Photo: Vera Comploj & Erika Kapin
Violinist Concetta Abbate Talks Trauma, Empathy & The Healing Process Of 'Mirror Touch'
When violinist Concetta Abbate set about writing her second album Mirror Touch, she had a clear vision in mind: to reveal the scars of some trauma from her past and how making music helped her through it. But as she started speaking about the project with friends and other people in her orbit, they started to open up to her about their experiences and struggles.
“They’d say, ‘I want to contribute something. I have some perspective on it,’” Abbate says, speaking from her home in Brooklyn. “Because when you share your own story, people feel comfortable and compelled to share their stories.”
Inspired and moved by what she was hearing, Abbate decided to open these songs up wider. She began a series of conversations with a variety of women and people who identify as nonbinary dealing with mental health issues, and learning how hard it can often be for those folks to advocate for themselves and engage in self care.
From those freeform chats, Abbate composed a suite of 12 gorgeous songs that float between the worlds of modern classical and neo-folk. Using her violin and delicate vocals as a starting point, she relied on spare instrumentation—lightly played drums, guitar, and woodwinds) and a lot of open space. That leaves a lot of room to focus on Abbate’s lyrics, which filters the many stories she heard and absorbed into poignant, poetic verses that use just enough detail to be recognizable to the people that inspired her words, but open-ended enough to allow anyone to find solace within them.
In between giving lessons at Teacup Music, the community music school she founded, and working on new material, Abbate spoke with the us about the creation of Mirror Touch, the therapeutic power of music, and why self-care is so vital to us all.
What can you tell me about the experience of interviewing people for Mirror Touch?
It wasn’t really interviews so much as conversations with people where we found the commonalities in our experiences. That was where I started to think about this concept of mirror touch, which is a really extreme form of empathy. It’s actually a neurodiverse condition—an extreme version of synesthesia where if they see somebody, say, holding a cold glass of water, they actually feel the cold glass of water on their hands. I think a lot of artists are on that spectrum and can relate to going through the world in a kind of porous way.
It can be a difficult thing for anyone to bear the weight of hearing people’s stories of trauma or anxieties. Was that something you were worried about or were you able to keep yourself at a slight remove?
A large part of my livelihood is being a music teacher. I run a private school in Brooklyn teaching adults and kids. When you work one-on-one with someone, you end up being the first person to hear about a lot of difficult situations. It’s something that, as a music teacher, you don’t really get trained to deal with because you’re not a therapist. But the reality is that there’s some overlap there. Once I confirmed it that actually made me a lot more confident when other people approached me with things that are going on. And it actually makes my music lessons a whole lot more productive. So much of that external stuff gets wrapped up in performance anxiety and feeling stuck when you’re practicing. I feel I grew a lot in terms of feeling prepared to have these kinds of conversations with people.
I feel like this record comes along at a strangely perfect time in our world. With so much extra time on our hands, people are going through periods of introspection.
I actually started working on the album three years ago and I had finished recording it last summer. Then I had a hand injury in the fall. I was going to put it out earlier, but it just so happens that it’s coming out now. It’s a weird time to be putting music out because I feel like I don’t know if I should be drawing attention to myself right now. But people really want music to listen to and I feel that, because of all the time I invested in this project, I know that it’s valuable and I know people are going to get something useful out of it.
Was there an aha moment for you when you realized how therapeutic music was for you?
I used to practice for hours and hours when I was in high school, any chance I could get. I just loved practicing violin and viola. At the time, I was not aware that that was a coping mechanism. I had to find a balance in my life. I can’t practice for eight hours a day. I have to work. I think the aha moment came from teaching other people. You see similar patterns. You’ll hear another person express something, and you’re like, “I wish I had that awareness when I was a teenager.” But it’s good. You’re given that gift, and now you might be able to do something about it. That’s why conversation and listening and empathy and validation are so important. As we share perspectives, we build and grow.
Was it a conscious decision to only speak with women and nonbinary people for this project?
It was kind of a coincidence. It wasn’t anything I actually thought out. But I think, historically, certain demographics of people feel more comfortable talking to me. I could also be because men are less likely to express personal feelings and emotions. But if enough people are willing to share their stories, the systemic problems of society start to reveal themselves. You start to see repeated patterns in these stories. Like, “The doctor invalidated my complaints about my pain.” Or “They didn’t respond quickly enough when I had this problem.” I think that’s the value of group storytelling. It’s something I think about a lot. What does that say? What does that reveal about our society?
How much did the conversations you were having inform the writing of the music? Or was the music already mapped out before those happened?
I’d say they definitely informed the way the music sounds. It wasn’t an afterthought. There were two people that I spoke to and connected with artistically that passed away, and I posthumously wrote music for them. When they were gone, it was like, “Oh, this is what I got out of this person’s story,” and it became a direct response to their life. There was one track called “Mis,” which came from a very direct interview with a friend who said, “I want you to write a song for me!” There are some that are little more vague. “Forgetful” is about a few different people. I was reflecting on their experiences and it all meshed together.
Have you played the songs for the people they were written about? How did they respond to what you created?
They loved it. They were really happy to have this collaborative dynamic. There’s one piece that I wrote for this friend who passed away. I have not shared with their family yet. I’m still holding off on it because I really want to make a video for it, and I’m not really sure how their family will react to it. It’s always a risk when you make a piece of art to see how people will interpret it and receive it. But overall, it’s been a good experience.
You've also talked about the importance of self care, and I feel like music plays a part in that.
Yeah! I grew up in a really competitive world with music when i was very young. I was doing a lot of concerto competitions from the time I was in elementary school. I remember wanting to quit and not wanting to play. But when I didn’t play, all of the sudden I had this big question about my identity. And this was all before the age of 12! [laughs] “Who am I if I don’t play violin? No one’s going to value me.” I started realizing that there are so many other values that I get from practicing and learning music. I realized that I couldn’t sustainably play music if winning a competition was my only motivation.
That’s the way I teach music. With all my students, we talk about what we love about practicing. I’ve chosen to devote a lot of time to figuring out how music can be the most beneficial for the person that’s practicing it, and to take away performing for other people as the ultimate goal. I have students who never perform but they play every day. There’s something really special about that—that music is a personal thing instead of a product.
What do you want people to take away from Mirror Touch?
There’s a lot of space in the music, and silence. The instrumentation is really spare and sparse. And that’s really intentional. When we have conversations, there should be a lot of moments of silence and listening. And when there’s space, there’s room for the listener to give the conversation their own meaning. In the sense of the music, with such sparse instrumentation, you can be really creative and you can imbue your own meaning on to it. It’s only giving you the basic outline. I hope that people reflect on communication and how they communicate and how music is linguistic. It’s conversational.