Rineke Smilde

Rineke Smilde, Professor of Lifelong Learning in Music at the Prince Claus Conservatoire Groningen and at the University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna, focuses on empathy as an essential dimension of musical leadership. Please add your comments in the “Leave a Reply” box below.

Leadership and empathy: looking through the eyes of another

Having a career with overlapping activities in today’s multi-faceted professional music practice requires musicians to exercise many roles at the same time, roles which extend beyond their artistic skills. Musicians need to be innovative, entrepreneurial and communicative, they need to be able to create sustained partnerships, and collaborate with an eye for the contexts they relate to. They must be reflective, aware of what is needed in order to generate their work and to produce work of high quality. This includes that they recognize their individual needs for learning and development. In sum, musicians need to exercise leadership, which is, quoting David Myers: “…a very different message from the frequently unspoken subtext that if one expects to survive as a musician, he or she will necessarily piece together a potentially random group of jobs that have the cumulative effects of compromising lofty ambitions and perpetuating the view that one is undervalued” (2007: 4).

This is in particular relevant for musicians who want to engage with new audiences in society, audiences beyond those in the traditional concert venues. The point of departure for their art is the notion that artistic processes have transformative potential, and serve to help us better understand the complex world we live in, and bring about a sense of community, inclusion and collective identity. Active participation in cultural activities, like participatory music making, can be at the heart of gaining collective identity (Renshaw 2001).

Musicians looking for new audiences try to engage with different audiences in society by developing musical practices in various social contexts. The music leader has many roles in these practices, as Sean Gregory points out in relation to creative music workshops: “You can be a leader, a facilitator, a composer, arranger, a supporting instrumentalist, you can be the person who just makes it happen; you can shift roles … The principle is the notion that you are with a group of people; that you encourage them to come out with their own ideas … The key part is that together you develop something into something else” (in Smilde 2009: 278 – 9).

Skilled musicians can ‘read’ their audiences. However, from artistic, social and educational perspectives, there is more to be taken into account for musicians when they seek to engage with new audiences. What are the most important challenges in these contexts? Coming with different artistic, generic and educational roles, musicians need to exercise shared authority through their collaborative artistic practice, underpinned by qualities like informed decision making, adaptability, flexibility and committed values and attitudes. In addition, striving for sustainability is of key importance in developing new practices for new audiences. Incidental projects without any follow-up do not have much impact and can create a sense of loss with the audience. Instead, a feeling of change needs to be developed, no matter how small, and trust in continuity needs to be in place. Strong partnerships are therefore required, in which the importance of collaboration and reflection needs to be stressed.

The emergence of transformative learning, defined by Mezirow (1990) as “changing your frame of reference”, is therefore critical in order to understand the way that musicians engaging with new audiences have to do their work in today’s world, bringing about a sense of communication and inclusion. This brings me to the most important requirement for such musicians: the notion of empathy, the ability to look through the eyes of another. This quality is key in any community project where musicians work with new audiences and aim to create a sense of belonging.

Projects in the community always contain both artistic and social learning processes, which take place on an equal and mutual basis. A wonderful example was our research of the project ‘Music for Life’ of Wigmore Hall in London, where musicians work in creative music workshops with people with dementia and their carers as a group, using what we called ‘person-centred improvisation’. The staff development practitioner who was involved in this research said to me in an interview: “The music is generated by the musicians from the residents” (Smilde, Page and Alheit 2014: 247). I was stunned; this was spot on! The musicians look through the eyes of another, which is essential for all community engagement. Empathy, in short, is clearly fundamental to music leadership.

Needless to say, community engagement is never a matter of ‘a musician doing something good to another person’. It happens, as said, on an equal and mutual basis. Moreover, engaging with new audiences can mean a lot for musicians’ personal and professional development. One of the musicians involved, violist in an orchestra in London and also working in ‘Music for Life’, phrases this beautifully: “Doing this work has been a way for me to connect my musicianship with a deepening sense of who I am in this world, brought about by extraordinary interactions with extraordinary people … This work continues to teach me who I am, and is a bench mark against which I judge everything else I do. It’s extraordinary how working with people whose version of reality is so vague can in fact be the ultimate reality check!” (Smilde, Page and Alheit 2014: 13)


Mezirow, Jack (1990). How Critical Reflection Triggers Transformative Learning. In J. Mezirov and associates, Fostering Critical Reflection in Adulthood. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Myers, David (2007). Initiative, Adaptation and Growth: The Role of Lifelong Learning in the Careers of Professional Musicians. Dialogue in Music. Groningen: Research group Lifelong Learning in Music.

Renshaw, Peter (2001). Globalisation, Music and Identity. Keynote address, International Music Council, Tokyo.

Smilde, Rineke (2009). Musicians as Lifelong Learners: 32 Biographies. Delft: Eburon.

Smilde, Rineke, Page, Kate, and Alheit, Peter (2014). While the Music Lasts – On Music and Dementia. Delft: Eburon Academic Publishers.

Rineke Smilde, Prince Claus Conservatoire Groningen / University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna, coleads the international research group ‘Lifelong Learning in Music’ that examines questions about the relationship between musicians and society, and what engaging with new audiences means for the different roles, learning and leadership of musicians.

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