From 8-11 October the 16th seminar of the Innovative Conservatoire (ICON) took place in Dartington, UK. The theme and title of this seminar was Artists in Society. ‘listening’ as a core artistic and professional skill, and its role in evolving purpose and practice. For me personally, this is the start of an exciting series of seminars and conferences, in which I develop both the concept of Artistic Research as Integrative Practice, as well as work on the subject of artists in the society of the 21st Century. This theme has caught my interest since some time, lead by questions that are directed towards the core of higher professional arts education, and are concerned with the role of our institutions, and even more the role of the students as future artists and creative professionals in the society of the 21st Century. From this perspective, the 16th ICON seminar kicks off a series which continues with the December conference The Protean Musician: the musician in future society (abstract) in the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo, and the Reflective Conservatoire at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama in London in February 2018.
The seminar’s booklet introduced the theme and its urgency to the participants:
There has never been a more important time for musicians to develop their sense of purpose and possibilities in society. Music and the arts have such potential to make a huge difference in the world. At the same time, as the music profession continues to change, life can feel unpredictable and confusing even as exciting opportunities open up. Developing a sense of purpose, artistic and professional identity, and being able to evolve these throughout a career, seems increasingly important for all musicians. In what ways can we prepare for and support this process?
As the title of the seminar suggests, the focus of the seminar was two-fold: exploring the theme of the musician in society, and different ways of addressing this theme and its interconnected questions, and within this theme, the specific perspective of listening, as being various processes and skills.
The ability to listen deeply is not only essential to us as performers, but also to finding new ways to connect as artists in society, and of course to teaching as we respond to our students as human beings. Listening, for example, is central to the practices of mentoring and coaching and to the Critical Response Process, with which we have worked in previous seminars. In all these contexts, listening may then also imply responding, a process of dialogue, exchange, give and take.
A number of questions were leading for the seminar, such as:
- In what ways can we develop our listening skills, as musicians and as human beings? How may our sense of purpose (artistic, personal, professional), our knowledge and experience, and our value systems and life stories influence our listening and our response to what we hear?
- How may our listening skills in one domain complement them in other domains, or even be translatable?
- We bring our whole selves to our work as musicians – body, mind and spirit. How can we listen in each of these domains and how can we respond? How can we use our physical selves to listen to and through the body to enrich our playing, performance and ways in which we engage with an audience?
- How can we develop listening skills that open up creativity, artistically, in learning and in developing our professional practice in the world?
- How can we develop listening skills with students: in their individual practice; in their work with other musicians/peers/teachers; in going out into society?
Next to the introduction by creative director and founding member of ICON, Helena Gaunt, the first afternoon and evening were dedicated to the theme of listening and to a number of short exercises on listening. These included personal introductions of the individual participants to each other about where they come from and what brought them to the seminar.
One of the session included a reflection on what the “artist in society” might mean to us and our work, written large notes on paper, put on the floor in various “constellations”. After hearing the story about such a constellation, the others in the group offered a short reflection on what they heard, in form of a musical-gestural-scenic improvisation. What I found striking, personally, was that the improvisation added an unexpected element to the story, which was playful and less serious than the story itself. This reminded me of “taking things lightly”, as an approach to having more distance towards a subject, which might provide me with the ability to make more informed and well-reflected choices. By means of this playfulness and lightness, the improvisation in fact achieved a discursive quality, which I had not realised ever before.
On the second day a very special guest joined us: Liz Lerman. The American choreographer is, among other work, well-known for her choreographic pieces with elderly people, and for the famous feedback method Critical Response Process (CRP), which is practiced widely and for several years now within ICON and the associated institutions.
This day, Liz worked with us on themes that were interconnected with listening, yet focussed on the body and movement in space, listening through the body, awareness and concepts of translation.
Film maker and visual artist Niek Pronk, who joined us during the seminar, made a short film about the work Liz did with us:
After the first day being dedicated to listening, and the second day as an “interlude” with body work, the third day was entirely focussed on the participants’ work related to the seminar theme of the musician in society. Everyone was invited to bring his or her own question, or issue, into the discussion and the sessions on this day. We spent the day working in small groups that stayed the same throughout the whole day.
Concerning the work forms, this day presented one of the most continuous and complex forms within ICON seminars to date. The day was structured into three main sessions. In each session, one or two participants offered their story or question, related to the seminar theme. Yet, through this work, all participants were invited – or challenged – to work on their own question through the stories of the others at the same time. Different roles were assigned: the presenter, a group of responders including the session facilitator, and one “artist in the corner” who sat outside of the group, invited only in the end to offer his “artistic comment” of the work the group had done.
The presenter offered his story and questions to the responders, and the group responded with reflections, feedback, questions and other type of responses, by means of different work forms.
The day, and with it the seminar, ended in a final session in which the group shared meaningful experiences and important moments of learning, together with a collective reflection on what everybody will take away to the home institutions, to have further impact on art and music education in innovative ways.