Traces, tracks - Thoughts on learning and teaching in future Higher Music Education

Lars Brinck and Anna Maria Bordin

© Anna Maria Bordin [1]

With this brief paper, we offer a line of thoughts on the learning and teaching perspectives following the outcomes of the conclusions presented by the working groups in the 2018-21 AEC project ’Strengthening Music in Society’ (SMS). With a line of specific thoughts and new questions from the learning and teaching perspectives developed by our working group, we hope to contribute with new questions regarding developing higher music education institutions and their everyday practices to match current artistic and societal challenges and aspirations.

In other words, we would like to share the traces and tracks of all our working groups’ thoughts and visions to outline, what – from our perspective – remains after this period of intense work, collaboration, meetings, shared visions of the future, encouraging faith in the possibility of opening new and better horizons.

New questions of learning and teaching

Arguably, the perspective of learning and teaching is the pivotal lens through which the implementation of new ideas and initiatives concerning higher music education must be seen. Not only addressing questions related to didactical challenges of ‘How do we bring this and this idea into the classroom?’ but – probably more importantly – ‘How do we provide in more general terms for the students to participate in learning environments that offer opportunities for developing the skills, knowledge and competences, we find crucial to learn? In other words: On which fundamental ideas about, how and when learning takes place do we build our institutional structures, the general design and planning of our curricular activities and the day-to-day contact with our students?

The student perspective

In our working group, we ended up suggesting HMEIs to provide students with a stronger voice in the planning and execution of curricular activities, reinforcing the ‘student voice’ hence the learning perspective on analyzing and recognizing curricular as well as extra-curricular activities. Providing the students with increased influence on their educational activities involves for instance discussions on ‘what is success?’, professionally as well as personally, and requires institutions to facilitate reflected negotiations of different forms of successful practice and development, involving student and teacher experiences and perspectives.

The researching artist

We suggest looking at the student as a ‘researching artist’ with an increased focus on developing critical [2], creative and reflective skills involving questioning, investigating, exploring options and potentials from a well-informed, historical and societal offset. An image of the student as a curious artist with a high degree of artistic and societal agency. 

Also, the researcher’s perspective on artistic development paves the way for looking at the teachers as researching artists, pursuing in fact similar goals as the students through their professional practices as musicians and teachers. Teachers as experienced role models, and as co-researchers.

And finally, the researching-artist-perspective reinforces the everyday connections between music performance education and artistic research with the potential of not only presenting teachers’ artistic research to students but actually engaging students in the projects.

Learning communities

Taking an analytical learning perspective on what and how students and teachers change and learn, encourages a view on our collaborative practices as ‘learning communities’, where many diverse practices entwine. Looking at the school as (part of) a community, not only within the institution but also in close relation with other practices, institutions, orchestras, a.s.a.p. enriches the horizon of the students’ (and teachers’) potentials for artistic development, for learning. And we find that an increased focus on different kinds of ‘teacher collaboration’ may be one of many ways to nurture experiences of being a part of a ‘learning community’.

Assessment, evaluation, critical dialogue

With an increased student perspective, an increased artistic research perspective and with a widened perspective on everyday life taking place in such learning communities, forms of assessment must follow similar paths in order for such ideas to burgeon.

We suggest to think of assessment and evaluation as naturally embedded in all artistic practices and rehearsal processes and ‘opportunities for learning’. And we suggest making room for practices of peer-to-peer critique and critical dialogue to become an integral part of the everyday lives of students and teachers. We find the critical dialogue to offer constantly-renewed means of re-initiating the thinking process, of questioning certainties, and of progressing from discovery to discovery.

If we look at students and teachers as artistic researchers, it follows that any critical dialogue must be situated in a conscious, contextual relation with time, space, people and artefacts, making transparent (and thereby acknowledging) the diversity of student backgrounds, skills and artistic preferences and standpoints. In other words, developing not only mutual assessment literacies but also different (including student-led) evaluative practices on such ethical grounds. 

The students need to learn to assess themselves, defining areas of potential improvement, developing the ability to detect points of focus for future development and the ability to outline and (even more importantly) demarcate the specific aspects of such artistic developmental potential.

We now turn to looking at some of the conclusions and perspectives indicated by the other working groups, followed by a commentary from the learning and teaching perspectives just presented.

Perspectives of learning and teaching following the other working groups’ final reflections

1. Music in society

In their final paper [3], WG 1 raises the question, how we might conceive of the relations between the future musician’s professional musical development and their future role in society. The group suggests the emblem ’Musicians as Makers in Society’ to frame such ambitions. Arguing for dissolving apparent dichotomies of for instance intrinsic / instrumental purposes, cultural heritage / new work, artistic imagination / entrepreneurship, the working group suggests that the idea of musicians as makers in society aids HMEIs as well as individual musicians to prepare for and transit into a professional life, both through “immersion in musical artistry” and “through sustained practical experience of connecting and engaging with communities” (p.1) in somewhat indivisible, non-hierarchical perspectives. 

The group underlines the significance of musicians’ artistic engagement, sensibility and high-quality contributions in any social / societal encounter, quoting Renshaw (2013) that 

“[b]asically, creative engagement in social settings becomes a pale shadow of what is possible if it is not driven by an artistic voice … (p46). And adds to this argument that the “spectrum of perspectives [on HMEs balancing issues of social engagement, activism or artistic citizenship, ed.] and the nature of the continuum itself as a dynamic set of possibilities (…) must be debated artistically, ethically and politically” (p5).

To enable and qualify working with such balanced issues and challenges, WG1 suggests ‘critical reflection’ as “slow and reflexive work, with space for multiple perspectives to be voiced and considered” (p.6) to take a more prominent role in future HME. Hence, with Gale & Molla (2016), the group emphasizes the importance of educating ‘enquiring’ and ‘transformative’ professionals:

Commentary

The arguments and suggestions from WG1 seem to align with many of our thoughts in WG5. Our ideas of ‘the musician as a researching artist’ are based on similar arguments of strengthening the educational focus in HME on inquiry, curiosity, experiments etc. based on existing, historical knowledge and skills, without losing the artistic sensibility in sight. WG1 enhances this enquiring (WG5: researching) approach to also involve the music’s and the musicians’ relations to society at large.

Further, we agree on the need for an increased focus on collective work forms enabling diverse inspirations and explorative methods. We find that the plurality of resources within the ‘learning community’ as we frame it  – be it inside the class room, the school or within the societal arrangements surrounding the students and teachers – represent an (often overlooked) reserve of knowledge and inspiration for the ongoing development of interesting art and interesting contexts involving art making. And this diverse perspective also reinforces the perspective of students and teachers as ‘researching artists’ with individual, reflected positions and visions.

We suggest further debate on the student-teacher relations, enhancing the student perspective, enhancing our learning analytical focus on the diversity and multiplicity of ways of participating differently in different contexts, and the learning potential of such decentered perspective. 

To summarize, we, with WG1, argue for furthering HME educational practices (including conventional practice of master-apprentice relations) to look closely into such ideas and experiment with different types of relational arrangements within the institutions and between institutions and their societal partners. Such experiments should also include different evaluative formats and values, involving ‘critical reflection’ on what is being learned by whom and under which (historically informed) circumstances. And looking at the student (and the teachers) as researching, enquiring artists we argue, will enhance and make possible such ambitions.

2. Diversity, Identity, Inclusiveness

WG2 has explored the challenges and potentials regarding issues of ‘identity’, ‘diversity’, ‘inclusiveness’ and ‘accessibility’. [4]

With ‘identity’ WG2 suggests ”understanding personal identity as a process in relation to others (Jenkins 2008), and seeing group identities as fluid, unstable and processual,” (p. 19)

With the concept of ‘diversity’, the WG2 talks of ”gender, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, age and physical ability” (p.20) and advocates for ”an appreciation of differences”.

WG2’s definition of ‘inclusiveness’ is suggested on two levels: First, on a learning-teaching level, recognizing “the different starting points of students, the multi-layered, ever-evolving composition of individual identities, the complex realities of our increasingly diverse communities; and the myriad of attitudes, behaviors, abilities, and contexts present in such communities” (p.24). 

Second, on an institutional, societal, political level, the WG encourages ”ensuring equal access to educational opportunities at all levels of the institution through more holistic systems that cater for the individual needs of community members” (p. 24)

This leads to questions of ‘accessibility’, conceptualized on different levels: From a general learning / teaching perspective, do students have relevant access to courses, materials, physical facilities? And from the perspective of the physically or mentally challenged students, does the learning environment offer adequate study help for the visually impaired student, the dyslexic student, etc. etc. In other words, looking at ambitions of diversity and inclusiveness from the individual (student) perspective: Do I as student have access to be part of this educational culture, facility, institution, society.

Commentary

From WG5’s perspectives of learning and teaching, these ideas of artistic plurality and inclusiveness align with our thoughts on, what entails a nourishing and fertile learning environment / community for the student to grow and develop as a curious, researching artist with a strong, personal agency: In the multi-voiced community of the school as well as the society, the student should be assisted in exploring paths towards his/her own voice, his / her identity as artist and as human being. And educating students (and teachers) to embrace diversities of not only gender, race, etc. but also diversities of ways to participate, to engage, to learn. We suggest the dynamic use of a great variety of methods, perspectives, skills and tools which communicate and interact, transforming to respond to recognised educational needs. 

WG2’s ideas of accessibility to comprise such pluralistic ambitions seem to emblem these ideas without ‘losing sight of the artistic quality’.

3. Entrepreneurship

WG3 suggests HMEIs to develop curricular activities to strengthen ‘the entrepreneurial mind-set for musicians’, leaving behind prior thoughts on entrepreneurship as merely a segregated new subject in HME, but rather as an integral part of the artistic activities. 

WG3 suggests that students should learn to 

”function in society as artists in different roles and different contexts. Students [should be] challenged to make use of their creativity, their ability to collaborate and their communicative skills [and] explore different aspects of their artistic identity in a setting outside the walls of their educational institution.” [5]

WG3 provides an inspiring series of suggestions on how to approach the fulfillment of such ambitions. 

Commentary

From a learning and teaching perspective, the idea of ‘entrepreneurial mindset’ aligns with our thoughts in WG5, acknowledging the somehow in-separable entwinedness of the students’ and teachers’ different practices in the ‘learning community’, including the ambitions to relate in reflected manners to society at large. As a ‘researching artist’, ambitions of dissemination and sharing (through entrepreneurial practices) become equally relevant, insofar as the enquiring, investigative practices entailed in the artistic research process involves perspectives of a contextual, societal nature. The idea of the ‘researching artist’ in our view also represents curiously investigating relations of his /her art to others, to audiences, to society.

And from a ‘learning community’ perspective, the entrepreneurial aspect of any curricular activity represents opportunities for learning, for changing your view, your skills.

An imminent challenge may arguable be, how such entrepreneurial skills and competencies are adequately evaluated to ensure the students’ critical agency to be further developed. 

4. Internationalisation

With the ambition to “help music students and teachers to internationalise their careers and activities” [6], addressing issues of transnational mobility and sustainability, arguing for in flexible, inclusive take on internationalisation, whether ‘at home’ or ‘abroad’.

Commentary

From a learning and teaching perspective, our ideas of our institutional contexts as ‘learning communities’ again come to mind, whether international relations are established physically or virtually. The well-known educational ambition to bring students and teachers in contact with an international diversity of professionals also aligns with our ideas of educating artists as researchers that know about many ways to interpret and work with music, being able to contextualize in a broader horizon one’s own visions and ambitions.

Taking a ‘student perspective’, internationalization of the educational environment can – as WG4 also finds – be a matter of many different approaches, and the challenge may be to ensure that the individual student is given the opportunity to participate in ways and manners that suit her / him the best at that particular moment and time. At this moment, internationalization is the most important strategic tool to found the identity of the European musician, often primarily nourished by territorial musical culture, but having to deal with a wider European musical community. 

And evaluating and assessing such international benefits may equally be a challenge. Careful reflections on aims and outcomes may assist students and teachers in recognizing such potential.

6. Digitisation, 

 “Inspired by Technology, driven by pedagogy” (OECD; 2010) was one of WG6’s points of departure at the AEC congress 2021. In other words: technology is a tool for pedagogy and must be addressed in conscious and critically reflected pedagogical ways and manners.

WG6 aims to “inspire teachers, researchers and policy makers, support them in a systematic reflection on digitisation, and help them to integrate technology in view of empowering students” [7] in order for music students and ”music educators of the future, will be prepared and equipped with the necessary skills, knowledge and experience to contribute to strengthening music in society”.

WG6 offers an overall observation that there seemed to be a lack of the use of IT in different areas of the HME curricular prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, for instance in the dissemination of artistic research and in entrepreneurship. And that Covid-19 lead to forced application of a number of technologies, enforcing creative use of technology. 

In the future, WG6 suggests addressing questions such as: In what kinds of processes do we use IT?

How can we categorize contexts for the meaningful use of IT? And do we then redesign the teaching process in those contexts? And even more philosophical questions such as What is ‘in presence’, what is ‘the place’? And How do we define attendance?

Commentary

Interaction between humans and machines is able to assist, supplement or even replace not only routine work but, to an increasing extent, analytical and intellectual tasks as well. From our learning and teaching perspective, several interesting questions arise: What do students learn from participating virtually? What do other students and teachers learn from having peers participating virtually? How do we ensure that digital technologies support a diverse, inclusive perspective on a fertile learning community? When is IT enabling a multiplicity of voices and when is IT obstructing the development of collective sensibility to artistic and interhuman relations?

There’s no doubt that IT in the future will play an increasingly significant role in Music Education institutions, and WG6’s suggestions of critically reflecting when and how to use IT seems highly relevant. Furthermore, digital learning and teaching contexts are often characterized by the new opportunities they offer for personalized learning. In simpler scenarios, this occurs when the elements of knowledge transfer “go digital”. In such situations, greater flexibility is offered to students, who can learn anytime, anywhere and at their own speed, with easy access to information sources. In this way, digitization allows students to be truly at the center of their path. 

The idea of the ‘researching artist’ being able to critically establish whether this and that technology is relevant appears to make sense. And again, without losing sight of the artistic sensibility and quality.

And form a more institutional perspective: When do we acknowledge students’ and teachers’ attendance, participation? How do analyze, what is being learned by whom under virtual or hybrid circumstances and how are such practices assessed and evaluated?

Future educational research analyses and investigations are needed to qualify these perspectives, and again: the student voice is essential. In the future, knowledge work will account for an even larger part of the job market than is the case today. Finally, the step from digitization to artificial intelligence (AI) is really short. Over the past several years, prominent musicians and researchers across the world have developed tools to make AI more applicable to music creation and performance, hoping that the technology will become a force and an essential part of everyday musical life.  

7. Student WG

The student WG7 has somehow bridged the work of the other working groups, securing a student perspective in each of them. In that respect, all thoughts and conclusions from the working groups are informed by student perspective, student voice.

Commentary

From our learning and teaching perspective, carrying out the four-year SMS project in close collaboration with students has been an important lecture on ‘student involvement’, ‘student perspective’ and diversity. We as teachers and researchers have learned to listen, to put ourselves in a student’s place, and at the same seeking the fruitful balance between the experienced (sometimes more stifled) and the newcoming (sometimes more clearsighted) participant. The SMS project in itself points to the potential of bringing the student perspective forward in HME institutions and classrooms.

Again, regarding the student as a (less experienced but arguably more creative, courageous, buccaneering) artistic researcher, aids us in engaging in the respectful, critical dialogues needed for us all to move forward towards new art, new performances, new practices, with the awareness that to engage in a critical dialogue is equivalent to engage in a learning conversation.

8. Early Childhood Education

WG8 has looked into how to “extend the audience of tomorrow” raising the awareness “for this type of pedagogy in higher music education institutions, in music schools and in other music education contexts” [8].

Commentary

From WG5’s learning and teaching perspective of ‘learning communities’, the significance of children’s access to strong, inspiring musical contexts can never be overstated. And HME students could easily play a more significant role in society as role models, inspirators, guides, masters.

And from the perspective of ‘the researching artists’, nurturing children’s curiosity, their ‘researching’ abilities, sharing the beauty of the experiment, the acceptance of the imperfect, the faults, the failures, and even the joy of play as a pivotal element of learning, of progress, of creative agency and in(ter)dependence, the collectivity, the interplay. 

We could imagine a fertile learning community as an inclusive space for growth, involving diverse genres, ages, expert fields and so on, that can launch challenges that require more than one generation to be accepted, developed and overcome, a community that invests in quality over time.

And from a ‘student voice’ perspective: To what extent can we take the child’s perspective, making space for the child’s voice when sharing the world of music? And again, again: without losing sight of the artistic sensibility and quality.

Finally, the time when children learn critical social and emotional skills is the time in which the musical mind arises, the time in which a natural but profound relationship with music can be realized. When this is done successfully, it lays the groundwork for it to continue throughout a successful music education. However, it is not only preparation for future musicians, it should aim for the holistic development of a musician as a social, emotional, cognitive and physical human being, in order to nurture the growth of caring, capable and responsible future citizens.

Curious, investigative, human beings with artistic sensibility and interhuman communicative competences.


[1] This cardboard, owned by Anna Maria Bordin, was originally not ‘intended’ to be art. It served as a board for attaching canvasses for intended art production, displaying now the traces of residual paint transgressing the borders of the original canvasses. This board can be the symbolic representation of the four years of work of the Learning and Teaching WG: going beyond the limits and reflecting on each new trace with visionaries’ enthusiasm and researchers’ method.

[2] Our use of the concepts ’critical ’and ’critique’ need some clarification at this point: With the term ’critical’ we mean ’something necessary and essential, [leading to] something of importance’ (https://www.espressoenglish.net/difference-between-criticize-criticism-critique-critic-and-critical/).

Or, in other words, something ”being a turning point or specially important juncture”.   (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/critical)

With the term ’critique’ as verb, we mean “evaluating and analyzing something, identifying both its good points and its bad points” (https://www.espressoenglish.net/difference-between-criticize-criticism-critique-critic-and-critical/) and as noun a ”somewhat formal word that typically refers to a careful judgment in which someone gives an opinion about something.” (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/critique)

[3] Gaunt et al. (2021): Musicians as ”Makers in Society”: A Conceptual Foundation for Contemporary Professional Higher Music Education. Hypothesis and theory, August 2021. doi: 10.3389/psyg.2021.713648

[4] Artistic Plurality and Inclusive Institutional Culture in HME

[5] Quoted from the SMS brochure, Year 4.

[6] SMS Brochure, Year 4.

[7] SMS Brochure, Year 4

[8] SMS Brochure, Year 4

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