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  • Writer's pictureKevin Shorner-Johnson

“I Like You Just the Way You Are”: Crafting Musical Spaces for Belonging

Originally published in the Pennsylvania Music Educators Magazine, 2023.

As Fred Rogers closed many of his episodes, he sang and fixed his gaze with the affirmation “I like you just the way you are.” I have marveled at his predictive wisdom well before a modern epidemic of loneliness. Experiences of loneliness are at the root of many of our struggles and may be a symptom of our yearnings to belong and be known (Murthy, 2020). From our classroom experiences, we sense that the COVID-19 pandemic significantly escalated preexisting conditions of isolation, anxiety, and loneliness.

Just prior to the pandemic, the 2018 Cigna study surveyed some 20,000 Americans to determine the extent of loneliness using the UCLA loneliness scale. When loneliness scores were broken down by generation, Cigna concluded the youngest survey participants, Gen Z (ages 18-22), made up the “loneliest generation.” And loneliness is not to be trifled with, as researchers have found the mortality risks of loneliness are as severe as well-established risk factors of obesity, physical inactivity, and smoking fifteen cigarettes per day (Holt-Lunstad, Smith, and Layton, 2010). The risks of loneliness apply to all age groups, from infants to the elderly.

Belonging and Belonging Uncertainty

Researchers note that our struggles to belong are at the root of crises of social disconnection, distrust, and extended isolation. Allen et al. (2021) define belonging as a fundamental human need where “one is an integral part of their surrounding systems,” including those of peer groups and classrooms (p. 88). Belonging may happen in a space of “optimal distinctiveness,” when our need for group membership is balanced by our need to be known as unique individuals (Brewer, 1991). When we are separated from social groups or feel out of place, we experience physical-like pain or anxieties of “belonging uncertainty” (Cohen, 2022).

Belonging uncertainty may be experienced in moments when we relate to others as shadows of ourselves. We conform and contort ourselves into new shapes or stereotypes that make us appear to belong, however, the hold of this belonging is always tentative, holding only as long as the mirage might last.

Uncertain states and stereotypes are often prevalent in an age of social media and rising student anxieties.

Stereotypes can be harmful because they undermine the safety of group membership, fixate attributes, and flatten the diversity of our uniqueness. In a foundational study in the journal Science, Cohen et al. (2006) noted stereotype threat was at the root of racial achievement gaps within schools. In this and a series of replication studies, researchers compared a control group with students who were prompted to write about their values.

"Like a talented host at a dinner party, music teachers might envision our teacher selves as architects of classroom spaces that encourage a dance between listening and expression, assimilation and individuation."

Values-affirmed minoritized students demonstrated greater academic resilience than a control condition as they came upon challenging classroom assignments (Cohen, 2006). In follow-up studies, this treatment effect appeared to have lasted as long as two to nine years. Minoritized students, or those likely to question their belonging in a majority context, were most impacted (Easterbrook, Harris, & Sherman, 2021).

These findings may mean that practices that seek to know students “just the way you are” may interrupt spirals

Women listening
Practices of Crafting Spaces for Listening. Photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash

of self-doubt and belonging threat that impact stereotyped or minoritized identities. When we are uncertain about our belonging, we find acceptance in spaces of listening and values-expression. Easterbrook, Harris, & Sherman (2021) reflected, “the message that the intervention portrays the students – that their teachers care about who they are – can instill a sense of trust that their teachers and school have their best interest at heart” (p. 692).

Teachers have power to create norms, open spaces for listening and mattering, and express individuated value.

Teachers are the architects of ‘situation crafting,’ building spaces of belonging (Cohen, 2022). Teachers have power to create norms, open spaces for listening and mattering, and express individuated value. When we express faith in a student’s potential and express respect, encouragement, and listening, these qualities have a significant impact upon threat reduction, performance, belonging, and teacher-student relationships.

Belonging in Musical Spaces

Dr. Elizabeth Parker
Dr. Elizabeth Parker

I find musical spaces to be powerful sites of situation crafting because they invite membership, an alignment of voice, and listening as a practice of mattering to each other. My Pennsylvania colleague, Dr. Elizabeth Parker has a long record of scholarship researching identity, care, meaning making, and belonging within musical contexts.

In interviews with members of three high school women’s choirs, Parker (2018) developed the theme of “opening up my voice and me” to describe how members expressed individuality within group identity. In her recent book, Parker (2020) notes that musical spaces offer opportunities for students to belong, share values, and enter reciprocal relationships. When adolescents make music together, their sense of belonging and shared values are cultivated and expressed in “working with people who strive to improve, repeated interactions of singing certain texts together, and regular practice and performance” (p. 119).

I have spent the past year recording conversations on belonging with musicians and ethnomusicologists around the world through my “Music & Peacebuilding” podcast. This work has taught me there is always a longing within musical experiences of [be]longing. Sandeep Das of the Silk Road Ensemble expressed how our longings may become restorative when they find and listen to the best within each other (Shorner-Johnson, 2021). My interviews with koto performer Ms. Masayo Ishigure, ethnomusicologist Dr. Katherine In-Young Lee, and researcher Dr. Juliet Hess spoke of the threat to belonging when Japanese, Korean, and Asian-American identities are collapsed and marginalized under the weight of stereotype.

San Deep Das and the HUM Ensemble
San Deep Das and the HUM Ensemble

We seem to have a longing to sound our heritage and group identities while also singing uniqueness and individuation. Like a talented host at a dinner party, music teachers might envision our teacher selves as architects of classroom spaces that encourage a dance between listening and expression, assimilation and individuation. We might listen to expressions of values as we simultaneously express the durability of our belief in the value and [be]longing of every student.

Framework of Belonging

Allen et al. (2021) propose a belonging framework that includes competencies, motivations, perceptions, and opportunities. Within competencies, teachers seek to develop students’ “skills and abilities” that express care, respect, and emotional and empathetic understandings (p. 92). In honoring motivations, we nurture longings to find acceptance, connect with others, and belong. Perceptions of belonging operate as feedback loops that include past experiences of loneliness, shame, threat, and acceptance. Some students, especially those with marginalized identities, may carry stories of harm, threat, aggression, and stereotype that protectively resist the vulnerability of classroom belonging. When we recognize that these experiences are carried across classroom thresholds, we may open the potential to seek repair and musical interruptions of isolation, loneliness, and marginalization.

Our musical classrooms and repertoire are laboratories of subjective human experiences of belonging and mattering. We are teachers who can build contexts and craft situations where belonging may flourish. And because of the unique nature of our art, one that calls for imagination, expression, synchrony, voice, silence, and listening, we have a rich canvas upon which to enliven belonging. Our musical cure to loneliness and belonging uncertainty is in crafting spaces where individuality resonates with the harmony of community, where our values are expressed and coalesce around musical goals, and where every message seeks to affirm and bring out the best in each other, just for who we are.


Allen, K. A., Kern, M. L., Rozek, C. S., McInerney, D. M., & Slavich, G. M. (2021). Belonging: A review of conceptual issues, an integrative framework, and directions for future research. Australian Journal of Psychology, 73(1), 87-102.

Brewer, M. B. (1991). The social self: On being the same and different at the same time. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 17(5), 475-482.

CIGNA (May, 2018). CIGNA U.S. loneliness index: Survey of 20,000 Americans examining behaviors driving loneliness in the United States. Cigna.

Cohen, G., Garcia, J., Apfel, N., & Master, A. (2006). Reducing the racial achievement gap: A social-psychological intervention. Science, 313(5791), 1307-1310.

Cohen, G. L. (2022). Belonging: The science of creating connection and bridging divides. W. W. Norton & Company.

Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., & Layton, J. (2010). Social relationships and mortality risk: A meta-analytic review. PLOS Medicine, 7(7), e1000316-e1000316.

Murthy, V. H. (2020). Together: The healing power of human connection in a sometimes lonely world. Harper Collins.

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.

Parker, E. C. (2020). Adolescents on music. Oxford University Press.

Shorner-Johnson, K. (2021). The repair of longing and (be)longing. Music & Peacebuilding.

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