Help Wanted? Exploring Altruism in a Music Conservatory through Positive Social Deviance
The purpose of this project was to explore student reactions to altruism in the affective context of a music conservatory. Through a series of scenarios designed to breach social norms, the author gauged conservatory students’ willingness to accept help from and provide assistance to someone they did not know. Over 100 student musicians participated over the course of the final four weeks of the spring semester. Two questions of interest guided the project: (a) How do conservatory students react to offers of and requests for altruistic help?, and (b) What might their reactions signify for the future of the conservatory model? The author observed that students were reluctant to accept help yet quite eager to provide altruistic assistance. Most students agreed that the ethic of care present in the school developed separately from institutional support structures, suggesting that a more formal commitment to kindness and service to others would improve their educational experience. The framework of Organizational Citizenship Behavior is introduced to provide research precedents and a path forward to more holistic integration of kindness and altruism into pedagogical and extracurricular life at a conservatory.
Horace Mann once said “teachers teach because they care” (Gruwell, 2007, 88Gruwell, E. (Ed.). (2007). The gigantic book of teachers’ wisdom. New York: Skyhorse Publishing.). Most educators would agree: a fundamental humanitarianism informs inspiring, effective teaching. Past research has affirmed teaching that is altruistic and benevolent—in a word, kind. In 1929, Willard posited that “kindness is a greater factor in pedagogy than some teachers seem ready to admit” (157). Decades later, Nel Noddings (1984) initiated a philosophical exploration of caring in which the unique perspectives of both the provider and the cared-for are viewed relationally. Music education researchers have discussed Noddings’ work in conjunction with instrumental pedagogy (Edgar, 2014Edgar, S. N. (2014). Ethics of care in high school instrumental music. Action, Criticism, and Theory for Music Education, 13(2), 112–137.; Lalama, 2016Lalama, Susana M. 2016. Caring, climate, empathy, and student social behaviors in high school band. Action, Criticism, and Theory for Music Education 15 (3): 180-200.), concepts of music teacher selfhood (Silverman, 2012Silverman, M. (2012). Virtue ethics, care ethics, and ‘The Good Life of Teaching.’ Action, Criticism, and Theory for Music Education, 11(2), 96–122.), and global ethics (Heimonen, 2012Heimonen, M. (2012). Music education and global ethics: Educating citizens for the world. Action, Criticism, and Theory for Music Education, 11(1), 62–80.). Elliott suggested “artistic citizenship” as a model of music teaching and learning infused with “an ethic of care—care for oneself and for the health of social communities” (Elliott, 2012, 22Elliott, D. J. (2012). Another perspective: Music education as/for artistic citizenship. Music Educators Journal, 99(1), 21–27. doi:10.1177/0027432112452999). Taken together, these writings express a common theme: before one can teach music, one must be able to teach students, which requires caring about them. Therefore, kindness and care should be imperative in collegiate music teaching environments, which serve as models of effective music pedagogy.
Elsewhere, an emerging science of “paying it forward” (Svetkova & Macy, 2014) has touted the social contagion of generosity; that is, if individuals receive tangible help from a stranger instead of merely witnessing a helpful act, they are much more likely to help someone else in need. Such helping behaviors have been grouped using the term altruism: “voluntary and intentional help to another, offering no external reward and perhaps even a cost to the helper” (Collett & Morrissey, 2007, 2–3Collett, J. L., & Morrissey, C. A. (2007). The social psychology of generosity: The state of current interdisciplinary research. Report for the John Templeton Foundation Generosity Planning Project.). In response to heightened awareness of bullying and harassment in PK-12 schools, several generations of students have progressed through compulsory character education programs such as Character Counts! and Values in Action! Today, kindness and compassion comingle with advanced coursework, extracurricular endeavors, and scholarships as emblems of scholastic merit. Community service is now a graduation requirement in many high schools across the United States; school boards in 19 states award credit towards graduation for volunteering and service learning (Sparks, 2013Sparks, S. D. (2013). Community service requirements seen to reduce volunteering. Education Week, 33(1), 6.). The idealism of giving of oneself verges on zeitgeist status among millennials, resulting in manufactured messages of kindness and altruism that crop up in unusual places. Advertising campaigns for corporations such as Coca-Cola and McDonalds feature dropped wallets being returned and umbrellas freely given away to strangers caught in the rain. For Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran, two of popular music’s biggest stars, benevolence forms the bedrock of their brand identities. They have donated millions of dollars to charity, surprised fans by delivering gifts to their homes, and adopted kittens with the same nonchalance displayed by yesterday’s pop stars after trashing a hotel room. In the 21st century, it is cool to be kind.
It seems quite perplexing, then, to read that the current generation of young adults is the most narcissistic and entitled in modern history (Brooks, 2016Brooks, A. C. (2016, February 13). Narcissism is increasing. So you’re not so special. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/14/opinion/narcissism-is-increasing-so-youre-not-so-special.html?_r=0). According to psychologist Peter Gray (2014), people high in narcissism “fail to help others unless there is immediate gain or recognition for doing so. [Narcissists] often think they are above the law and therefore violate it, and readily trample over others in their efforts to rise to the ‘top,’ which is where they think they belong”(1). Gray has identified multiple sources of this increased narcissism, including “misguided” character education/self-esteem campaigns, overemphasis on achievement and competition in education, and reduced opportunities for children to engage in free play with others. The artificiality of social media likely has contributed to narcissism as well (Gnambs & Appel, 2017Gnambs, T., & Appel, M. (2017). Narcissism and social networking behavior: A meta-analysis. Journal of Personality. doi:10.1111/jopy.12305). Within conservatories, pervasive self-interest, whether real or perceived, stems from the cultural dynamics of talent. After completing an extensive ethnography within a conservatory, Kingsbury (1988) discovered that
musical talent is at once the most pervasive phenomenon and the biggest issue in conservatory life. While everyone in the conservatory has talent, it is also the case that nearly all [students] are very much concerned with how much talent they have, and sometimes with whether they really have talent at all (59).
Thus, a contradiction has emerged—one of a selfless generation displaying selfish dispositions— that should be examined within music education and especially the allegedly egotistical and talent-obsessed conservatory model (Kim, 2008Kim, C. (2008). Envy among students in music school (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses. (UMI no. 3348577)). Narrative exploration will help determine whether music education at its highest levels broadly exemplifies the ethical principles of empathy or narcissism.
To what extent does the affective context of a venerated music conservatory promote kindness and altruism? Would the orthodoxies of the traditional conservatory model benefit from a “pedagogy of kindness?” I explored these broad questions by performing the roles of help-provider and help-seeker within a prestigious American music conservatory during the busy final weeks of the 2016 spring semester. Although I drew inspiration from ethnomethodology (Garfinkel, 1967Garfinkel, H. (1967). Studies in ethnomethodology. Cambridge: Polity Press.), participatory action research (Chevalier & Buckles, 2013Chevalier, J. M., & Buckles, D. J. (2013). Participatory action research: Theory and methods for engaged inquiry. New York: Routledge.), and positive social deviance (Spreitzer & Sonenshein, 2004Spreitzer, G. M., & Sonenshein, S. (2004). Toward the construct definition of positive deviance. American Behavioral Scientist, 47, 828–847. doi:10.1177/0002764203260212), I designed the project as a narrative, not as an empirical study. Ethnomethodology explores the conventions of everyday social norms and interactions through deliberate disruption of social order. Similarly, positive social deviance consists of prosocial behaviors that violate social conventions—“random acts of kindness” such as paying for a stranger’s coffee while in line at a café. Additionally, I was influenced by Stoddard’s article (2014) detailing his quest to realize childhood superhero fantasies by freely helping New Yorkers with simple tasks. To advertise, he placed Craigslist ads and even stood on Manhattan sidewalks holding a sign that read “In a jam? I want to help you today. Just ask!” At first, his altruism was met with cynicism—even threats of violence—but eventually, he helped strangers with a variety of tasks and, by his own account, emerged a more giving, compassionate person.
The project site was a conservatory located in the northeastern United States known for educating high-caliber performers, teachers, and leaders. It maintains an acceptance rate of less than 15%, undergraduate enrollment of approximately 500 students, and is consistently ranked as one of the top schools of music in the country. My interest in this project stemmed from my experiences as a student and faculty member in a variety of collegiate environments. As an undergraduate, I attended a large public university that offered a traditional music curriculum in an impersonal, teacher-centered format. My graduate education at a conservatory featured more individualization and interaction with faculty, and also provided opportunities to observe both positive and negative aspects of conservatory life. More recently, I have taught music at a private university, conservatory, and urban public university, and have grappled with varying degrees of concern regarding the often coarse and selfish atmosphere of postsecondary music study.
In addition to the broad questions stated above, I posed more focused questions of interest to help guide the endeavor: (a) How do conservatory students react to offers of and requests for altruistic help?, and (b) What might their reactions signify for the future of the conservatory model? After obtaining permission to carry out the narrative project from the conservatory’s Institutional Review Board and Dean’s Office,1IRB approval was required by the conservatory even though the project was not designed as an empirical study.I reserved a table within the entrance hall at various times within the span of four weeks. Following Stoddard, I created a handheld promotional sign which read “Do you need help today? I’m devoting myself to serve fellow musicians this week. How can I help you?” Since simply holding a sign at the table did not prove to be an effective recruitment strategy, and may have been viewed as an extension of the institution and its formal systems, I also engaged in direct solicitation. After stopping to talk to me and listening to my explanation of the project, participants consented by choosing to accept my help with their academic, musical, or personal tasks. Ethical concerns compelled me to disclose the fact that my altruistic offers were part of a study. I chronicled my experiences by audio recording interactions and logging field notes and memos. I transcribed recordings for further analysis and direct quotation in my narrative account. While generalizability is limited, outcomes may be insightful for scholars and practitioners alike, and possibly transferable to a variety of music learning environments. I present data in a series of subjective first-person vignettes and intersperse precedents from past research to make theoretical connections. To conclude, I incorporate an existing framework—OCB, or organizational citizenship behavior (Organ, Podsakoff, & MacKenzie, 2006Organ, Dennis W., Philip M. Podsakoff, and Scott B. MacKenzie. (2006). Organizational citizenship behavior: Its nature, antecedents, and consequences. Thousand Oaks CA: SAGE.)—that positions kindness at the core of institutional dynamics. OCB is prosocial action undertaken by a constituent to benefit colleagues within an organization, with little regard to defined job roles or formal reward systems. After discussing OCB in light of the findings I gleaned from interacting with students, I conclude by discussing practical implications for conservatories and schools of music.
Vignette 1: “Can I Help You?”
“I’m dedicating myself to other musicians today. Need a hand with anything?” I felt embarrassed asking the student as she walked past me, especially since we had never met. “No, I’m good,” she muttered awkwardly, increasing her gait to escape my proposition. Another student approached—this time, a young man. “No thanks, man,” he replied. “My recital was last week, so now I’m the most relaxed person ever. I could’ve used you last week, though!” Sheepishness turned to frustration. Before me, as the morning sunlight illuminated the marble and wood fixtures of this top-rated conservatory’s grand entrance hall, dozens of students scurried to classes and lessons, or shared a laugh with friends. I wondered, “Is there no one who needs my help?” A young student shuffled down the wide hallway, precariously balancing two saxophones, an instrument stand, and a large backpack. This was my chance. “Need help?,” I offered. “No,” he replied, refusing to make eye contact. “You sure?” “Yes, I’m sure,” he grimaced as he struggled up the stairs. A lone female neared and cut me off before I could speak. “I’m sorry, I’ve actually got to be going,” she preemptively declared. She never even broke stride.
As my feeble attempts at altruism continued throughout the morning, I grew more confident in my solicitations. News spread of my presence and purpose, and the curious expressed their thanks: “This is really great, what you’re doing!,” or “Thank you for being here.” One particularly interested student tried to soothe my disheartened spirit: “You know, people don’t like to accept help. They see it as a sign of weakness.” I countered, “How about you—do you need help with anything?” “I just need to practice, and I don’t think you can do that for me!,” she laughed. My visions of becoming a musical Mother Teresa melted with each rejection; yet, each unsuspecting student who approached brought renewed hope. “I’m a pretty fortunate person,” a female voice student replied to my offer, “but I do need a ride to the chiropractor Friday morning.” (If not for the class I had to teach that morning, I would have obliged.) A student from overseas wondered if I could help with his taxes. Realizing the limits of my abilities, I recommended some tax software and sent him on his way. Suddenly, a legitimate opportunity materialized: a senior violin major overheard my proposition and asked if I would place a call to the Admissions Office at a competing top-flight conservatory. She was having trouble amending the list of preferred studio teachers she submitted with her application for their master’s program—maybe I could intercede? “These admissions people are difficult,” she explained. I offered to place the call, but she backed out, wondering aloud whether it might be “too weird.” Just then, the elevator doors opened and a man emerged pushing a dismantled nine-foot grand piano teetering on a furniture dolly. The instrument shuddered as he jostled it loose from the elevator walls and forced it over the threshold into the main hall. “At last!,” I thought excitedly. “Need a hand with that, sir?” I confidently posed as he steered the keel around the knees of passersby. “No, no— I’m good.” Under my breath, I grumbled: “You’ve got to be kidding.”
I scattered chocolates and hard candies on the table that served as my home base in an attempt to attract more attention, but they never did much good. Over my shoulder, the large portrait of the school’s first director loomed over me, his eyes following my every move. I wondered what he would make of this social experiment. I resumed my solicitations, and although students seemed comfortable talking with me, few ever considered accepting. A power relationship unfolded as soon as I offered assistance: In my altruism, I generated a controlling atmosphere in forcing potential recipients to stop, awkwardly consider my proposal, and determine their response. Even my appearance and manner of speaking might have created the impression that I was a professor or administrator at the school, further contributing to an unequal power dynamic. The handful of actual faculty members who walked by and read my sign reacted coolly, with puzzlement or indifference. Several assumed I was trying to help them, and admitted that they had nothing to give me to do. “I’ve finished all my grading, but thank you!,” one professor offered. A jazz saxophone master’s student stopped to seek advice regarding his career path. After listening to him detail the various factors—his upcoming summer gig in Maine, the fact that his girlfriend lives in South Dakota and will soon begin medical school—I highlighted the plentiful opportunities surrounding him and urged him to assess each to determine the best fit. This was the best advice I could offer absent a more detailed accounting of his academic and musical strengths. “You’re studying kindness?,” he prodded. “What do you plan to do with that?” I smiled and joked “I’m not sure...,” and then explained the purpose of my exploratory project.
“Were You Rushing, or Were You Dragging?”
Music education at the conservatory level tends to be portrayed as anything but a caring endeavor. Legends abound of cutthroat competition—the now-proverbial razor-blades-between-piano-keys drama—which have been further perpetuated in books, film, and mass media communications. Austrian novelist Elfriede Jelinek’s Die Klavierspielerin (1983) portrays a sadomasochistic piano instructor at the Vienna Conservatory whose depravity and manipulation of students knows no end; the 2001 film adaptation (The Piano Teacher) garnered Isabelle Huppert a Cannes Film Festival award for Best Actress. More recently, Whiplash (2014) intermingled many stereotypes regarding conservatory study, including intense competition and envy among students, depression, suicide, and of course, a tyrannical monster of a teacher. J. K. Simmons’ performance as jazz director Terence Fletcher reached its peak in the memorable “were you rushing, or were you dragging?” scene—made complete by his repeated slapping of a student and hurling of a chair at his head—and garnered Simmons an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Even that most saccharine of cinematic forays into music education, Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995), showcased the contentiousness and disappointment awaiting the professional musician, resulting in Golden Globe and Oscar nominations for Richard Dreyfuss’s portrayal of the titular character. Apparently, negative portrayals of music education fascinate a segment of the moviegoing public. While it would be easy to dismiss these examples as Hollywood stereotypes, past research has indicated that the negative light cast upon conservatory music education originates from observed evidence.
According to Kim (2008), music conservatories are “comparative and competitive” organizations where inferiority and envy result from the comparing, rating, and ranking of student efforts. Special reverence is reserved for studio faculty in an arrangement that closely resembles the classic master-apprentice model. Kogan (1987) described this arrangement as follows: “the student never forgets that he is the apprentice at the feet of the master. The teacher is an artist and artists have egos. The student is an extension of his ego, his puppet, his lump of clay to mold, the apostle to spread his word” (85–86). Findings of research on the social construction of learning have demonstrated that educational contexts rife with envy inspire students to engage in a range of negative behaviors, including spreading malicious gossip about competitors, harassing them, and sabotaging their work (Vecchio, 1995Vecchio, R. P. (1995). It’s not easy being green: Jealousy and envy in the workplace. In G. R. Ferris (Ed.), Research in personnel and human resources management, vol. 13 (pp. 201–244). Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.). On the other hand, nonmalicious envy can motivate positive behaviors when students admire the talents of competitors, learn from them, and work to constructively improve their own abilities. As Roberts (1993) explained, young musicians desire validation of their identities within their school community, a process that sometimes results in behaviors that seem “weird, odd, or strange” to outsiders (29). Landes (2008) discovered little evidence of cutthroat competitiveness in two schools of music, but reiterated that student well-being hinges on the development of strong, nurturing relationships with faculty. However, Landes also found that conservatory students had fewer opportunities to experience traditional college life than non-music students, potentially affecting their health and social development.
Along with being comparative and competitive, conservatory environments built on fear and envy may also be infective. Numerous researchers have suggested that collegiate music majors experience anxiety and mental distress at higher rates than comparable students who study other disciplines (Butler, 1995Butler, C. (1995). Investigating the effects of stress on the success and failure of music conservatory students. Medical Problems of Performing Artists, 10, 24–31.; Land, 1979Land, Mary S. 1979. The role of counseling in the career development of musicians—A case Study. Ph.D. diss., Teachers College, Columbia University.; Schneider & Chesky, 2011Schneider, E., & Chesky, K. (2011). Social support and performance anxiety of college music students. Medical Problems of Performing Artists, 26, 157–163.). Alongside performance anxiety, college music students disproportionately contend with high levels of isolation, emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, perfectionism, narcissism, and insecurity (Bernhard, 2010Bernhard II, H. C. (2010). A survey of burnout among college music majors: A replication. Music Performance Research, 3(1), 31–41.; Van Fenema et. al., 2013Van Fenema, E., Julsing, J. E., Carlier, I. V., van Noorden, M. S., Giltay, E. J., van der Wee, N.J., & Zitman, F. G. (2013). Musicians seeking psychiatric help: A preliminary study of psychiatric characteristics. Medical Problems of Performing Artists, 28, 9–18.). They experience unique forms of stress, both productive (eustress) and destructive (distress) (Sternbach, 2008Sternbach, D. J. (2008). Stress in the lives of music students. Music Educators Journal, 94(3), 42–48. doi:10.1177/002743210809400309). Criticism pervades. Years of practice in isolation do not guarantee mastery. Constant performing and gnawing perfectionism leave little time for relaxation and play. Dews and Williams (1989) surveyed music majors at three schools of music and found that 96% of them had sought help with high stress levels. However, almost all of them considered formal counselling as a last resort; instead, they reached out to those closest to them for assistance, including mentors at school. Tracing the sources of music students’ mental distress requires a balanced assessment of factors. Perhaps students drawn to formal music study are more prone to certain conditions. The practicalities of being a collegiate music major may contribute, such as unhealthy amounts of practice in isolation, ever-growing performance obligations during non-school hours, and constant talk of dismal career prospects. Yet, these student-centric factors do not eclipse the organizational and educational codes that higher education music professionals promulgate on a daily basis and insist students heed. Kogan (1987) brilliantly encapsulated this atmosphere in the title of her conservatory exposé: “Nothing but the Best.”
Vignette 2: Unity in Diversity- Finding Sekaha
I felt optimistic as a new day dawned and sunlight poured into the entrance hall. Over a week had passed since my sessions began and students were growing more receptive as they recognized me. A lone female approached, read my sign in stride, and whispered “that’s nice” to herself as she strolled by. These students were living inside their heads, trapped in thought. Many seemed to lack awareness of the people and situations around them—more distant than indifferent. An undergraduate stopped and said “I have a question for you: How often does someone ask you for help with something that you just can’t do?” I laughed and mentioned the earlier tax preparation request. “Well, my backpack has a torn strap. Do you sew?,” she asked tentatively. “Actually, I do. Can you leave it here? I’ll try to find a needle and thread.” I had no idea where to find those items, but I figured I would worry about that later. She hesitated: “I need my backpack for my next class...I’ll come back later.” She never returned. Feeling a bit dejected, I noticed commotion by the elevators. Two students struggled to negotiate a large push cart filled with metallic instruments over the threshold and down the hallway to the recital hall entrance. I immediately recognized the shiny, colorful instruments as components of a gamelan. Running over, I startled the students with my battle cry: “Need a hand with that?!” “No, we’ve got it.” They disappeared into the recital hall, returning moments later with the now-empty cart. “C’mon, guys...I’ve got nothing but time!” They relented: “Um...okay.”
Over the course of the next hour, I held open doors, hauled gongs, steered carts teetering with oddly-shaped wooden and metal pieces, and helped assemble the set. Apparently, the ensemble was performing that night, and I had joined a volunteer crew engaged in the hours-long process of moving not one but two complete gamelans. Everyone seemed surprised that I was helping with this unglamorous task as a nonmember, but they welcomed me as an honored guest, offered me food, and invited me to the performance that night. Arms filled with metal and bamboo, we discussed how the collective effort of setting up for a performance serves as an important and fulfilling aspect of ensemble music-making. “It’s anticipation—it gets your adrenaline going!,” one student remarked. Within this conservatory, a monolith of individualism, I finally found equality and humility. In actuality, the gamelan members did not need my help; they humbled themselves by allowing me to contribute to their performance. Even a cursory glance at the history and philosophy of gamelan performance—honor, interdependence, the nonhierarchic sekaha groups— reflects this (Spiller, 2008Spiller, H. (2008). Focus: Gamelan music of Indonesia. New York: Routledge.; Tenzer, 2000Tenzer, M. (2000). Gamelan Gong Kebyar: The art of twentieth-century Balinese music. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.). For the first time since starting this adventure, I felt benevolent, valuable, and validated, and while my help might not have been needed, it was undoubtedly wanted.
After we hauled the final set of metallophones to the stage, I bid farewell to my new friends and, with a spring in my step, trotted back out to my usual perch in the entrance hall. I enthusiastically bellowed “need a hand with anything?” to an undergraduate female as she walked past; her awkward “no...” and shady side-eyed glance constituted what was probably the most negative reaction I had elicited yet. Back to reality. A mother and daughter visiting the school asked for directions to a professor’s studio, so I gave them the room number and showed them to the elevator. A young male violinist dressed in concert black strolled down the main hall with his violin in one hand and a steaming cup of coffee in the other. He called the elevator and, while waiting, lost his grip on the coffee cup, which fell and exploded into a caffeinated nightmare. As the blast radius expanded, coffee dripping off the walls and streaming down the hallway, I sprang into action with utmost confidence that the incident was preordained. I dashed over to the young man, who appeared to be on the verge of tears, and calmly told him “Don’t worry—I’ll take care of it.” He looked hesitant and confused. “Um,” he stuttered, “I need to stay and clean this up.” Ignoring him, I continued: “Are you headed to a performance?” “Yes—studio class,” he replied. “Then this is the last thing you need to worry about. Just go!” I contacted facilities workers and stayed in the vicinity to direct traffic around the calamity. I felt useful, proud, and in control. “Watch your step here!,” I shouted to those nearby. The violin student was still hanging around in the background. I turned to him and said “You don’t understand—I’m supposed to do this. Facilities is on the way—just go give a great performance!” He finally disappeared into the elevator. A man arrived with a mop, and I excused myself, silently cheering a job well done.
While tending to the coffee catastrophe, a female undergraduate student had taken residence at my table and was furiously typing on her computer. I tried speaking with her but received no reciprocation. “Not much of a conversationalist,” I thought. I continued trying to give away my help to passersby for 15 or 20 minutes, and once foot traffic waned, I asked the stressed-out student if I could help her with her project. What followed was extraordinary. She launched into an 18-minute exposition on critics’ conceptions of Tchaikovsky’s work in light of his homosexuality and how they had audaciously superimposed his secret life onto his music. In less than an hour, she explained, she would present this thesis to her music history class as a final project. I listened patiently and expressed great curiosity. My interest in her work may have opened a window of opportunity for her to practice and refine her presentation with me as her audience. I encouraged her, offered advice occasionally, and complimented her strong argumentation skills. She gradually relaxed, exuding more confidence in her prospects of performing well. She was becoming the expert. After about 20 minutes, I offered to go elsewhere to allow her time to finish her work. She ignored my attempt at politeness and launched into an all-out narration of her plan of attack. “Oh! Now I know what to do here! I’ll move this passage to the bottom of page two!,” she exclaimed. “I just need to figure out how to shorten this part,” she continued. She eventually departed for her class meeting and ensuing presentation with an air of confidence and determination. I made sure to say goodbye, offered her good luck, and told her “I know you’ll do a great job.” Once she disappeared up the stairs, it struck me: I never even learned her name.
When Only the Best Will Do
Consider the byproducts of the traditional conservatory curriculum—those concepts and skills either taught by accident, or not taught at all. Eisner (2001) argued that every school essentially maintains three curricula: (a) the explicit curriculum announced to the public, (b) an implicit curriculum based on content and values not promoted in the explicit curriculum but learned nevertheless, and (c) a null curriculum comprising the content, perspectives, and ideals not taught. Eisner believed the null curriculum to be as important as the explicit, if not more so, because it represents the beneficial intellectual processes and content areas that an educational system has concealed from its students. This includes affective understandings, like empathy or a lack thereof, that “illuminate the ways in which the culture of both the classroom and the school socializes (students) to values that are a part of the structure of those places” (88).
Conservatories and schools of music explicitly teach technique, artistry, scholarship, and assorted skills related to the craft of music. What do they maintain as implicit and null curricula? Understandings conveyed through implication might include the following: music is a profession based on scarcity; beating others through mistake reduction leads to success; and demanding, borderline abusive teachers might be terrifying, but they get the most out of their students. The null curriculum of a music school comprises skills and perspectives that either get pushed far out of sight or are not represented at all. These might be mindsets like empathy, artistic citizenship, or open-mindedness regarding non-music career paths, or they might encompass broader philosophies regarding music’s relational, restorative, spiritual, or ineffable powers. Furthermore, dimensions of creativity such as imagination, spontaneity, play, and the importance of taking risks and making mistakes are easily eclipsed by the pursuit of perfection—more practice, additional repertoire, the next opportunity to compete.
And whither kindness? When only the best will do, selflessness often yields to insecurity and fear. Does not art bespeak kindness? Van Gogh (1888) believed that “there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people” (1), a sentiment also proffered by Pressfield (2002) and even Beethoven (Beethoven et. al., 1972). With so much to teach and little curricular space for extra initiatives, it seems hard to blame conservatories for not prioritizing citizenship. However, the current generation of college students is keenly attuned to organizational ethics of care. Millennials are especially focused on public service and social issues, and, according to Zeiger (2013), “might be the most civically-inclined cohort” in generations (1). Thus, the day may come when, in the process of making their college decisions, prospective students ascribe equal weight to a school’s music curriculum and its “pedagogy of kindness”—the opportunities it provides students to positively influence the lives of others through music. Although some schools of music have recognized the rising tides of artistic citizenship (Elliott, Silverman, & Bowman, 2016), traditional models of conservatory education persist in the majority of cases. Ultimately, the ideals of artistic citizenship are not necessarily at odds with artistic values; on the contrary, a fulfilling life as an artist depends upon a balance of both.
Vignette 3: “Can You Help Me?”
Sensing the need for a different angle to examine altruistic tendencies, I switched roles and became the help-seeker. Since I had spent so much time in the main entrance of the conservatory conspicuously offering my help, thereby potentially contaminating further interactions with members of the school community, I relocated to a different wing of the school complex and focused on interacting with students whom I did not recognize from previous encounters. I designed three scenarios that, while perhaps commonplace in schools of music, imposed on students’ time, patience, and perceptions of social norms (see Garfinkel’s “breaching experiments,” 1967). In the first and simplest social experiment, I purposely dropped a concert band score and parts onto the floor in three busy corridors of the school. I performed this act of deception three times, achieving maximum scatter in the final iteration. On each occasion, everyone in the vicinity hurried over to assist me with absolutely no hesitation. I thanked them profusely; “no problem” was the most common reply. As they finished retrieving the parts and reassembled them into a pile, more students arrived and seemed genuinely disappointed that they could not contribute. An hour later, I spilled the parts again in a large stairwell. Seemingly out of thin air, three people appeared and started retrieving parts. One male student bent near me to grab the now-rumpled score; the tendonitis brace on his wrist caught my attention. I thought about asking the help-providers to organize the parts in score order, but that level of fraud made me feel guilty. Looking into the eyes of those rushing to help me, I could see their gentleness, the genuine concern that they felt. Obviously, my ruse did not constitute a perfectly reliable test of student altruism, and of course I did not expect people to flee when they saw me in need. Yet, even though none of them said much, it meant something to them: they were glad to help someone in need, even in a small way.
For my second help-seeking scenario, I “prepared” a violin by detuning the strings and removing the bridge. I approached three female students sitting on a couch in a lounge area; one had a violin case strapped to her back. I improvised a plea: “Excuse me, I have a bit of an emergency. I don’t play violin—I’m learning for a music ed course—and look what happened!” I showed them the forlorn-looking instrument and held out the bridge in the palm of my hand. Two of the students excused themselves, leaving me alone with the student carrying a violin. Without hesitation, she took the instrument from me and quickly reset the bridge, holding it in place with one hand while winding slack in the strings with the other. Her fingers moved quickly. She expertly pushed and pulled the bridge, sliding it down the body of the violin to find the perfect placement. Then, she began to tune the instrument by ear. “Do you have perfect pitch?,” I inquired. She laughed but forgot to answer—there was no need; we both knew. I thanked her profusely and, as she collected her things, asked if there was anything I could do to help her. “No...,” she said, almost throwing away her response as she disappeared around the corner. In an elapsed time of two minutes, she ended my crisis with her kindness. I peeked around the corner and saw her enter her violin professor’s studio for a lesson—exactly two minutes late.
For my third and final scenario, I found a rather difficult music theory assignment exploring the tonal implications of a Franck piano prelude and pleaded with random students to help me complete it. “I’m in a bind—I really don’t know what I’m doing!” was the opening line of my dramatic monologue. My first participant, a graduate student, examined the notation in silence for two or three minutes before stumbling through an explanation centered on unconventional resolution of dominant seventh chords. I squinted in concentration, desperate to follow his train of thought. “What class is this for?,” he suddenly asked. I made up something about a graduate theory review seminar. He offered a stammering sermon about music theory’s weaknesses as a discipline while packing up his laptop and other belongings a bit too quickly. “Music theory is so...ambiguous,” he asserted. At once, he sprang up, offered an apology that he couldn’t help more, and ran off. I moved on to a senior undergraduate violinist sitting alone in one of the student lounges. “I don’t know—theory was never my strong suit,” she explained. Yet, she stayed and tried to deduce the passage until she was sure I had an analytic direction to pursue. “I know that other French composers like Debussy have parallelisms all over the place—maybe start with that?” She also wanted to know what class this was for, I suspect because it was much more difficult and less concrete than your typical undergraduate theory assignment. Still, she wanted to help, and it was not until I twice stated that I felt like I had a path to pursue that she rose, offered her best wishes, and walked off.
I moved to a different area within the building and found an undergraduate clarinetist waiting for a friend. I showed him the assignment. “Geez, it’s been a while...you’re putting me on the spot here!” he giggled. “I think they just mean nonharmonic tones, so look for those.” He reviewed the passage again but seemed convinced of his own analytical limitations. He wondered aloud, “Do you play piano?—enough to just play through the chord structures to see how everything fits and how the nonharmonic tones resolve?” “I could probably do that,” I admitted. He continued: “My main advice is to listen, so you know when things deviate from your expectations.” Like the others, he wanted to know which class would require such a “cruel” assignment. I perceived that all three students felt a bit of anxiety that they did not understand the assignment much better than I did, and that they would be facing the same type of panic and confusion in future theory courses. Selflessness quickly turned to a more inward view of their own abilities in music theory. Yet, although no one seemed to have the answers I was seeking, that did not stop them from trying to help.
The Golden Rule, or a Gilded Lily?
The first question I posed was “how do conservatory students react to offers of and requests for altruistic help?” Though a complete answer to this question cannot be gleaned from the limited experiences I detailed in the above narrative, several important insights emerged. Most of the students who decided to stop and hear my offer to help were perplexed by my social experiment—perhaps they did not perceive it as altruistic. Others seemed irritated by it, and some expressed their gratitude. Yet, keeping in mind the novelty and artificiality of the social context I created, I was struck by the fact that almost every one of the over 100 conservatory students I propositioned declined my help. One student offered the following explanation:
Personally, I tend to try to find my own solution first, and if I feel that I’m out of my depth, then I’ll find someone that I feel would know what to do. [Seeking help] is something that requires effort. There’s so much going on here that, if you need help with something, it’s very important to make it well-known.
Jones (1998) observed similarly mixed reactions to unsolicited offers of help within an educational environment: “Even a simple act of kindness is not always welcome...reactions can range from surprise to disbelief, joy to cynicism, and excitement to anger” (180). Many researchers agree: The social norms and roles underpinning interpersonal relations complicate reactions to helping behaviors, especially within organizational contexts (Liu & Loi, 2017; Schaumberg & Flynn, 2009Schaumberg, R., & Flynn, F. J. (2009). Differentiating between grateful and indebted reactions to receiving help. In S. R. Thye & E. J. Lawler (Eds.), Altruism and Prosocial Behavior in Groups (pp. 105-132). Bingley UK: Emerald Group Publishing Limited.). Still, the students I encountered consistently portrayed their conservatory as a helpful place, but also stated that kindness was not necessarily prioritized by the school:
I don't know if the school itself emphasizes helping others as the most important thing to do. A music school can be a very selfish place, and what we do here can be very selfish in terms of what we want to achieve.
Most singled out the warmth of their studio teacher and the small acts of kindness provided by staff members—secretaries, custodians, and mid-level administrators—as determinants of the support they felt. A few students criticized the social environment within the school, while others felt good about it:
Any reduced social sphere environment creates insular bubbles of people. The people [here] are nice, but gossip spreads very easily, as the school is very small. It's just an inherent part—not even of the culture, just, kind of, the tendencies.
I've heard a lot of nasty things about other conservatories—about how it's very cut-throat, nobody's really genuine, they're just looking out for themselves. But everybody's been pretty helpful here.
Thus, while I might speculate that the lack of willing help-takers was a product of social awkwardness inherent to accepting a stranger’s proposition, my experiences suggested that the students I encountered simply did not need my help. Their needs were being met, albeit informally, by the institutional and social structures supporting them .
In contrast to this lack of help-seeking, I found a high incidence of student altruism—a strong desire to generously provide help with no expectation of reciprocity. Perhaps conservatory students do not need help as much as we think they do. But maybe they need to help more than we realize. One finding of this project concerns the educational and motivational value of providing service opportunities for conservatory students. An emerging body of research in music education highlights the potential benefits of service-learning experiences in preschools, detention centers, and other university-community partnerships (Bartolome, 2013Bartolome, S. J. (2013). Growing through service: Exploring the impact of a service-learning experience on preservice educators. Journal of Music Teacher Education, 23(1), 79–91. doi:10.1177/1057083712471951; Nichols & Sullivan, 2016Nichols, J., & Sullivan, B. M. (2016). Learning through dissonance: Critical service-learning in a juvenile detention center as field experience in music teacher education. Research Studies in Music Education, 38(2), 155-171.). Decades of research on altruism have affirmed the benefits of selfless behavior and concern for others, including reduced incidence of stress and depression (LaFata, 2015LaFata, Alexia. 2015. The science behind why paying it forward makes you feel so damn good. Elite Daily. Retrieved from http://elitedaily.com/life/why-paying-it-forward-feels-good/1091263/), reduced anxiety and increased positive self-image (Collett & Morrissey, 2007Collett, J. L., & Morrissey, C. A. (2007). The social psychology of generosity: The state of current interdisciplinary research. Report for the John Templeton Foundation Generosity Planning Project.), and increased life expectancy (Konrath et. al., 2012Konrath, S., Fuhrel-Forbis, A., Lou, and Stephanie Brown. 2012. Motives for volunteering are associated with mortality risk in older adults. Health Psychology 31: 87-96.). However, some question whether pure altruism can exist at all, and position selfless behavior as a form of social currency used to advance self-serving motives. A similar paradox undergirds Jacques Derrida’s notion of unconditional versus conditional hospitality (Still, 2010Still, J. (2010). Derrida and hospitality: Theory and practice. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.), itself the subject of scholarly attention from music education researchers (Higgins, 2007Higgins, L. (2007). The impossible future. Action, Criticism, and Theory for Music Education, 6(3), 74–96.; West & Cremata, 2016West, C., & Cremata, R. (2016). Bringing the outside in: Blending formal and informal through acts of hospitality. Journal of Research in Music Education, 64, 71–87. doi:10.1177/0022429416637596). According to Babula (2013), viewing altruism as self-serving behavior is missing the point; he argues that pure altruism “occurs in a state outside of the self and the other’s ego...where perspective-taking contributes to motivational development to negate self-interest” (9–10). So, if we set aside the notion that altruism is a veil for egoism, what role might an altruistic ethos play in a school of music? And how is it best cultivated among students?
These queries align with the second question I posed, “What might (students’) reactions signify for the future of the conservatory model?” Of course, this question of interest—much more complex than the first—cannot be fully resolved here, given the limits of this narrative exercise. As a starting point, allow me to postulate a bit and introduce an organizational framework into the discussion. My experiences in this endeavor point to a burgeoning opportunity to re-brand postsecondary music education as a bastion of kindness, empowering the next generation of musicians to shift the profession’s focus from selfishness to selflessness. This can be achieved without reducing high standards and educational rigor. Research investigating student well-being and organizational climate has suggested that qualities like altruism, love, and generosity are not mere amenities—they are central to motivation, student achievement, and a positive institutional environment. A relatively young field of inquiry designates these qualities organizational citizenship behavior (OCB): “individual behavior that is discretionary, not directly or explicitly recognized by the formal reward system, and in the aggregate promotes the efficient and effective functioning of the organization” (Organ, Podsakoff, & MacKenzie, 2006, 3Organ, Dennis W., Philip M. Podsakoff, and Scott B. MacKenzie. (2006). Organizational citizenship behavior: Its nature, antecedents, and consequences. Thousand Oaks CA: SAGE.). OCB differs from altruism in that the motives for prosocial action center on enhancing the collective good of a group bound by shared interests. Researchers have identified various types of OCB, including altruism (helping behaviors), civic virtue (commitment to one’s responsibilities as a member of a larger collective), self-development (improving skills at one’s individual initiative), and sportsmanship (maintenance of a good attitude in the face of adversity) (Podsakoff et. al., 2000Podsakoff, P. M., MacKenzie, S. B., Paine, J. B., & Bachrach, D. G. (2000). Organizational citizenship behaviors: A critical review of the theoretical and empirical literature and suggestions for future research. Journal of Management, 26, 513–63. doi:10.1016/s0149-2063(00)00047-7). Conservatory-based music education does a good job of instilling the importance of the latter attributes. After all, what is a conservatory education if not a proving ground for developing the responsibility, skills, and tenacity required for the music profession? However, it seems that conservatories may lack opportunities for students to practice altruism—helping behaviors neither prescribed nor required—within and without its walls.
Deans and administrators guiding today’s schools of music position community engagement and outreach at the heart of their organizational missions, and rightly so (LMyers, 2010Myers, David. 2010. Music and the public good: Can higher education fulfill the challenges and opportunities (privileges and responsibilities) of the 21st century? College Music Symposium, 50.). OCB might play a role in those efforts, but ideally it would form the foundation of conservatory life in ways not dependent on sweeping curricular modifications or splashy outreach initiatives. Put simply, “reaching in”—establishing a prosocial organizational atmosphere—should precede reaching out. Further, it would be inappropriate to place the onus of selflessness on teachers exclusively, many of whom already desire to do more but struggle with role overload (Foor, 1997Foor III, R. E. (1997). Altruism among high school teachers (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses. (UMI no. 9732274)). An organizational commitment to kindness and a loose framework within which constituents may choose how to contribute are the initial requirements. Here, I provide a few examples to illustrate:
Establishment of a “kindness corps”—a group of volunteers (faculty and students intermingled) who make themselves available to members of the school community for short-notice help with both academic and personal tasks;
Development of social media messaging (e.g., a Facebook page, a custom app, etc.) for expressing gratitude, recognizing the good work of others, or offering altruistic assistance;
Musical philanthropy in the form of charitable fundraising performances, soloist volunteering in hospitals and nursing homes, instrument drives, and other student-driven endeavors.
Encouraging (or requiring) upper-level music administrators to spend one hour per week outside their offices in a public space designated for student and faculty assistance.
The benefits of OCB are not limited to extracurricular affairs and student life. Research links commitment to helping behaviors with measurable improvements to educational experiences and outcomes. An organizational commitment to OCB has been associated with increased job satisfaction (Bateman & Organ, 1983Bateman, T. S., & Organ, D. W. (1983). Job satisfaction and the good soldier: The relationship between affect and employee citizenship. Academy of Management Journal, 26, 587-595. doi:10.2307/255908), reduced attrition (DiPaola & Tschannen-Moran, 2001DiPaola, M., & Tschannen-Moran, M. (2001). Organizational citizenship behavior in schools and its relationship to school climate. Journal of School Leadership, 11, 424–447.), higher scores on performance evaluations (MacKenzie, Podsakoff, & Fetter, 1991conservatory and a university school of music. Ph.D. diss., Loyola University of Chicago. MacKenzie, Scott B., Philip M. Podsakoff, and Richard Fetter. 1991. Organizational citizenship behavior and objective productivity as determinants of managerial evaluations of salespersons’ performance. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 50: 123-150.), and enhanced student achievement (Khalid et. al., 2010Khalid, S. A., Jusoff, H. K., Othman, M., Ismail, M., & Rahman, N. A. (2010). Organizational citizenship behavior as a predictor of student academic achievement. International Journal of Economics and Finance, 2(1), 65–71. doi:10.5539/ijef.v2n1p65). Watters (2013) suggested community-based service learning as an ideal means of “recentering” pedagogy amid the purported rise in narcissism among millennial youth. A commitment to organizational citizenship in conservatories will not only contribute to a better atmosphere for learning, but also prepare students vocationally for a profession based on interpersonal connection and advocacy. Further, the most powerful antecedent to OCB in the collegiate environment is faculty and administrators who model altruism, courtesy, and collegial leadership (Khalid et. al., 2010Khalid, S. A., Jusoff, H. K., Othman, M., Ismail, M., & Rahman, N. A. (2010). Organizational citizenship behavior as a predictor of student academic achievement. International Journal of Economics and Finance, 2(1), 65–71. doi:10.5539/ijef.v2n1p65; DiPaola & Tschannen-Moran, 2001DiPaola, M., & Tschannen-Moran, M. (2001). Organizational citizenship behavior in schools and its relationship to school climate. Journal of School Leadership, 11, 424–447.). In particular, OCB thrives when students perceive equity in educational interactions and believe that their school is a “microcosm of a just world” (Organ & Moorman, 1991, 12Organ, Dennis W. and Robert H. Moorman. (1991). Fairness and organizational citizenship behavior: What are the connections? Social Justice Research 6: 5-18.). Thus, the responsibility for instilling humanitarianism—through a pedagogy of kindness—begins, like any educational initiative, with the faculty.
The purpose of this narrative exercise was to explore student reactions to altruism in the affective context of a music conservatory. Students did not readily accept help, perhaps due to the unconventional nature of the scenarios I created, but they demonstrated a strong desire to give help altruistically. Generally, they perceived the school’s climate as compassionate but stopped short of crediting the school itself with establishing and promoting an ethic of care. Thus, kindness through helping behaviors constituted part of the school’s null curriculum. By bringing this null curriculum to the surface, I may have inadvertently institutionalized it. As a participant in various social vignettes, I experienced frustration at the lack of willing recipients of my help, but was heartened by the lengths to which strangers would go to try to help me. Future researchers might investigate the culture of altruism in arts institutions via more generalizable methods such as survey questionnaires, or by capturing the perceptions of conservatory faculty and administration through qualitative interviewing. Faculty and students eager to learn more about the role of kindness in teaching and learning will find a growing community of like-minded colleagues online, including the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation (https://randomactsofkindness.org) and the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley (greatergood.berkeley.edu). These and other resources provide compelling evidence suggesting that, especially in the often comparative and competitive world of music, kindness matters.
1 IRB approval was required by the conservatory even though the project was not designed as an empirical study.
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Dr. Josef Hanson is an Assistant Professor of Music and the Coordinator of Music Education at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He also serves as President of the Society for Arts Entrepreneurship Education. A graduate of the Eastman School of Music, Hanson received the Donald J. Shetler Prize for Excellence in Music Education as well as numerous grants and graduate awards. His collegiate performing groups have toured nationally and abroad, to venues as diverse as the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. His writing on music education has been or is soon to be featured in Teaching Music, Music Educators Journal, Music Perception, and the Journal of Research in Music Education. Hanson is the founder of the UMass Boston Music Collaboratory, a unique student ensemble specializing in vernacular and non-standard music-making opportunities and community engagement.