Why Merkel was right about the playing the recorder

In October 2016, the German chancellor Angela Merkel spoke at the CDU congress in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, specifically addressing the extreme right-wing AfD’s perception of Islam as condoning anti-constitutional values. She said it was up to citizens to counter this fear of the erosion of western values by upholding Christian traditions, for instance by singing Christmas carols and, “if there’s someone who can play the recorder … asking him [to join in].”

This was met by laughter in the hall, bemusement in the media, and some mischievous jubilation among the professional recorder community including the hashtag #blockflötegegenafd.

Singing together accompanied by recorders to combat fear and save our values?

It doesn’t sound likely, but Merkel was right, and this is why.

My research into why free-lance orchestral musicians continued to work in their job despite their negative outlook regarding future job opportunities and their fear of not earning enough prompted me to ask what exactly it is about their job which makes it so attractive. What is actually going on when an orchestra rehearses and performs together? If musicians are not earning (large amounts of) economic capital, which kind of capital are they earning?

Research by Niina Koivunen points out that the orchestral musician’s work situation is unlike other group working situations because the musicians are all in extremely close physical proximity to one another when they rehearse and perform. Their communication regarding playing together and interpreting the music together is non-verbal: body language cues are extremely important. Central to this is the concept of kinaesthetic empathy: “Kinaesthetic empathy has a capacity to make sense of other people’s experiential movements and coordinate that with our own bodily movements. It includes the placing of oneself in another’s locus without the loss of one’s own.” (Koivunen 2011:64).

Empathy as such – “the ability to comprehend another’s feelings and to re-experience them oneself.” (1990:10) –  is defined by Salovey and Mayer as one possibly central part of emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is considered by Bénédicte Gendron to be the vehicle by which emotional capital is acquired in interactions with others: “emotional identification, perception and expression, emotional facilitation of thought, emotional understanding and emotional management” (2004:7).

This suggests that the kind of capital the musicians are accruing, because of the special nature of their work, is emotional capital.

So, what is emotional capital good for?

Gendron’s research suggests that emotional capital is essential for successful team-building.

If you have built a successful team, then you have managed a high degree of social cohesion, and for anyone who read my last blog post, social cohesion is what happens when there’s a lot of “relatedness” – meaning that members of a group feel that they belong to that group. So it would seem that there is a direct causal correlation between emotional capital and “relatedness”, the intrinsic value that is possibly the most important of the three when it comes to “being happy”.

Going back to Merkel’s Christmas carol singing accompanied by recorders, I think it is clear that aspects of the orchestral rehearsal situation are also taking place in this context: close physical proximity, coordination of body movements, social cohesion promoted by kinaesthetic empathy.

These aren’t the only things that are going on though: a study by the Max Planck Gesellschaft describes how musicians’ brain waves coordinate when they play duets together, and a recent programme on German television reported on how singing in choirs makes people happy – the music sociologist and psychologist, Karl Adamek, spoke in interview on the programme about the positive effects of the hormones that this group activity produces.

All these aspects could apply to other team situations, such as playing football. So, what else is special about Merkel’s scenario?

By picking Christmas carols, Merkel is calling on citizens to actively access their cultural heritage. Cultural heritage is one important value that all the groups in my research correlated with Historically Informed Performance, because an identification with music of the past reinforced a sense of cultural identity, meaning that the people “doing” HIP felt they were part of a group with a long cultural history – another example of “relatedness”.

A recent article in the Guardian describes how on a small scale, knowing about and identifying with one’s own cultural history (in this case intimate family history) is important for being happy and having good emotional health, and my research shows how this works on a large scale for big groups as well.

So, Merkel was suggesting that citizens engage in an activity that would promote social cohesion in terms of the inherited values which define their cultural identity in order to counteract the fear that outside influences may be eroding the basis on which their society works.

Merkel was right: playing the recorder might indeed save the world.


7 thoughts on “Why Merkel was right about the playing the recorder

  1. You know what? I think that yours is the most profound article on promoting social well-being that’s been for a very long while; and that Mme Merkel has suggested the best thing a politician could suggest nowadays. Wise people – or wise ideas – are always ridiculed by the crowd.

    Moreover, I think this idea should be expounded in every possible way. Happiness isn’t a full belly or a cozy place in front of a TV; happiness is relatedness in which self-assertion is possible through communication without losing your own self (not like in a crowd of fans) through helping everyone else assert themselves too. Music making is the best example of this; but there are other things possible, and I have devoted some time to research in these matters trying to find out what they could be like. This is how we can influence a lot of pending issues of today and tomorrow. Thank you!


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