There other day I was thinking about humility vs. what may or may not be considered narcissism in the musical community, but I actually think that empathy as it relates to the musical community is a much more interesting subject. A few months ago I wrote a post about mirror-touch synesthesia. I believe that people who study music develop some synesthetic skills, even if they are not organically "wired" to have synesthesia. I tell my students that musicians develop ears that see and eyes that hear. I also tell them that through practice their sense of touch becomes connected in all sorts of ways to their sense of hearing and seeing. I notice that when people play together a certain degree of empathy pours out of its mysterious lamp, and as people become less and less occupied with what their partners in musical "crime" think of them, the total degree of musical empathy increases.
I wonder if musical empathy is something organic or something that is learned. There are musicians who have excellent coordination of eyes, ears, hands, and arms, but they have difficulty connecting emotionally to others while playing. I am one of those people who always follows and always connects to the people I am playing with, often compensating for another person's lack of ability (or willingness) to connect. I believe that if I try hard enough, I can break down the psychological walls that separate me from my musical partners, and we can make music together. There are also people with whom I don't need to try to connect. We simply connect, even if we are playing together for the first time.
There are people who believe the emotional nature of music, particularly listening to live performances of music, helps people become more empathetic. I think that a faster track towards truly developing empathy comes from active participation in musical activities and consciously practicing the art of connection. I would even venture to say that participating in musical activities (singing together, playing chamber music, and playing and singing in larger groups) teaches people to become better citizens because making the collective experience worthwhile depends on cooperation. It is always necessary in larger non-elite ensembles to find common ground between people with a wide range of musical ability and experience. Learning how to do this in musical situations makes a great example for working together with others in non-musical situations.