Karen Wise and John Sloboda


Dr. Karen Wise and Professor John Sloboda, researchers at the Guildhall School, raise questions about interactions between artistic practice and research in conservatoires, and how we can ensure that insights from this conference really come out of and feed back into artistry. Please add your comments in the “Leave a Reply” box below.

We contribute to this blog series as two members of the RCC organizing team at Guildhall who share a dubious distinction. Neither of us contributes in any direct way to the training of the professional musicians of the future. We do not teach performers or composers, rather we are employed as researchers. As such, we are in a tiny minority in our institution. Indeed, we believe that among the several hundred faculty staff at Guildhall, we may be among the only people never to have participated in the core activity of the conservatoire, the one-to-one or small group coaching of the developing artist.

Although people such as ourselves may be a rarity in the conservatoire world, our impression is that we are slowly becoming less rare. We think this may be correlated with some other changes. Many conservatoires around the world have been building increasingly close relationships with nearby Universities, in terms of both governance and substantive interdisciplinary collaborations. The number of conservatoire staff around the world who possess research doctorates has been gradually increasing, as has the number and size of doctoral programmes within conservatoires. But staff with doctorates probably remain a minority within most conservatoires, which makes conservatoires very unlike most other university departments in their staffing profile. In most other academic disciplines, the doctorate is the essential entry qualification, and the majority of salaried academic staff will possess one.

With these observations in mind, we have two questions, which are related to each other. Our first question is about the balance of professional orientations among the delegates of this conference. Is the proportion of researchers among the delegates representative of the profession as a whole? Or – as we suspect might be the case – are researchers over-represented, at the expense of those who would define their role primarily as artists and teachers? If so, how do we ensure that the conversations we have with one another here really impact back into the core teaching culture of our institutions in ways that excite and engage our non-researcher colleagues rather than alienate them? It is of course important to create spaces such as this in which a professional culture of enquiry can be supported and can flourish, but it is all too easy for such spaces to become disconnected from the mainstream, and turn into ghettos of one sort or another. Our hope for this conference is that artistry, and its nurturing, always stays in the centre of our sights, and that the reflection that takes place as we meet together for a few days is precisely that reflection which feeds and animates artistry.

Our second question is about the balance of professional orientations in the conservatoire sector as a whole. The role of research has grown in importance over the years, but it is not clear what the optimum future trajectory is. Should we be looking towards a future where every teacher in a conservatoire possesses a doctorate? Surely not! And if not, how do we conscientiously and consensually determine the mix of skills and career trajectories we need among our staff? As well as the traditional skills of artist, teacher, and researcher, conservatoires are increasingly benefitting from expertise in areas such as business and enterprise, IT, marketing, and community work. Doctorates are really only appropriate for a subsection of these career paths.

At the risk of being somewhat parochial, it might be relevant to note that British conservatoires have just all submitted themselves to a government-backed process whereby the research outputs of each institution have been assessed for quality and impact. This process, known as the Research Excellence Framework, or REF, will determine the amount of government funding for research that each institution will receive for the next 6-7 years. The process required each institution to identify the number of research active staff (measured in full-time-equivalents or FTEs) with outputs such as books, research papers, compositions, and performances, that could be assessed as having a research orientation. Some but not all of these staff possess doctorates. What is crucial is whether research is included as an activity required by their contracts of employment.

The outcome of this process, recently published, reveals that the average number of FTEs that each British conservatoire have publicly put forward as generating research outputs is 16. This probably means up to double that number of actual individuals, as so many individuals in this sector work part-time. But nonetheless, compared to the total number of teaching staff employed by the average conservatoire, this is still a very small number, probably between 10% and 20% of the total. Should this number grow, and if so, towards what proportion of staff as an ideal? This question is also relevant to the growth in doctorates noted earlier. With conservatoires increasingly offering research based higher degrees alongside taught postgraduate courses, what is the ideal way to ensure that students are supported by a strong core of research expertise and infrastructure? The interdisciplinary nature of much performing-arts-related research, and thus the potential range of expertise needed, presents particular challenges to small institutions. Should conservatoires – as they often do – collaborate extensively with universities to ensure both breadth and quality of provision? Or should they aim to concentrate capacity in-house, with a concomitant increase in research-active staff? And what might be gained or lost in either case? Engaging with such questions requires that we articulate a vision for a research culture in the context of a conservatoire’s unique offering.

A conference such as the Reflective Conservatoire is precisely a space where such questions can be articulated, debated, and clarified. It offers a forum where we can step outside our day to day concerns, open ourselves to new – even uncomfortable – challenges. While each remaining primarily focused on our specific areas of expertise, we look forward to the opportunity we can jointly seize to re-appraise our roles, and the structures within which we exercise those roles, in order to ask whether they are best suited to achieve the outcomes for our students that they desire, and that will fit them best to be powerful contributors to the cultural environment into which they will emerge.

Karen Wise is Research Fellow at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and previously was Research Associate in the Centre for Musical Performance as Creative Practice (CMPCP) at the University of Cambridge. She researches and lectures in the psychology of music, and is a classical mezzo soprano, holding a PhD in Psychology and a postgraduate diploma in performance.

John Sloboda is Research Professor at the Guildhall School and Director of its Understanding Audiences Research Programme. He is also Deputy Director of the “Capturing London’s Audiences” strand of Creativeworks London, an AHRC-funded Knowledge Exchange Hub for the Creative Economy. He has published widely on psychological aspects of music over a research career of 40 years.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s