Unfolding the concept of the student as a researching artist

A written dialogue by members of the AEC-SMS working group on Learning and Teaching

The Working Group on Learning and Teaching has over the last years discussed how the concept of the student as a researching artist can be understood and encouraged in higher music performance education. In this written dialogue, the members of the working group elaborate on what the concept means to them. First, we hear from the leader of the group, Jon Helge Sætre, about how the concept was coined and what it means to him: 

Jon Helge: «In September 2017, the working group met in Barcelona, to continue exploring learning and teaching in higher music performance education. We had started our work a few months earlier, and had agreed to focus on a student-centred approach. Before we gathered in Barcelona, each of us had spent some time exploring a course or project that we found particularly interesting from a learning perspective. When we shared our thoughts on these practices, we saw that many of them had common features (see Sætre et al 2019 for more details). For example, the students were in most cases very active and showed a sense of ownership of what was going on. Teachers gave students a great deal of responsibility and freedom, and students had the opportunity to experiment. In many cases, they worked actively with peers in a community of practice, often in an authentic context. Many practices resulted in tangible outcomes, and teachers often had the role of facilitators or supervisors. 

From this discussion, a set of interesting questions occurred. Who is this student we are beginning to picture? What kind of role does the student have? How can we label the way she is working? Through our discussions, the concept of the music student as a researching artist was suggested.  It was what we had been looking for. A possible way to describe the kind of student we had been discussing for some days. It captures the active, responsible, explorative and creative student, who is working in and with the arts in an inquiry-based manner. I also think the concept makes very necessary changes in the relationship of power between curriculum design and student work. In other words, it puts the student behind the wheel.

Now, Susanne, does all of this make sense from the perspective of a performing musician and professor and leader in higher music education?»

Susanne: «Jon Helge, thank you for this very concise and dedicated description of the concept of the music student as a researching artist – I do remember the moment that you phrased this for the first time, and the energy it provided! I also still feel a bit of hesitation with the choice of the word ‘researching’: what research means for an artist is not without dispute and misinterpretation. In the working group’s words, it should be understood in its purest sense, almost as ‘searching’. And it is easy to miss out on the aspect of agency, over the student’s own work and own pathway, that we also meant to express.

What strikes me in your reflection on the practices with which our journey started, is how much of this resembles parenting: the child being active, curious, driven to explore and to develop herself, the parent in the facilitating, supervising role. There is fundamental trust in this, and definitely some risk-taking, on both sides. Both are trying, and both are learning.

When we started, as a working group, did we say we’d focus on a student-centred approach, or did we decide to think from the perspective of learning?

To me, it is so helpful, and joyful, to look at a conservatoire as a place of learning, as a learning community. Everyone is in it to learn, and together we develop the art of music-making. 

You mention “very necessary changes in the relationship of power between curriculum design and student work” which this concept of the student as a researching artist implies, Jon Helge, and rightfully so, but if we widen the perspective, from student-centeredness to learning, while recognising an eagerness for learning with all who are involved, it is not so much about power-relations that need to be solved, but more about opportunities? 

For instance: when an exam is understood as a great moment for learning (for the student, for the teacher(s), for the other students, etc.), positions and roles become less defining. A joint effort to learn specific things from this specific situation at this specific moment is so much more interesting than trying to meet ‘absolute’ standards. Feedback can then reflect passionate discussions, and an invitation to the student to think along. A grade (based on a matrix with weighted assessment criteria) could be a serious effort to provide as much information as possible. A student’s idea about what success is to her will be welcomed as a possible new development for stages and audiences. Sharing expertise is a much more effective, and healthier, attitude in learning and teaching than measuring excellence. 

The one other thing which is as inevitable and essentially human as learning is playing. Reading ‘researching’ as ‘learning’, and ‘artist’ as ‘player’… for a performer this feels at home. Let’s play, the learning will follow. Siri?»

Siri: «Thank you, Jon Helge and Susanne, for your inspiring thoughts. It is great that you bring up “play,” Susanne. Playing and making music is, and has to be, at the centre of music education. In my view, that is the only way it can be sustainable. But this also means openness and curiousness to all kinds of music and creative expressions. In other words, I think we can benefit from becoming more playful.

Susanne´s point about learning and power relations is central. In my view, many of the problems in HME are caused by conservatism and a lack of openness to new ideas. This is very relevant for main instrument teachers for example. Many teachers have been teaching the exact same things for decades and feel threatened when things start to shift. But they have to shift because there is so much music and so much exploring that needs to be welcomed into the conservatories. The power relations exist because there is someone with “all the knowledge,” – teachers, and someone with “no knowledge,” – students. If we acknowledge that we all have different areas of expertise and different qualities and competencies, and like Susanne says, “recognising an eagerness for learning with all who are involved,” the power relations Jon Helge mentions, can be evened out. To achieve this, we also need more open institutions that don’t expect the one clarinet professor to provide every clarinet student with everything he or she needs to know. If both the institution and the clarinet professor can acknowledge and encourage the student to seek knowledge and inspiration from different sources, I think we have come a long way. 

The way I see it, the researching artist represents a shift of focus from result-based thinking to process-based thinking. We all probably know that the learning takes place in the process, still these few minutes of performance at the end of it is usually where our focus lies. In music, I think we too often have a fixed idea of what the result is supposed to look like or sound like. If we think of ourselves as researchers, we would search for something we cannot define beforehand. Searching, looking, experimenting, taking risks, finding our individual voices rather than reproducing. This is truly valuable, I find.»

Stefan: «Thank you so much to all of you. It is not only a pleasure but also a privilege to be allowed to respond to such inspiring and multi-faceted input. Let me pick out two aspects that were developed by my colleagues and that I will try to further pursue. First, I want to address the aspect of power relations introduced by Siri (1) and then the idea of learning as playing as presented by Susanne (2). 

1. Siri has described both traditional and conventional power relation settings, which is particularly effective in one-to-one teaching, as the face-to-face relationship between one “with all knowledge” and one with “no knowledge”. And she rightly points out that this mindset is in antagonistic contradiction to the idea of student-centred learning. To change this, she calls for “more open institutions” and “process-based thinking”. Maybe we must go even one step further. In a recently published article in the journal “Music Education Research” entitled “2050 And beyond: A futurist perspective on musicians’ livelihoods”, the author describes the Music Higher Education Institutions of the future as “meeting hubs for authentic peer and cross-arts industry networking “(Tolmie, 2020, p. 605), where “peer learning will be elevated as a standard activity and the Students as Partners approach to curriculum and assessment design will likewise be normalized.”(p. 606). It can be speculated whether the relationship between science and fiction may be unbalanced in this statement. But when the student becomes the driving force of her or his own learning process in charge of gathering knowledge among peers, on the internet, and among experts with different disciplinary backgrounds, more will be needed than only a shift of mindset. It will be about rebuilding the role of the teacher from a master to becoming a facilitator. 

2. Learning is playing, argues Susanne, and the understanding of an artist as a player – “…for a performer this feels as home.” I think if we want to promote student-centred learning and encourage her or him in his/her role as (re)searching artist, we should also point to the significance of playing as an epistemological act. The idea is not new, reference points are among others Friedrich Schiller (1965/1795), according to whom knowledge only becomes human knowledge in play, Johan Huizinga (1949) considers human beings to develop their cultural abilities through play (‘Homo Ludens), and Herbert Marcuse (1964) who points to the importance of playfulness in order to balance the predominance of instrumental reason.»

Lars: «The concept of the student as a (future) researching artist, I remember came up at one of the working group meetings in Barcelona. As I recall it, we discussed issues around the kinds of aims and goals we might put forward in terms of what and through which practices, we found that students learned important stuff for their future careers. We wanted to start somewhere mutual when looking for ‘interesting practices’ in terms of learning and teaching, as we coined it at the moment.

Bringing experiences from Rhythmic Music Conservatory in Copenhagen (RMC) on educating contemporary, creative composers and musicians, I found the idea of the student as a ‘researching artist’ quite promising and inspiring, bringing forward notions of curiosity, creativity, and individuality related to history and tradition, ambitions of new paths and innovative ways and places of performance.

What does it mean to research, you may ask? Well, for me, research is an investigation with a sort of backbone conviction that history and experience have taught us to look at and act within certain ways of thinking, but that we can in fact always dive into such historical and otherwise contextual matters to understand and potentially challenge such conditions. Within jazz, rock, pop, classical, electronica, and contemporary music, new paths, new ideas, and new sounds, probably often have been developed through some kind of challenge, some kind of question mark – based on contextual insight (or not).

So, to me, the idea of artists – and art students – approaching their life-long educational endeavour in a research-like manner sounds promising. For all artistic genres and realms.

As Anna Maria at our latest meeting summarised, “the perspective of research brings creativity, method, and critique to our attention” when we speak of the students as researching artists. I’d like to hear Anna Maria elaborate on those thoughts here in the dialogue.

Of course, a closely connected perspective in order to educate researching artists has to do with how this might be done in real life, in everyday practices of learning and teaching. One of the interesting perspectives that we in WG 5 have been looking into, is critical peer-to-peer dialogues. Again, at the Rhythmic Music Conservatory in Copenhagen, we have developed substantial experience with acknowledging peer-to-peer critique and feedback as a pivotal approach to developing students’ artistic and creative skills and methodological insight and experience. At present, I find challenges of progression and of the teacher’s role as an experienced artist the most obvious areas for future investigation.

And even, how does taking the perspective of the researching artists influence the way we assess and evaluate the students’ progress? And from what perspective? Do we need logbooks and ‘research diaries’ to be put forward at evaluation sessions? Do we need to pay more attention to the progress and processes of students’ learning? And what formats will serve such purposes?

One pitfall in that regard would be to think differently about artistic quality and start valuing a research approach over the actual product. Of course, experimentation with consequential failures and successes should be allowed to manifest themselves as part of the ongoing artistic investigations. But in my opinion, the final artwork, the final performance, need not be experimental to manifest an experimental, researching approach to how it was investigated, explored, and assimilated. But the mere fact that the work process towards learning a piece or writing a song becomes a conscious process of experiments and decisions, contextual investigations, and even personal choices of engagement, would qualify for the work to be of a ‘research kind’. And would – in a still higher and well-argumented manner – qualify the student to create interesting art and performances in a lifelong perspective.»

Anna Maria: «In the Learning and Teaching scenario so well described by all of you, I imagine students learning to reflect on the issues that interest them in close collaboration with peers. These students share perspectives of knowledge that consider knowing how to play an instrument at the top of their interests, representing their choice and inclinations. As Siri and Susanne highlighted very clearly, these students dream of becoming good musicians, able to play their instrument in the best way they can, like all students of all times. It is precisely for this reason that they should be ready to address the challenges of a rapidly changing society, in which the musician’s identity, and her or his professional world, are rapidly changing.  Their training can no longer propose a teacher-student relationship based on faith and proselytism, like the one traditionally proposed and often adopted, because both these attitudes, although based on teacher’s values and authentic students’ esteem, do not encourage an autonomous, critical and productive use of what is taught. I think that this is the greatest challenge for our institutions, where the learning-teaching model of the instrumental lesson has been based on the kind of relationship strongly characterised by faith and proselytism very well described in your thoughts on power relations issues. The horizon opened up by the introduction of research into our primary training objectives, and the mindset it develops can motivate a transformation of the student-teacher relationship towards and through comparison and dialogue. This new process will slowly create a wider community to which both constantly can refer by effectively being part of it. Research has the potential to move away from these anxiety formations of ‘this-means-the-end-of-things-as-we-know-it’ which can characterise some of the more conservative professional settings. This slow process cannot downplay the importance of cultural tradition and historicity or valorise change as intrinsically good.  Rather, it will have the opportunity to introduce a wide and fruitful variety of forms of thinking (Wilson & van Ruiten, 2013). The nature of research, with an emphasis on artistic research, and the creation of research environments in which students may develop their full potential are the most challenging targets for the Higher Music Education Institutions. They have to explore all the possible strategies to create programmes, descriptors, learning outcomes, assessment tools, and new curricula not only for the Third Cycles in music but also to encourage and offer an open and flexible mindset in both students and teachers at all levels (Polifonia, 2007).»


  • Huizinga, Johan (1949). Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element of Culture. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul
  • Marcuse, Herbert (1964). The one One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society. Boston: Beacon Press 
  • Polifonia Third Cycle Working Group (2007). Guide to Third Cycle Studies in Higher Music Education.
  • Schiller, Friedrich (1965). Über die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen. In einer Reihe von Briefen. In: Sämtliche Werke Bd. 5, ed. by Gerhard Fricke and Herbert G. Göpfert. München: Carl Hanser Verlag (first published in 1795) 
  • Tolmie, Diana (2020). 2050 And beyond: A futurist perspective on musicians’ livelihoods, Music Education Research, 22:5, 596-610
  • Wilson, M., & van Ruiten, S. (Eds.)  (2013). SHARE handbook for artistic research education. ELIA European League of Institutes of the Arts.