Something clicked for me. Though the “we already do that” was still as true as ever, I realized there was so much more to explore.

I connected some new dots and became obsessed and excited with how I was going to bring this newly formulated approach to my students. From there, I began to contemplate a torrent of heady questions: How can my students’ passion for music help others, or themselves? Do they understand the power of music to heal, inspire, and strengthen community? How can music impact personal wellbeing? How can it be an instrument of change in our society? What does lifelong learning actually mean for my students and myself? And the most intimidating question; what do I want music education to be?

I realized that I wanted my students to better recognize and appreciate what music could do for themselves and for others. I wanted them to see firsthand how it can make a positive difference in the life of a loved one or even a complete stranger. They could not only learn how to play their instrument well, but how to use music as an instrument of good, of change, and of healing. It was time to teach music as something you give to others, and to yourself. I envisioned a powerful trinity of learning: life-long, holistic, and social- emotional, that would empower my students well beyond the music on their page. Then COVID-19 hit.

An Obligatory Opportunity

“Folks, we’re in a pandemic here!” These wise words were emphasized by our superintendent in his weekly addresses throughout the 2020 remote learning experience. Our focus needed to shift from honoring our curriculum to honoring the social-emotional needs of our students. Personal wellbeing was the priority. There would be no time to develop a lofty new vision – the moment was here. Before us was the obligatory opportunity to adapt our professional practice to meet the immediate and evolving needs of our students. Responsive and adaptive teaching that honored the moment rather than the prescription was required. This new reality inspired me to engage my students in the real-time emotional processing we were all experiencing, to show them how music could play a vital role. And more than ever, what we all needed was a stronger sense of community. The powerful confluence of social isolation, fear, and instability begged for a stronger support system.

Then the Black Lives Matter movement exploded, and these needs were exponentially amplified. Here is where truly understanding your student demographic is crucial. How will your students best respond to this crisis? How are you going to reach them? They might have too much perspective, or perhaps none at all. How hard can you push, and where do you need to be sensitive? What’s the balance, and where is the threshold?

The students in my district are lucky, though they don’t always realize it. Most are from solid middle-class or affluent households, and few have experienced the socio-economic hardships that plague far too many in our country. In this bucolic setting where wants are often mistaken for needs, perspective can be in short supply. As I checked in on the wellbeing of my students in those first few weeks of the shutdown, I heard predictably self-centered concerns: I can’t see my friends. I don’t like remote learning. I’m anxious about the virus. I’m bored. I don’t like the work we’re doing. I love not being in school! These comments birthed the Empathy Project.

Empathy is such an invaluable skill, yet one that is waning in the age of narcissistic social media flurries and overscheduled living that leave many of us without time or energy to think beyond our own immediate personal needs. Taking the time to think of others serves not only those receiving the thought and energy, but the individual giving them as well. Mindfully turning one’s attention to others helps to “get you out of your own head,” thus relieving anxiety, rumination, and isolation. Empathy is inertia’s natural antidote and creates an equation that benefits all involved. It was also a coincidental focal point of my own personal mindfulness study at that time. And I truly believe that a little personal growth in parallel with student growth is not only beautiful but makes teaching and learning more engaging. Social-emotional teaching if you will.

Here is our three-day Empathy Project in its entirety:

We talked about empathy in our work yesterday. A crisis like the one we are all experiencing can easily draw our focus in toward ourselves. This can often lead to greater anxiety and isolation. Instead, focus your attention on loved ones who would welcome your support. You’ll not only feel a reduction in your own anxiety and sense of isolation, but you will greatly improve your loved ones’ sense of wellbeing in the process. This is the power of empathy.

• Identify a loved one who may be feeling a heightened sense of isolation or anxiety as a result of this pandemic. It’s likely a grandparent or member of the family who might fall into the more vulnerable demographic for some reason. These people are likely missing the personal connections with you or others that they might normally enjoy.

• Choose a way to connect with them musically in a way that’s meaningful. Your options would include:

• Performing for them live via FaceTime or an equivalent interface

• Recording a new performance of yourself and sharing it with them via email, text, etc.

• Finding an existing performance of yourself and sharing it with them via email, text, etc.

• Sharing a recording(s) – song or video – that is meaningful to you, and having a conversation with them about why it is meaningful

• Sharing a recording(s) – song or video – you think might be especially meaningful to them and having a conversation about why you feel that way

Any of these options should include an interactive component. This can be a conversation, or even a recorded message (written, audio, video) that accompanies your music. Report how you chose to complete the assignment below (only I will see this) and submit to our Google Classroom. Here’s an example:



WHAT YOU SENT (choices from items 2 and 3 above):


We will have a Google Meet on Thursday at 1:00pm to discuss the experience.

High-Impact Outcomes

High-impact outcomes are not a passing educational trend and should always be among your teaching goals. Again, “we already do that!” I know…but. Working with our students for up to nine years in a row puts us in the unique position to influence not only their musical aptitude, but also their personal growth as human beings. We are among the most consistent and omnipresent voices in their journey to adulthood. And if we’re not teaching our students how to be better human beings along the way, then we have failed them as educators and missed another vital obligatory opportunity. SEL is the gateway.

The results from the Empathy Project were astonishing. Excerpts from my students’ reflections show they personally felt the power of music to heal and connect in profound ways: “Music calms my father down and brings him back to earth a little bit, and I think sometimes he forgets that. Music has always been a huge part of our relationship and we always sit down and play songs we like for each other. The quarantine and the virus have made him very nervous and on-edge, but I think playing music and talking about our favorite songs at the moment helped him realize that we are safe and happy even during this stressful time.”

“I learned that by even just doing something so small like letting people know that you are thinking about them can really lift their mood and allow them to feel connected to your life. It also shows them that you care and understand how they feel and what they’re going through.”

“A small action can spread and make many people happy, even in desperate times.”

“My mother has gone through a lot in her life…and says that this song gives her a sense of hope. This type of music calms her and makes her feel content and relaxed. It also reminds her of someone she and I loved dearly. Overall, I just love to have these nice, calm, warm felt nights where it is just me, my mom, and my dog together being a happy family.”

“I feel more connected to my grandparents now, and they both said they loved hearing me play!”

“I don’t have it as hard as many others”

“I learned how to connect with my brother. It can get weird with a 10-year gap between us.”

Participation and discussion were so rich that I repeated the Empathy Project several weeks later and committed to incorporating weekly SEL-infused learning activities that focused on wellbeing, expression, and community building. In response to the BLM movement, we dedicated time and energy to not only research musicians of color, but to celebrate those musicians through performance, emulative composition or improvisation, contextual essay, or review. Several students joined local BLM protests as a result of the perspective they gained. One student, who was particularly moved, dedicated a self-designed project to dive deeper.

She researched music and lyrics from the civil rights era of the 1960s and connected it to the BLM movement of today. She drew insightful and profound conclusions by asking questions like, “Has the content of the music become irrelevant? Has anything changed or stayed the same? Do the lyrics still stand true?” All of our activities involved significant student choice. It manifested in small ways, like our Experiential Song Diary, in which students expressed their emotions of the moment through their daily playlists, or in more intensive ways like designing and completing their own multi-day learning activity. This is where I really saw students take command over their learning. In many cases, students invested more time and effort than I had seen in the activities I prescribed! Choice empowered my students, motivated them, and drew out more personal meaning than I could have predicted. I saw consistently meaningful, insightful decisions, and clear, high-impact outcomes as a result. And all of this was possible while not only preserving the core arts standards, but often drawing from all four in a single stroke.

A Paradigm Shift

Now that we have lived through remote learning and continue to plan for an uncertain year, it’s important to recognize that this emphasis on SEL and its relevance to our students has only grown. We need a paradigm shift to establish SEL as a permanent and consistent thread in our curricula, rather than an intermittent one. It is the cornerstone of a more holistic approach to music education that embraces the “what” over the “how” with a solid grasp on the why. Remember that music is not just something you play; it’s a powerful tool to improve the wellbeing of both the individual and their community. We must work to instill this in our students, and inspire them to continue giving, throughout their lives in whatever direction they take.

Reach David Schumacher at or contact him,

The Latest News and Gear in Your Inbox - Sign Up Today!