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Creative learning and ‘original’ music performance

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Project overview

This project explored the means by which creativity and originality in musical performance are fostered in the teaching studio and practice room. Focusing on advanced students at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama and the Royal College of Music, the research interrogated conceptual constructions of creativity and originality in relation to performance, both of which are diversely defined in both practical and theoretical contexts.

The project addressed six research questions:

  • What qualities are thought to connote originality in given types of performance?
  • How do notions of originality vary across different performance traditions, instruments, and teachers or learners?
  • What teaching and learning techniques are most conducive to transmitting the musical skills and knowledge required to surpass the routine and predictable in musical performance?
  • Should originality necessarily be considered the most important artistic goal for each and every performer?
  • Is originality compatible with the interpretative traditions that many musicians feel inspired or obliged to perpetuate?
  • How can the knowledge and skill acquired in the teaching studio, practice room and classroom be used to maximum benefit in performance?

To address these questions, two postdoctoral Research Fellows – Dr Mirjam James and Dr Karen Wise – carried out fieldwork at the Guildhall School and RCM using a range of methods such as questionnaires, interviews, focus-group discussions, practice diaries, observations of teachers and their students, and ‘video recall’. Their work during the three-year project produced longitudinal data on teaching practices and rehearsal, in an attempt to shed light on the outcomes of given techniques as against intended purpose.

The aims, then, were to describe current practices, the values and assumptions that underlie them, and their outcomes and perceived effectiveness, and to work towards the development of a performance curriculum in which students may aspire to, and attain, a heightened sense of musical inspiration as well as greater expertise. The three project workshops were designed to involve not only scholarly experts but also teachers and students at the RCM and Guildhall School as well as select specialists working in different environments and/or performance traditions. Two of them also involved practitioners outside the Western classical sphere.

This project is prominently featured in the CMPCP film, and a case study based on it appears on the AHRC website.

Project narrative

The two part-time Research Fellows on this project, Karen Wise and Mirjam James, started work in mid-2010 and completed the main research programme in July 2013. Throughout this period they worked closely with Project Director John Rink. The initial stages involved planning meetings within the project team and with key colleagues at the two partner institutions – Helena Gaunt (Guildhall School of Music & Drama) and Aaron Williamon (Royal College of Music). Karen Wise carried out a survey of relevant literature, covering such topics as theories of creativity, the teaching and learning of creativity (particularly within music education), music performance teaching, music performance and expression, and creativity and performance in other areas such as drama.

The first project workshop was held in September 2010, with twenty-nine delegates representing twelve institutions from four different countries. It was designed to open debate and dialogue among people working in diverse areas relevant to the project, including professional performers, conservatoire-based and freelance performance teachers, and researchers in music (classical and non-classical), along with colleagues from other fields who have an interest in creativity. Further details of this workshop are available here.

The two Research Fellows, with input from John Rink, designed and gained ethical approval for the first questionnaire study in Summer 2010. A pilot version of the questionnaire was distributed to members of the European Union Baroque Orchestra, after which the definitive version was launched during Induction Week at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama in September 2010. Completed forms were collected from 415 music students at Guildhall School of Music & Drama, including undergraduates in all years and new postgraduates. The questionnaire investigated students’ ideas about creativity and their views about the teaching and learning of musical skills and abilities relevant to creative/original performance, within the context of the many skills that might be considered important to performing musicians.

At the same time, the foundations were laid for the first phase of fieldwork in the two participating institutions. Meetings were held between the project team and relevant heads of department, all of whom were enthusiastic about the project and keen to assist in recruiting teachers for observational work. It was gratifying to hear the conservatoire colleagues’ views on the potential practical benefits of the project; one spoke in particular of the need for conservatoire-based teachers to think more rigorously and extensively about how an original ‘voice’ can be developed on the part of students about to enter highly competitive, cut-throat professional performance careers, while another said that the project would allow staff to confer about what they themselves do individually and to share ‘good practice’ in terms of developing creative approaches on the parts of their students.

Based on these initial encounters, it was decided to use the first year of fieldwork as an exploratory phase to test different approaches, including focus groups and the observation of one-to-one lessons with video-recall interviews (for all of which ethical approval was obtained from the participating institutions). The outcomes of this work – entitled ‘Inside the teaching studio’ – then served as the basis of the second phase of fieldwork in 2011–12, i.e. ‘Inside the practice room’. The fact that the two fieldwork years were sequentially conceived had practical advantages (not least in terms of establishing contacts and developing working methods at the participating institutions) along with benefits in terms of research outcomes. Further information about the first phase of fieldwork can be found here.

At the second project workshop, which was held in September 2011, the results of the first year of fieldwork were presented to other members of the CMPCP team and the sixteen invited participants, most of whom were practitioners who had taken part in one or more elements of the project to date. Considerable feedback was gained on plans for the ongoing research, especially with regard to the difficult problem of studying assessment mechanisms and the judgements of creative and/or original work that underpin them whether explicitly or implicitly. The slides shown at the workshop can be seen here.

The research undertaken between Autumn 2011 and Spring 2012 included further video-recall interviews with participants from the Guildhall School and the RCM. The students and teachers were first asked to review their filmed lessons and identify extracts that they considered ‘creative’ or important to their creative development; teachers were also encouraged to identify particularly creative aspects in their teaching. After reviewing their footage, each participant took part in an individual video-recall interview, where they played and then commented on their chosen excerpts. This research was written up in the first of the publications to emerge from this project, i.e. ‘Exploring creativity in musical performance through lesson observation with video-recall interviews’, which appeared in the peer-reviewed journal Scientia paedagogica experimentalis in 2012.

The focus of ‘Inside the practice room’ – the longitudinal study which constituted the lion’s share of our second phase of fieldwork – was the way in which creative performances develop over time. Participants in the first-year observational study reported how, among other things, insight into a musical aspect of a piece, mastering a technical problem that helped to free the sound, a teacher’s use of metaphor or a suggestion for how to practise a certain phrase was the starting point for developing a creative approach or a technical freedom which eventually helped students feel greater ownership of a piece or be better prepared for a public performance. Therefore the aim of this research was to extend the exploration of creative processes beyond one-to-one teaching to investigate the contexts of students’ preparation (i.e. practice) and performance of a specific piece.

The final phase of the project consisted of further fieldwork, some new initiatives, analysis, and dissemination. Final pieces of data for ‘Inside the practice room’ were collected in October 2012, and analysis was then carried out on the recall interview data from this study. Findings were presented at CMPCP’s Second International Performance Studies Network Conference in Cambridge, 7–10 April 2013. An online questionnaire was also administered at the majority of UK conservatoires; this investigated students’ implicit theories of creativity, musicality and technique, and their self-efficacy in these areas as well as in performance and preparation in general.

In March 2013 the third project workshop was held; students and staff who had participated in the fieldwork were invited, as were key collaborators.

Other dissemination activities included invited talks of various kinds, among them a range of international conference presentations and keynote papers. Two more articles were prepared, along with the book that will emerge from this project (see below). The project is prominently featured in the CMPCP film, and a case study based on it appears on the AHRC website.

The book – Musicians in the Making: Pathways to Creative Performance – features sixteen chapters and ten interspersed ‘Insights’. Most chapters were written on a collaborative basis; thus the principal authorship comprises nearly thirty authors, many of whom attended a ‘Book Development Workshop’ immediately prior to CMPCP’s Second International Performance Studies Network Conference in Cambridge. This allowed the various participants to work towards a common conception of the volume. The book, which will be published by Oxford University Press in 2016, was co-edited by John Rink, Helena Gaunt and Aaron Williamon.

Initial questionnaire

The questionnaire distributed in September 2010 examined students’ concepts of creativity both implicitly and explicitly, using quantitative and qualitative questions. It also aimed to place skills with potential relevance to creativity in the context of the many other skills that musicians need, and to examine the contexts within which they may be learned (e.g. one-to-one lessons, performances, practice, observing others, etc.). The questionnaire was distributed to virtually all music students at the Guildhall School who were attending induction events during the first week of the September term; this included all four undergraduate years and first-year postgraduates, with 415 questionnaires returned of which 280 were totally complete. It had originally been planned to launch the questionnaire at the Royal College of Music as well, but logistical obstacles meant that comprehensive access to the student population could not be achieved.

Results of the analysis supported the notion that creativity in performance may be conceived of as comprising a number of related skills, abilities and attributes, namely spontaneity, a personal artistic ‘voice’, ability to be in the moment (‘flow’), ability to take expressive risks, deep emotional engagement with music, stage presence and ability to communicate musically with an audience. Two other findings are of particular importance. First, this cluster of skills appears to be unrelated to concepts of musicality and expressiveness in general. Secondly, these are among the skills that students are least likely to believe can be learned or improved; this came as a surprise to the teaching staff whom we briefed. These findings are of considerable interest and have important implications for the teaching and learning of skills relevant to creativity. They also pose methodological challenges for capturing processes that may be widely distributed in time and location.

Cohort questionnaire study

The investigation in the longitudinal study of students’ developmental processes with regard to creativity was combined with a questionnaire study launched early in 2013 focusing on students’ more general beliefs about creative abilities in comparison to musicality and technical ability, the extent to which they believe these abilities to be learnable or fixed traits (implicit theories), and their self-efficacy in each of these areas as well as in musical learning and performing. The cohort questionnaire, which was distributed to music students within the collaborating institutions as well as students in other conservatoires in the UK, was intended not only to reveal general implicit beliefs but also provide to reference data set for the participants who took part in the Phase 2 longitudinal study. Preliminary analysis took place during the last few months of the project.

Fieldwork: Phase 1 (January to August 2011)

In order to explore some of the issues raised in the first workshop and questionnaire the project team designed an exploratory phase of research to map some of the beliefs and practices in the conservatoires with respect to creativity and originality, and to try different methods with a view to developing a more in-depth study for the coming year. The team had two main research questions, broadly concerning constructs on the one hand and practice on the other. First, how do teachers and students construct meanings of creativity and originality and students’ development of these? Secondly, what practices and experiences do they identify as being ‘creative’ or important for developing creative or original performance? These two areas of constructs and practices led to the use of both introspective and observational methods in the project. Because it was important for the project team to build trust and develop positive relationships with the collaborating institutions and individual participants, while also bearing a number of research considerations in mind, the methods were designed to give participants a high degree of control and ownership. The team also tried to ensure that those taking part in the research would derive some sort of benefit.

Focus groups
Two focus groups were held in March 2011 – one at each of the two conservatoires. Entitled ‘Inside the teaching studio: a project to explore what makes great performances and how students learn to produce them’, these sessions allowed the teaching staff who attended to explore aspects of creativity and creative development with one another as well as with members of the project team. Each session lasted up to 90 minutes, and took the form of an open conversation around three discussion points, which participants also received in written form:

  • the skills you think are necessary in order for students to be creative or original as performers
  • where creativity and originality stand in the hierarchy of performance goals
  • what you consider your role as a teacher to be in helping students achieve a creative or original ‘voice’ as a performer.

Both sessions were audio- and video-recorded so that transcripts could be prepared for analysis. Thematic analysis applying an inductive, semantic coding system (following six analytical steps after Braun & Clark, 2006) allowed the project team to summarise and interpret the data and thus to discern various themes. Ambivalence was revealed about the notions under discussion: for example, unlike the term ‘creativity’, ‘originality’ sometimes had negative connotations, even to the point of being described as ‘bizarre’, ‘weird’ and ‘barbaric’; on the other hand, the notion of originality was also associated with depth, authenticity and truth. Contradictions arose with respect to personality and the role of the performer: musical personality was described as the core of creativity, but there was a tension between requirements for the performer to speak with an individual voice while at the same time ‘stepping back’, that is, acting as a conduit for the composer’s intentions by respecting the score. The team inferred two quite different constructs of creative development from the discussions, which they described respectively as ‘toolbox’ (a term that was actually used in the discussions) and ‘flower bud’ ( the team’s own term). Regarding the first, the development of a creative performer was described by participants as a process of gathering, building and increasing possibilities; the teacher’s role in this ‘outside–in’ process is to provide knowledge, whereas the student’s role is to acquire it. Complementary to this ‘toolbox’ notion is a growing and emergent process releasing something that is already inside. In this ‘inside–out’ process the teacher’s role is to encourage the student’s largely introspective learning and to remove barriers that might impede it.

Observation of one-to-one lessons with video-recall interviews
Another method that the project team employed was the observation of individual lessons. The decision to begin with one-to-one lessons reflected their enduring presence at the heart of conservatoire education on the one hand, along with a contradiction between the traditional (research) view of the one-to-one lesson being a poor arena for student creativity versus the high value placed by conservatoire teachers on students’ development of an ‘original artistic voice’. The recruitment process had two stages: teaching staff were brought on board first and were then asked to provide a list of all their students; the team approached a number of the latter directly to avoid their feeling any pressure to take part. Six teacher–student pairs were recruited across three of the four undergraduate years as well postgraduate courses. Five different instruments were represented, including jazz bass. Mirjam James and Karen Wise filmed between two and five consecutive lessons, yielding three to six hours of footage per pair; this helped participants become accustomed to the camera and increased the likelihood of capturing lessons that were typical for them. In each case the researcher set up the video camera at the beginning of each lesson and then left the room.

A video-recall method based on that of Rowe (2009) was used, although in the CMPCP study the participants were asked to select excerpts from the resultant footage which were of particular interest to them. The student participants were told:

When you watch a video, please try to identify moments in the lesson, when:

  • you felt creative in your playing
  • you understood something about the piece that you hadn’t understood before
  • something new emerged in your approach to the piece
  • you learned something that will help you to be more creative or original in performance.

Teachers’ instructions were similar but referred to their impression of the student’s playing and learning, and in addition they were invited to choose excerpts in which they ‘felt especially creative’ in their teaching. Each participant had a video-recall session of 60–90 minutes with one of the researchers where their chosen excerpts were viewed and discussed.

The results were interesting and provocative. Many of the chosen episodes fell into one of two broad categories: ‘technical’ and ‘musical’. Some examples involved both aspects; for example, musical ideas were sometimes generated or freed up through technical work, while in other cases musical understanding was put to use in order to overcome technical constraints. In all cases, the impetus behind the particular discovery tended to emanate from the teacher, who gave instructions or demonstrated different ways of playing; thus they were examples of ‘toolbox’-type learning and an outside–in process. But it was striking to observe that in many cases the chosen creative episode was the start of a longer, inside–out process where the student reflected on, internalised and developed the idea to make it his or her own.

Among the many insights gained from this study were the importance and use of gesture, both as a teaching tool and as evidence of creative performance picked up by teachers; issues to do with students’ readiness to learn; and a link between creativity as perceived by our participants and a greater degree of self-awareness and self-reflectiveness, which could of course be a developmental issue.

This combination of methods allowed the project team to start to model different components of creativity and creative development as experienced and defined by high-level performance students and teachers. For example, the video-recall method illuminated the more subtle forms that creative learning and insights might take, in particular non-verbal and musical communication. Among other things, this has the potential to balance out previous research which was focused on the lack of creative possibilities for students, based solely on teacher–student conversation within the lesson.

Fieldwork: Phase 2 (October 2011 to August 2012)

The second-year fieldwork addressed a number of specific research questions, which were guided by more general research questions underlying the whole project (outlined here). The additional questions are as follows:

  • How does creative learning take place in the context of preparation and performance of a piece?
  • What creative processes are identified by a student through this period? (e.g. are creative aspects/own ideas ‘built in’ as they go or left to serendipity? When and how do students feel ‘ownership’ over a piece? What influences are there on their development of their own interpretation?)
  • How do individual beliefs, learning approaches and dispositions relate to actual practice behaviour?
  • What is the final result in terms of the student’s experience of the performance?
  • How do creative processes identified in the context of practice relate to the experience of creativity in performance?
  • To what extent are the following factors involved in experiencing performance as creative?
    • Beliefs about the nature of creative abilities
    • Self-efficacy for learning and for performance
    • Practice strategies
    • Performance-related stress/anxiety (self-reported)
    • Self-reported mental states in performance (e.g. flow)
    • Objective physiological measures in performance (heart rate)
    • Characteristics of the performance situation

Accordingly, the focus of the longitudinal study during the second phase of fieldwork was the way in which creative performances develop over time. Participants in the first-year observational study reported how, among other things, insight into a musical aspect of a piece, mastering a technical problem that helped to free the sound, a teacher’s use of metaphor or a suggestion for how to practise a certain phrase was the starting point for developing a creative approach or a technical freedom which eventually helped students feel greater ownership of a piece or be better prepared for a public performance. Therefore the aim of this research was to extend the exploration of creative processes beyond one-to-one teaching to investigate the contexts of students’ preparation (i.e. practice) and performance of a specific piece.

During this phase the team documented students’ practice on a piece over a number of weeks and their performances of it in different situations (public and non-public). Twelve students filled out practice diaries over a period of two to three months, together with questionnaires and pre- and post-performance measures at their end-of-year recitals. A subset of five students also videoed their practice sessions, and took part in external performances which were also videoed. One of these was a public concert in Cambridge (we organised two ‘Research Recitals‘ for this purpose), and the other a performance in the simulated performance space at the Royal College of Music. Video-recall interviews were carried out with those students who took part in the video aspects of the study; these interviews addressed aspects of creativity such as risk-taking and being ‘in the zone’ or ‘in the moment’ while performing in different situations. They followed the same structure as the ones carried out during the first-year fieldwork (described in the Scientia paedagogica experimentalis article that emerged from this project).