Collaborative lecture on the musician in society during Reflective Conservatoire

As mentioned in the earlier post on the Reflective Conservatoire Conference, I gave a presentation at the conference, together with London-based pianist and researcher Christina Guillaumier. Christina is also a Creative Director of the Innovative Conservatoire.

Our presentation, “The Musician in Society. From Craftsman to Creative Citizen”, was part of the ICON session at the Reflective Conservatoire (about practices of the Innovative Conservatoire), chaired by Celia Duffy. I had been looking forward to this lecture for already quite some time, as it closes a series of work on the musician in society, with exactly the focus from where I left in the beginning: the reality at conservatoires nowadays and in which way the institution lacks an understanding and consciousness of the social reality of the community outside of itself, especially when it comes to educating young musicians.

Previously at the conference: Gillian Moore, the facilitator of the invited panel “What does artistic citizenship mean for us as artists?”, which took place on the same morning as our presentation, asked an intriguing question: “Are we training artists in the right way to become artistic citizens?” This question leads perfectly to the perspective on artistic citizenship that Christina Guillaumier and I had chosen for our own presentation.

See here for the slides of the presentation.

We started by framing artistic citizenship and providing just a few examples of engaged practice, to set the stage for context and possible practice, and collect three very basic premises to work form:

  1. The arts are made for and by people.
  2. Art making and art taking need to be integrated with personal and community life.
  3. The arts as inherently social practices should be viewed, studied and practiced as forms of ethically guided citizenship.

As David Elliott puts it in the introduction of the wonderful publication Artistic Citizenship. Artistry, Social Responsibility, and Ethical Praxis: There is no option not to relate. Building on Bourdieu’s notion of “habitus” as the habits, skills, and dispositions of each and every one of us, drawn from our life experience, Christina and I argued that it is the responsibility of the institution to create an environment for students not just to understand and learn conceptually what Artistic Citizenship is. Students should instead be able to develop their own concept of it, through practice, and should be facilitated in this as an essential part of their professional education. This cannot be achieved through implementation of distinct subjects, courses or projects, but is rather meant as an essential foundation of the institution’s, teachers’ and students’ work, a foundation of relating and engaging.

A few examples of such engaging practice are projects such as the Guerilla Generation in Greece, Theatre of Witness in Derry, Nothern Ireland, Bedside Buskers (image below) in The Netherlands or the HEAR initiative in Philadelphia, Australia.

Almost contrary to the impressions from these different kinds of work, be collected a number of observations and reflections related to conservatoire practice nowadays:

  • The profession of musicians is (still) often perceived in a vertical and hierarchical fashion
  • There is still a strong emphasis on principal studies, especially in classical music – which relates to questions of locating “craft” from Helena Gaunt’s keynote
  • A strong focus on mostly traditional professional profiles, virtually ignoring hybrid professional practices of today
  • A solid tradition that reproduces itself: Passed on from one-to-one teaching before and strengthened during the time at the conservatoire
  • Jazz & Pop practice is usually more diversified than practices in the classical, which is part of its own tradition, already including different kinds of performing situations, teaching, interdisciplinarity; but there is still a disconnection between conservatoire and society observable
  • As institutions, we need to change the self-understanding of our role as conservatoires within the perspective of lifelong learning, as “transitory stations”

There are lots of questions concerning these observations and their consequences. First of all, far from everybody would agree to these observations, for different reasons. There is no hard, or exact right or wrong in a complex area such as education; as these observations are made from a specific perspective and vision, and there are other, sometimes contrasting perspectives and visions as well.

Question are manifold as to which change of this situation is exactly necessary, and how this might possibly be put in practice. In our presentation, we chose the perspective of “transferable skills”, a term which has been coined by Helena Gaunt and that is actively used and practiced at ICON seminars, such as the recent seminar on listening. ICON operates from the conceptual framework of the arts as embedded, and being in the centre of our society, and aims to create strong relationships between practice and reflection, through an action research approach and feedback loops of doing and thinking. With transferable skills, we mean skills that are essentially trained through music: literally “musical skills”, which are then applied in and transferred to a huge variety of contexts, within and outside the strict realm of musical practice. These skills can then become “tools” of training artistic citizenship, as both students and teachers already practice these skills in their daily training; they understand the inner workings of these skills and already recognize them as essential, which makes them much easier to be made transferable.

Without being too concerned about working these concepts out in the presentation, we left the presentation itself open-ended at this point and made the direct transition to the practical ICON session, led by ICON Creative Directors Dinah Stabb and Jo Hensel, both from Guildhall. In this session, we did physical work with the group, as well as conducting a few exercises of listening, and by this putting the previously mentioned transferred skills in practice. What I personally found most striking in this session in its entirety was that what we at ICON call “transformative power” of the work that we do there, was observable in London as well, despite the short duration of the session with the group.

I am looking forward to continuing this work: at ICON, at the conservatoires where I am working, and most notably a series of workshops that I will conduct with others in the research environment of the HKU Utrechts Conservatoire, Studio 118. To be continued soon…

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