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The Culturephiles

Inner Voices

Alex Mendelsohn on building understanding through deep engagement

Alex M.

Alex MendelsohnProject Manager and Consultant, Tessitura Network

TitleInner Voices


Read/View Time4 min

Our world is a complicated place.

As the world becomes smaller through globalization and political, religious, and cultural divisions become apparent, it feels like people’s deeply held personal beliefs become more pronounced by the day. How can we move forward with our lives and relationships with others, trying to optimize an imperfect situation?

The arts have a unique ability to help us understand and connect with people in a more fulfilling and more productive way by giving us opportunities to practice deep engagement.

The arts have a unique ability to help us understand and connect with people in a more fulfilling and more productive way by giving us opportunities to practice deep engagement.

As a musician, I naturally relate deep engagement to the idea of inner voices in music. Consider a choir. The soprano and bass parts (the outer voices), which provide the melody and harmonic foundation, are fairly easy to distinguish. The alto and tenor parts — the inner voices — add harmonic depth to the music without stealing the spotlight. Identifying and listening to these inner voices increases my appreciation of the music, both as a listener and as a performer.

Here are two musical examples, both personal favorites of mine, to help illustrate the musical idea of inner voices. Each has an animated score to allow you to follow visually what is happening aurally.

Here is J.S. Bach’s “Great” Fugue in G minor, BWV 542, a four-voice piece for organ where each voice enters in succession, reusing and transforming the main melody of the piece.

Want something a bit more complex? Try Thomas Tallis’ 40-voice piece for choir, “Spem in Alium.” A gem of English Renaissance music, this piece was written for five choirs, each with eight separate voice parts. 


Seeking the inner voices can also help achieve a fuller understanding of the visual arts. Look beyond what is depicted on a canvas to discover and decipher hidden symbolism beyond what the eye initially sees. (Some info on symbolism in still life paintings can be found here.

In abstract works, you can go beyond the decadent, saturated color blocks of a Mark Rothko or the exuberant, dizzying lines and splatters of a Jackson Pollock. When you spend time with Pollock’s signature drip paintings, you can sense his movement over and around the canvas as he created the painting. That’s why it’s called “action painting.” Or consider the tension that Rothko puts into his color blocks and wonder what emotion he wanted the viewer to experience when viewing these seemingly simple works.

These “inner voices” can give us a better understanding of and, ideally, appreciation for artwork we may otherwise pass off as “simple” or “so bad my kid could have painted that.”

What does deep engagement look like outside the walls of a museum or concert hall? Here are two applications.

Much of my time as a project manager is spent working with groups of people and figuring out how to balance the practical realities of a project (time and budget) with the expectations and assumptions of those working on the project. Sometimes referred to as “reading the room,” the ability to find unspoken assumptions or mismatched expectations is a key element of successfully managing a project.

Whenever I find myself not clearly understanding what is happening or feeling the push and pull of competing priorities, I try to identify and then carefully listen to the inner voices. Here is the basic process I use:

  1. Pause. Take a few deep, cleansing breaths if I need it.
  2. Actively look past the loudest, most obvious voices or pieces of information.
  3. Listen. Look. What can I see and hear that I might have missed?
  4. Check for understanding and agreement with others. Question if I missed anything that others might have picked up on.
  5. Repeat above steps as needed.

I’ve also seen examples of deep engagement in much larger, high-stakes situations, such as political conflict. A few weeks ago I was working with Belfast Waterfront Hall, a new Tessitura Network member in Northern Ireland. In Belfast, I became fascinated with the history of the period starting in the late 1960s known as The Troubles, when UK Unionists clashed with Irish Nationalists. For three decades, peace was elusive.

Thinking about this conflict, I’d guess that taking a deep breath was probably just the first step to sitting down and starting talks. In 1998, and through a long and often challenging process of deep engagement on political and cultural issues, the two sides reached the Good Friday Agreement, bringing an end to this violent episode of Ireland’s history.

The arts have brought the idea of deep engagement and The Troubles around full circle. Belfast Waterfront Hall occupies the site of the former Oxford Street bus station, where an Irish Republican Army car bomb claimed four lives and injured many more on Bloody Friday in 1972. The sides of buildings in Belfast and Derry/Londonderry are decorated with many murals commemorating The Troubles and you can take tours hosted by local guides. These artistic endeavors, while not eliminating divides, allow both artists and viewers to engage deeply over time and work toward a continued peace and understanding of others as represented through art.  

How can we teach deeper engagement through the arts? While there are many models of aesthetic education out there, one that I find to be broadly applicable and which many art museums use, is a program called Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS). VTS is used to teach students to engage with visual art. The core idea of VTS asks three simple questions:

  1. What do you see?
  2. What makes you say that?
  3. What else can you find?

I think these can be used across arts disciplines and in many other areas of life as well. Answering these three questions in a variety of situations can help each of us begin to teach others and ourselves how to engage deeply.

Finally, I would highly encourage reading Andrew’s experiences of “Learning How to Museum” and “A Novice Learns to Love Ballet,” since both explain deep engagement in artistic settings.

If you’d like to share your experiences with seeing and hearing deeply, I’d love to hear them. Find me through email or at TLCC.


Andrew is on sabbatical. This is the seventh post in a series featuring guest writers from the Tessitura team.


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Alex M.

Alex Mendelsohn

Project Manager and Consultant

Tessitura Network

Alex Mendelsohn is a Project Manager & Consultant with the Tessitura Network.

With a background as an organist/choir director and educator, he enjoys creating shared experiences and understanding within groups, using music to facilitate communication and change. At TLCC, you’ll see Alex working with the TLCC Chorus. When he needs a break from music, you’ll likely find him on his bike, roaming a museum, or engrossed in a good book.

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