The Reflective Piano Class
A Self-generating Experiment Regarding the Reflexivity of Artistic Research and Higher Instrumental Training


The principal research question addressed by this project is: how can the work of established performer-scholars be integrated into the core business of training young performers, and with what impact on the wider state-of-play of artistic research? To answer this question, this project proposes a new model of the instrumental class. Here, this class becomes a laboratory in which a relevant artistic problem is explored by both established artistic researchers and students: namely, performers' obligations to be faithful to an absent composer's original intentions as protected by a repertoire's performance history on one hand, while playing in uniquely creative ways on the other. The research questions this laboratory seeks to address are thus: how does a repertoire's performance history dictate where along the devotion-creativity divide its performances should fall; and how can experiments with historical evidence further elucidate the devotion-creativity problem by consciously subverting such norms?

These questions will be answered within the context of the piano class through a case study focusing on the piano works of Johannes Brahms. In the first phase of this project, work done to date on the devotion-creativity problem will be gathered. The research team will then explore how the devotion-creativity problem might be further elucidated by way of experiments with nineteenth-century performance practices. The results of these experiments will be fed back to artistic research circles in order to generate new knowledge concerning the devotion-creativity problem for further testing. The envisaged output of this project consists of two parts: one is related to the artistic research conducted by the principal investigators with and within the piano class, and takes the form of both written and performative expositions; the other reports on the wider impact of the research process, and proposes a model of instrumental class that actively integrates research and education.



Proceedings text


This project is borne of a belief that exposure to artistic research is precisely what young performers need: a culture of critical reflection that keeps their practice relevant and informed while preparing them for life beyond the conservatory. As such, we propose that artistic research within conservatories can no longer remain tucked away in discursive settings like lectures and theses, but rather should be explored in the traditionally sacrosanct and protected space of the instrumental lesson: the basic training ground of higher musical education institutions. The project thus seeks to develop a new and experimental model of the instrumental lesson: 'The Reflective Piano Class.'

The central question this project addresses is:

Can the questions, methodologies and findings of advanced artistic research collectives like the Orpheus Institute be integrated into the core business of higher musical training institutions; and if they can, to what extent, and with what impact on the wider state-of-play of artistic research? 

The project explores this central question by developing a self-generating laboratory around one key concept. Here, the questions, methods and findings around this concept as developed in advanced artistic research settings are tested by students, after which the results of these tests will be fed back into artistic research circles in order to generate new questions, methods and knowledge.


The research team is composed of two principal investigators, dr. Anna Scott and dr. Alessandro Cervino, as well as by Alessandro's piano students. Alessandro's piano class at LUCA School of Arts, Campus Lemmens is composed of fifteen Bachelors and Masters students. The Orpheus Research Centre in Music (ORCiM) in Ghent constitutes the ideal advanced artistic research environment with which to collaborate for this project.


Key Concept: The Devotion - Creativity Paradox

Primarily tasked with the mastery of standard musical repertoires with prescriptive performance norms, young musicians are expected to be faithful to the original intentions of composers as seemingly protected by those norms, while also playing in unique and creative ways. Faced with this irreconcilable Scylla and Charybdis, young performers tend to err on the side of devotion: a decision reinforced by standards of training and assessment in many conservatory settings. Meanwhile, artist-researchers who do investigate standard repertoires tend to do so through innovative modes of presentation, framing or conceptualizing, rather than by consciously seeking to disrupt those repertoires' performance norms. As a result, there are many similarities between the ways standard repertoires are being performed by conservatory pianists and expert performer-scholars: in other words, when it comes to how the devotion-creativity divide is navigated in standard repertoires, devotion prevails.

This project introduces students to the possibility that by changing the way standard repertoires sound, the devotion-creativity paradox can not only be further elucidated but perhaps also reconciled. In order to do this, the devotion-creativity concept is explored in a case study centred around a repertoire with highly prescriptive performance norms that privilege devotion; one whose original performance contexts actually favoured creativity; and one where experiments with evidence of those original contexts may reconcile these students' dual obligations to be both faithful and creative in performance. In so doing, students will gain both critical and hands-on experience at the vanguard of investigations into what is at stake in the balancing of fidelity and creativity in standard musical repertoires, while the outcomes of their experiments will be used to interrogate the reflexivity of higher musical training institutions and advanced artistic research settings like the Orpheus Institute.

Case Study: The Piano Miniatures of Johannes Brahms

The case study at the core of the laboratory on the devotion-creativity paradox focuses on the piano miniatures of Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), including his Scherzo Op. 4, and works from the Ballades Op. 10, Klavierstücke Op. 76, Rhapsodies Op. 79, Fantasies Op. 116, Intermezzi Op. 117, Klavierstücke Op. 118, and Klavierstücke Op. 119. These pieces offer a fascinating body of material for research in that they form a major part of most performing pianists' repertoires, and because they have highly prescriptive performance norms that privilege devotion despite the presence of contradictory historical evidence. As related to the laboratory's key concept of devotion-creativity, the research questions explored within the context of this case study are thus:

- How do the performance norms associated with this repertoire dictate where along the devotion-creativity continuum its performances should fall, and where do these norms come from?
- To what extent do non-performative fields of enquiry reinforce these norms thereby reinforcing fidelity, while suppressing contradictory evidence and thus creativity?
- How are such concepts being investigated in artistic research circles, and how might those questions, methodologies and findings be applied to this repertoire?
- Do experiments with historical evidence of this repertoire's original performance contexts actively interrogate the devotion-creativity paradox by disrupting its current performance norms, and might the results of these experiments reconcile this paradox?
- Can the results of the case study convince both students and teachers to prize critical reflectivity and creativity as much as devotion in the performance of standard repertoires, perhaps catalyzing reform in the training and assessment of conservatory pianists?
- How do the artistic outcomes of these experiments elucidate new knowledge about what is at stake in the performance of standard musical repertoires, and with what impact on the wider state-of-play of artistic research into the devotion-creativity problem?

Primary Research Questions of the Self-Generating Laboratory

Based on the findings of the laboratory's case study, we will then be in a position to address the central research question concerning a greater integration between advanced artistic research and higher instrumental training in conservatories:

- Are the questions, methods and findings of artistic researchers transferrable and viable (both artistically and intellectually) within the instrumental training and assessment apparatus of higher music education institutions, and vice versa?
- To what extent does the reflective piano class model contribute to a culture of critical thought and practice within conservatory settings, thus preparing students for both pure-performance and practice-led research opportunities after graduation?
- Can the proposed model of the reflective piano class serve as a testing ground for concepts explored in advanced artistic research circles, while also promoting the reflexivity of those circles towards performance realities in conservatories?
- Does the model of the reflective piano class afford new insights, experiences and opportunities not yet explored by advanced artistic research circles; and if so, what are the practical modes by which these affordances might be embraced and cultivated in the future?
- What does this first experiment into a greater reflexivity between higher musical education institutions and artistic research collectives like the Orpheus Institute tell us about how such relationships can be further enriched by future projects?


Phase One (October 2014 - February 2015)

In this phase students will learn the repertoire specified by the case study, while critically reflecting both on the nature and origins of that repertoire's performance norms, as well as how those norms are either reinforced or problematised in non-performative and practice-led fields of inquiry.
While mastering the assigned repertoire, the students will be encouraged to reflect on how its associated performance norms mediate how we know what to do and why, as well as how our identities as either compliant or creative pianists vary according to our adherence to (or deviation from) these norms.

While the primary investigators are sympathetic to the demands on conservatory pianists to master the assigned repertoire according to its standard performance norms, the goal of this phase is to introduce them to critical discourse related to the devotion-creativity problem, and to encourage them to think about the practical modes by which this problem plays out in the normative habits, assumptions and processes that underlie their performances of this repertoire.

Phase Two (February 2015 - April 2016)

It is expected that in Phase One students will have realized that the performance norms associated with this repertoire impose a fairly narrow expressive and technical range within which its performances might be said to be appropriately devoted rather than overly creative. In order to further problematize these norms, in this phase students will begin to experiment with incorporating historical evidence of the actual original performance contexts of this repertoire: contexts that privileged creativity over devotion, or more accurately - that saw performer creativity as devotion. The goal here is not to recreate past performance practices, but rather to further elucidate, question and expand modern ones. Throughout this process students will also develop a critical stance towards the use of historical evidence, by reflecting on how one's perceived fidelity or creativity can shift according to the types of historical traces incorporated, the elements of historical style in those traces that are incorporated, and the modes by which such elements are applied. The types of historical traces used will include nineteenth-century treatises, concert reviews, letters, descriptions and recordings; the elements of late-Romantic style incorporated will include dislocation, arpeggiation, rhythmic alteration, tempo manipulation, embellishment, truncation and improvisation; and the modes by which these elements are applied will include approaches that seek to reinforce devotion over creativity, and those inspired by the late-Romantic notion of creativity as devotion.

By the end of this phase, students will be able to freely insert the elements of late-Romantic style into their performances with a kind of 'improvisational mentality': not to create more historically accurate performances, but with a view to uncovering new knowledge about this repertoire, its scores, its creator, its modern performance norms, and their own expressive and technical capabilities as performers.

It is also expected that by the end of this phase students will be able to produce well-articulated ideas and performances demonstrating this malleability, historical-situatedness and tension. Students will also be expected to articulate how such performances stand in relation to how this repertoire's performance norms are currently being either reinforced or challenged in scholarly and practice-led research fields, thereby identifying further work to be done.

Phase Three (April 2016 - December 2016)

This final phase involves the assembly, documentation and dissemination of the artistic outcomes of the case study with the help of the Orpheus Institute's partners both within Flanders and beyond. This phase is thoroughly part of the research methodology in that these presentations will be used to reflect upon whether the artistic outcomes of the case study are viable as stand-alone performances within both conservatory and advanced artistic research settings; whether they interrogate the relationship of these two settings and the performance and critically reflective standards they embody; and ultimately, whether they can be used as a catalyst to the opening up of an on-going and mutually-beneficial dialogue between higher instrumental training institutions and advanced artistic research.


The proposed project seeks to explore innovative modes of documentation and dissemination that reveal the dynamic, self-generating and experimental nature of its approach; and as such, some output avenues will likely develop organically during the research process. What is known however, is that:

- The outputs of this project will include a website documenting the research process, and will include texts, scores, and audiovisual elements.
- The discursive and artistic outcomes of the proposed project will be submitted for publication to the peer-reviewed Journal for Artistic Research.
- The findings of the project will be presented at one of the Orpheus Research Center in Music's annual research events, and will also be proposed as the basis of a study day at The Orpheus Institute. These presentations will include lectures, performances and workshops.
- The project's artistic and discursive presentations will be documented in a DVD with the assistance of ORCiM Research Fellow Juan Parra Cancino, accompanied by a text proposed for publication by Leuven University Press.
- The purely artistic outcomes of the project will be presented in concert at venues including the 'Concertvereiniging Lemmensinstituut' in 2016.


Anna Scott is a Canadian pianist-researcher interested in using the early-twentieth-century recordings of the Brahms circle of pianists to question the persistent gaps between the loci of performer knowledge, ethics, and act in both mainstream and historically informed approaches to Brahms’s late piano works. Far from advocating more historically accurate performances in general, Anna’s off-the-record experiments both elucidate and disturb modern constructions of Brahms’s classicist canonic identity by encouraging the emergence of the corporeal and psychological conundrums more characteristically associated with Romantic pianism. 


Anna is currently finalising a practice-based doctoral degree at the Orpheus Instituut in Ghent (docARTES) under the supervision of Daniel Leech-Wilkinson (King’s College, London), Naum Grubert (Royal Conservatoire The Hague and Conservatory of Amsterdam), and Frans de Ruiter (Leiden University, NL), and she is also a doctoral artistic researcher at the Orpheus Research Center in Music (ORCiM).

Alessandro Cervino graduated with master’s degrees in piano and composition from the Conservatories of Milan and Brussels and from the “Chapelle Musicale Reine Elisabeth” (Belgium ). He studied piano with P. Bordoni, A. Madzar and J. Michiels and further nurtured his musical gifts in a number of masterclasses held by  A.-R. El-Bacha, B. Engerer, D. Lively, A. Lonquich, A. Lucchesini, and E. Virsaladze.


Active as concert pianist, he recently appeared at such important venues and festivals as “International Piano Festival” in Ravello ( Italy ), “Conservatorio della Svizzera Italiana” in Lugano ( Switzerland ), “Festival of Flanders”, “ Musical Instruments Museum ” and “Flagey” in Brussels ( Belgium ). He recorded a live solo recital for the “Radio Télévision Belge Francophone” and performed Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto with the “Vlaams Radio Orkest” conducted by Pierre Bartholomée in the big hall of the Brussels Conservatory.


His research focuses on the piano sonata in contemporary music and, more specifically, aims at understanding which kind of information, drawn from an analysis of the score, can be useful for a performer. He is currently research fellow at the Lemmensinstituut of Leuven.

dr. Anna Scott Orpheus Institute (Ghent)

dr. Alessandro Cervino LUCA - School of Arts (Leuven)