Building Musical Imaginations

by Dr. Kevin Shorner-Johnson

Our newest podcast episode, Singing Connected Relationships in Prison Contexts with Dr. Mary Cohen is an exploration of the power of imagination as a part of restorative, redemptive, and community-building work within prison contexts. When the word “empathy” was introduced into the Western lexicon by Robert Vischer in 1873, the notion of empathy was rooted in an imaginative ability to feel into works of art (Laurence, 2015). Rachel Corbett (2016) writes, “Empathy explained why people sometimes describe the experience of ‘losing themselves’ in a powerful work of art. Maybe their ears deafen to the sounds around them . . . or they lose track of the passage of time” (p. 22). Empathy may be a process of losing the self in the moment to construct new identities and interconnected communities within imaginative space.

Mary Cohen conducts the Oakdale Community Choir

Mary Cohen and Jennie Henley (2018) recently wrote about the imagination of possible selves as “cognitive bridges between the past and future.” As I listened to prison insiders/outsiders offer introductions to concert songs and read stories within the Oakdale choir, I began to understand the power of articulating imaginations in a public space. Many choir members’ spoken introductions articulate who the self is and who the self wants to be. This ritual of public proclamation within a choral concert offers members opportunities to reimagine a new sense of self within the shared accountability of concert space.

Similarly, my earlier conversation with Elizabeth Parker (2018) explored how women’s choirs allow girls to construct new senses of social identity that imagine the possibility of who they are and can become as women. Parker writes that women’s choir participants “felt a sense of mattering” that supported them in literally and metaphorically “opening up my voice and me.” Maybe a sense of mattering is the fertile soil which supports imagination and the development of voice and personhood.

I am also captivated by the interplay of imagination within Mary Cohen’s notion of ubuntu as the work of humanized community building. South African ubuntu is the process of being a person through other persons; a process that engages our imaginative and empathetic capacity to explore, sense, and live into a sense of oneness. Desmond Tutu (1999) articulates that through the oneness of ubuntu, forgiveness reclaims humanness. He says, “What dehumanizes you inexorably dehumanizes me. It [Ubuntu] gives people resilience, enabling them to survive and emerge still human despite all efforts to dehumanize them” (p. 31).

Prominent peacebuilders and theologians have noted the centrality of imagination and connectedness as foundations of empathy and compassion. Bridget Moix (2019) notes that peacebuilders speak of “the ability to imagine new futures as a critical ‘tool’ and a source of ‘power’ in the process of peacebuilding.” Imagination can make hope visible, opening futures of possibility and empowering practices of compassion. The power of artistic or prophetic imagination, according to Brueggeman (1978), is that it allows individuals to lose a sense of numbness and reclaim humanness through awakened senses and emotions. It is for this reason that imagination is one of our three pillars of peacebuilding in our new Master of Music Education program at Elizabethtown College.

This podcast with Dr. Mary Cohen that has challenged the way I think about the role of imagination within identity, restoration, and healing. As arts advocates, we all know of the power of the arts in awakening creative imaginations. The emerging research from Dr. Cohen, Dr. Parker, and the neuroscience of social connection may help us frame our intentions in building selves and connecting communities.

Works cited:

Cohen, M. L., & Henley, J. (2018). Music-making behind bars: The many dimensions of community music in prisons. In B. Bartleet & L. Higgins (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Community Music (pp. 153-171). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Corbett, R. (2016). You must change your life: The story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Laurence, F. (2015). Music and empathy. In Olivier Urbain (Ed.), Music and conflict transformation (pp. 13-25). New York: I.B. Tauris.

Moix, B. (2019). Choosing peace: Agency and action in the midst of war (Peace and Security in the 21st Century). New York: Rowman & Littlefield International.

Parker, E. C. (2018). A grounded theory of adolescent high school women’s choir singers’ process of social identity development. Journal of Research in Music Education, 65(4), 439-460.

Tutu, D. (1999). No future without forgiveness. New York: Random House.

About the guest contributor:

Dr. Kevin Shorner-Johnson

Dr. Kevin Shorner-Johnson is director of music education at Elizabethtown College. His scholarship focuses on the intersection of peacebuilding and music education. As a teacher, he has applied his interests in ethics, spirituality, and peacebuilding to approach music coursework in ways that are rooted within an Anabaptist heritage of peacebuilding, intentional community, and ethical discernment. Dr. Shorner-Johnson’s most recent scholarship will be highlighted in an international book that approaches and critiques the United Nation’s temporal constructions in education policy. His on-the-ground peacebuilding work focuses on building capacity and community within Central Pennsylvania Latina/o communities and using the arts to affirm and embrace the fullness of Puerto Rican identity.