Empathy is central to ensemble music making which is grounded in a shared, fully embodied experience.


According to Jefferson and Anderson (2021) the interpersonal domain encompasses “the capacity to express, interpret and respond to others” (p. 94). In addition to common interpersonal interactions such as speaking and listening, musical interpersonal interactions can occur through music by sharing the very act of music making with others. In music making we express ourselves for and with others, interpret music for and with others and respond to and with others.

Because it activates “a learning culture of understanding and acting for others” (Jefferson & Anderson, 2021, p. 97) empathy is central to ensemble music making which is grounded in a shared, fully embodied experience. Jefferson and Anderson (2021) note that empathy can include behaviours that are motivated to benefit ones’ self, others and a larger group (p. 96).

These three motivations each have the potential to influence musical learning environments, particularly when occurring simultaneously through proactive, positive, empathetic behaviours. Empathetic understanding of one another, and of the larger group, acknowledges that our understanding of one another and our resulting behaviours have a reciprocal and cumulative effect on one another and on the learning environment.

Participants reflected on empathetic behaviours in many different ways. It may have been as simple as acknowledging that, in much orchestral music making, instruments and instrument sections have different roles, and that this necessarily means understanding these roles and acknowledging the importance of the larger group rather than individual parts. This was also evident in supportive comments to other players in developing skills or sharing practice techniques.

Conductors reflected empathetic behaviours in carefully scaffolding learning in rehearsals and ensuring that individual players were not unduly exposed and that interactions between players and between conductors and players were respectful. Conductors also expressed empathy in the ways in which they know and accommodate the different ages and abilities evident in their ensembles and their sensitivities to these differences.

What our participants said

“As a brass player I have to understand that I am not always going to be the main focus of a piece and I will be sitting around a lot in orchestral music” Tom (player).

“You certainly aren't the only person having to practice your doubles for that piece” Simon (player).

“And I think the conductors have to…encourage the principal players to encourage the rest of the section, where possible… [to] look out for the least able player in the orchestra and…try and encourage the group as a whole, but especially looking out for those players” Ben (conductor).

“I often ask young members to take the podium to experience the vulnerability of the conductor. I find this is the quickest way to show young players that to use a COVID term ‘We are all in this together’” David (conductor).

“The other challenge for the younger players are they're just actually learning the music and keeping up with everyone else in their section. They don't want to look…they don't want to be exposed and they don't want to look like they don't know” Tim (conductor).


In diverse age and ability ensembles establishing player behaviours that are empathetic and in the interests of the best experience for all, can sometimes be challenging, particularly when competitive behaviours are evident. Conductor Ben recalled an incident in which one player on one desk was turning around and “giving evil stares” to a player on the desk behind when they thought that they were playing wrong notes. This required careful after-rehearsal management ensuring that everyone in the situation was counselled and aware of the impacts of this unempathetic behaviour.

However, there was also an acknowledgement about the impacts of this behaviour had beyond individuals and the need to be aware of the broader impacts of these types of behaviours on the larger ensemble.

Furthermore, Ben recounts the need for leaders to ‘step-up’ in these situations, stating to one of the players that “you don't do that, especially if you're in a senior position in the orchestra, you are there to support, and the best way to be a leader is to encourage everyone else who's following you”.

Of particular note is Ben’s acknowledgement of the role of the conductor in such situations, stating their obligation to “do the same thing as they encourage the principal players to encourage the rest of the section, where possible, and also just look out for the least able player in the orchestra”.

What does this mean for me?

  • Look out for the least able players in the ensemble and that everyone knows ‘we are all here to learn’.
  • Model constructive feedback (the feedback sandwich model): start and end (the bread) with something positive and place your main message (the filling) in the middle.
  • Acknowledge moments when the ensemble expresses their shared musical understanding through refined, quality performances.
  • Provide practical strategies for players to remain active and engaged when other ensemble sections are rehearsing such as by giving them scores to follow.
  • Plan rehearsals to include a number of specific musical problems for the ensemble to work on, making sure that you move in and out of these to ensure that sections are not ‘idle’ for too long.
  • Acknowledge without judgement when empathetic behaviours are, or are not, being used, such as when one player says ‘well done’ to another player, or when ‘evil stares’ happen.
  • Make sure that players are not unduly exposed when rehearsing challenging sections of music, such as by rehearsing a section rather than an individual, or by working up to individual playing over a number of rehearsals.
  • Involve the whole ensemble in acknowledging achievements such as by encouraging the ensemble to applaud or otherwise express their appreciation.
  • Model ways in which players can provide feedback to one another such as by reframing their feedback starting with “perhaps another way to say this might be…”.