Impact as Output

Proceedings text

In the best tradition of the artistic research paradigm, young though it may be, this introductory pamphlet takes as its basis experiences that are personal and limited to my instrument, the piano. Its aim is to look at aspects of the paradigm that are potentially impactful, and to see this impact as a form of output.

In a recent essay on higher education [1], Dirk Van Damme argued that:

Higher education is facing global changes and challenges, the character of which poses a stronger threat to the system than the reforms that have come from Bologna, which had more the character of modernization.

Other contents (competences, curricula), other forms of education, other structures will have to be at the top of the reform agenda of higher education

The categories with which educational systems operate, today, are tuned to the economic and social realities of the second half of the 20th century, not to those of the first half of the 21st century.

(See proceedings of Dirk Van Damme - The Knowledge Triangle in the Arts)

Taking these statements out of their original job-market oriented context, and venturing to see musical training as stuck much farther back in the past than the 20th century, I want to compare the current situation of higher education in instrumental training to the time when the scientific revolution started turning around concepts of knowledge acquisition and transfer.

From authority to argument

During the Renaissance, the scientific method for establishing knowledge moved away from dogma to include critical observation. In 1543, the Flemish anatomist Andreas Vesalius (whose 500th birthday we are celebrating), discovered that much of the existing knowledge of the human body proved false when he checked his practice with the theories that had been handed down through the mechanism of tradition.

Today, in artistic education, the dependence on authority is still very much alive. Responding to some of my own research into 18th century keyboard techniques, I have had to listen to pian(ofort)ists of internationally great name and fame tell me that I was wrong and that I should just take it from them.

Left to their own devices, great pianists can seem to feel well at ease when exercising their authority. In a typical masterclass, Michel Béroff instructs the pupil that “if one does it too dryly, it doesn’t work; if one does it too …, it doesn’t work” without explaining any of the reasons for his judgements:











Such categorical statements are emblematic for many master-disciple teaching situations. It is nonetheless easy to imagine the pedagogical advantages of a lesson that articulates and discusses the underlying approach and argumentation, i.e. when not the one way something should (not) be played but the various ways it could be played were demonstrated. In other words: showing a student diversity in accumulated experience, rather than expecting obedient acceptance of just anything one icon says and plays.

Ex pluribus

With the historical shift in scientific practice towards argumentation, the value of collectively building knowledge came to the fore. The latter concept can be illustrated poignantly by perhaps the most well-known 16th century revolution: the obsolescence of Ptolemaus’ self-absorbed geocentrism in favor of Copernicus’ heliocentrism.


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A drawing of the Ptolemaic System, with the sun in between Venus and Mars, from De Sphaera Mundi by Johannes De Sacrobosco, 1230. [3]

Drawing of the Copernican System,by Hevelius Johannes, 17th century. [4]

If we project the notion of spheres orbiting a central point onto the mapping of a student’s position among what he is influenced by (taking into account how much he is taught to use the music as a means to develop his artistic personality), the researcher is the comet. She appears brightly lit as if part of the system, cruising at a steady pace with a seemingly confident sense of direction, but no appreciable potential is there to be realized. The lack of synchronization makes her cut through the vast void endlessly, and even if she ends up approaching one of the worlds at all, she will burn up in some atmosphere before making a meaningful connection. [5]


Personally, I enjoy imagining that the singular musician is not the center of attention. (Never mind, for the moment, issues of ‘the work’ and the central position of the music maker in artistic research.) With the music itself at the core, with many musicians and researchers as members of the group that considers it, and leaving the old concentric image in favor of a three-dimensional perspective, we can anticipate a dynamic multitude of potentially fertile cross-pollination, with the teacher sometimes taking a beneficially distant position.

Obviously, the metaphor loses some sense here, but there is one more advantage to the perspective. It illustrates how easily we forget to consider the void that surrounds those different worlds as matter itself. For the purpose of the present argument, it could stand for the knowledge that exists as an endless mass of expertise, connecting the interested parties and waiting to be explored.

Considering the real world, the next four comparisons between academia and what can still be observed as characteristic of conservatoire training are concretely illuminating:

In conservatoires, the journals that their libraries subscribe to, containing the newest insights in systematic, historical, and philosophical musicology, are gathering dust more than fingerprints [6].  No academic master or doctoral student could get a degree without showing a grasp of the existing literature that underpins his expertise.

In the artistic world, it can be difficult to give criticism to a colleague, and most musicians will not go back to their teacher for lessons after obtaining their degree and a relatively short period of master class touring [7].  But a 60-year old academic scholar’s work is still reviewed by his peers whenever he wants to express himself professionally [8].

In science, it is known that few breakthroughs are achieved by individually inspired scholars [9].  In music education, few methods are not set up by single musicians who pen down their own opinions based on their own experiences.

Whereas university classes are collective, with students learning from each other by taking part in or observing debates, training a musical instrument is still very much a one-on-one situation.

Dissemination structures

The printing press once revolutionized scientific knowledge production: its dissemination became at once faster and less riddled with copying mistakes, and could reach many more people in a much larger geographical radius. Performance practical knowledge is still transferred slowly through the narrow channels of the master-disciple routine, with minimal help from the overestimated capacity of performances and recordings as carriers of knowledge.

In the four Flemish conservatoires, libraries subscribe to as many as 310 journals, with interests ranging from dance, theatre and jazz to choir and instrument building, and many instruments in between. Most are musicological, some are mere magazines (The Strad, Gramophone, etc.). In Leuven, the library has up to 21 journals that concern the organ (some old and long discontinued), none really have anything serious for pianists. No wonder consultancy is meager.
Musician-researchers have other methods of dissemination, of course, such as workshops and masterclasses. But these are still incidental when set up to communicate research results: through the lack of structural attention and integration in the curriculum, they remain bereft of the right audiences.

Teacher profile

Even when teachers do try to keep up with some of the new knowledge that can pertain to their expertise, at least in the case of the piano it is impossible to maintain an overview. Why not have piano students be given lessons by each teacher and on the different relevant keyboard instruments (harpsichord, clavichord, pianoforte, and piano) available at the school? Playing Mozart on a pianoforte and clavichord opens new horizons for those that want to make a career on a 20th century Steinway.

The traditional instrument teacher at a conservatoire is active on the concert stage. These days, she also is expected to produce research output. If this is to remain a productive set-up, we will have to reimagine the profession, with for instance teacher-performer as well as teacher-researcher and performer-researcher roles. We don’t all have to think that we should be good teachers ánd good performers ánd good researchers.

Social relevance

The point of this seminar is, I believe, to confirm that we not cater with our research solely to fellow-researchers. This would only offer the discipline the bleak prospect of isolation and, finally, implosion. The alternative should also be more than to produce artistic output ourselves, trying to connect with musicians unidirectionally through our own stage performances of our own applications of the insights that we develop in our ivory tower. Why not see teachers and students as our peers? We can research what they don’t have time for or are not equipped to do themselves, and interact with them to find out their concerns to be researched.

Perhaps the Historically Informed Performance movement could have convinced the rest of the world of their validity more quickly or easily if they had been able to enjoy the support of artistic researchers. The former’s fight against the perception that they were using faulty terminology and concepts – authenticity, recovering composer’s intentions, etc. – would have been less futile, as collaboration with the latter would have allowed the movement to be more firmly embedded in a more solidly guiding framework of thought and theory.

Curiosity vs. conservation

Dirk Van Damme wonders whether we are “preparing enough for the competence change to non-routine skills?”, and he is “not certain anymore that the arguments for the binary higher education model (academic vs professional) are still valid... [i]n the socio-economic reality…” of a knowledge society [10]

There is only one instrument teacher of the four Flemish conservatoires present at this seminar [11].  He is one of a few hundred instrumental conservatoire level teachers in this region. An academic gathering on a topic that has not been dealt with in an international setting normally attracts many with matching expertise or interest.

Many of us have been taught to not copy others in our playing, but to be personal, and to present “new” interpretations. How is that possible in a world with hundreds of thousands of musicians that play the same pieces? Maybe the momentum of artistic research can propel us to rethink the essentially conservative notion of teaching someone only how to play an instrument in ways of the past. We could take inspiration from the incessant quest for innovation that characterizes the researcher. Surely, the great repertoire has been accumulated on the basis of criteria that include a sense of innovation. Why not, then, conserve that approach as well as the historical results? So that newness is not only a composer’s prerogative.


My hints at possible directions in which to look for change have been intentionally provocative. But much has to be done if we want artistic research output to impact instrumental training at the conservatoire level. We have to stop operating from the confines of our own territory, occasionally offering master classes and workshops, and adding books and journals to the conservatoire library shelves, all the while hoping that they will be noticed and, just maybe, acted upon. We have to move beyond making some dents in the walls of the conservatoire defenses, timidly exposing students to the use of some research skills. An investigation, with an artistic-pedagogical perspective and focus, of the methodology that academia have developed to - in essence - efficiently impact its target audiences with the new knowledge that has been created, can lead to a more fundament-oriented output that considers a deeper and wider implementation within the conservatoire of what has made the academic paradigm succesful. Such changes can invigorate higher music education as well as artistic research to collaborate and innovate.


Excerpt from a video recording of Michel Béroff teaching Debussy’s Children’s Corner. [2]


Luk Vaes studied piano with a.o. Claude Coppens (Belgium), Aloys Kontarsky (Germany) and Yvar Mikhashoff (US), won first prizes in several international competitions and concertized with musicians such as Uri Caine and Thomas Quasthoff at the most renowned festivals in the EU and US.

His recordings of piano works of Mauricio Kagel (Winter & Winter) won nine international prizes. In 2009 he obtained  his doctorate at Leiden University (through the docARTES programme). His dissertation on the theory, history and performance practice of extended piano techniques has since enjoyed widespread usage by practitioners.

Currently he is fellow in artistic research of the ORCiM research group, coordinates the doctoral program for artists (docARTES) at the Orpheus Institute and the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague.

Personal websites:




dr. Luk Vaes

Orpheus Instituut (Ghent, Belgium)