Background

 

 

In 2019, the Royal Conservatoire The Hague (KonCon) launched the Master Project. The new tripartite programme combines the artistic development of the student, research and professional integration activities in one large project designed and managed by the student during the two years of master’s education. The Master Project consisted of a deep-reaching transformation of the master curriculum in classical music performance, making it more centred on the interests and responsibility of the individual student and stimulating the student to approach their artistic visions and ideals from a multifaceted, creative, inquisitive and entrepreneurial perspective.


The transformation of the master curriculum brings with it the question of how to prepare students for their master’s education. In how far is the bachelor’s education offered at the KonCon addressing the skills and approach required by the Master Project and is it necessary to create more bridges between the two cycles? Do we need a 'Bachelor Project'?


This type of concern is not exclusive to the KonCon. Higher Music Education in Europe and beyond have been marked in recent years by numerous curricular reconfigurations at both master and bachelor level. Focusing on the latter, this exposition gives insight into new bachelor programmes and activities developed by the Danish Rhtythmic Music Conservatory, the HKU Utrecht Conservatory, the Trinity College Dublin, the USC Thornton School of Music, the Norwegian Academy of Music and the KonCon itself. These insights deal primarily with the motivations, educational philosophy and the expected learning outcomes of each institution. They have been acquired through a review of official publications and curricular handbooks, as well as through conversations with students and staff at the various schools, and are backed up by concepts, texts and theories developed by artists and educators, many of which are made available to the interested reader in a last page containing resources for further study.


The objective of this exposition is not to give an exhaustive report of each institutions’ activities, but rather to look for common tendencies and initiatives, and possibly, to identify and formulate overarching questions concerning new approaches to teaching and the future of bachelor education in classical music performance.


In Blazing the Trail or Exposing the Gaps? Discourses on Student-Centredness in Genre Independent and Classical Music Performance Study Programmes in Norway and the Netherlands, composer and researcher Veronica Ski-Berg identifies four distinct discourses that dominate higher music education today. These discourses center around employability, artistry, craftmanship and holism. We will in the examples discussed in the first and second pages of this exposition, that these discourses often overlap, and that most institutions struggle or aim to strike a balance between them.


The discourse on employability takes a pragmatic view, focusing on preparing students to fit or be fit for the job market, while also empowering them to be the managers and makers of their own careers. This discourse has long been frowned upon. It has often attributed to the neoliberalisation of society, and has been particularly dominant already for a long time in countries such as the US, due to the privatisation of higher education and the necessity of the students to pay back costly study loans. Today, however, the same phenomenon is becoming perceptible in Europe, along with a generalised unstable economy and less public funding for culture in many countries. The cultural politics and economic situation of each country and school is doubtlessly determinant for the way in which they approach their curricula. In the Netherlands, there is for instance a difference between privately funded institutions such as the HKU Utrecht Conservatory and the Royal Conservatoire The Hague, which relies mostly on public funding. The constraints and affordances of each type of funding limits or expands the freedom that the institutions have to experiment with their curricula. I have not gone into the specifics of the funding structure of each institution presented here, but it is an aspect worth considering when carrying an in-depth comparison of their curricula. In any case, such concerns have led institutions and students to take entrepreneurial skills more seriously. This tendency can in a way be seen as a de-romanticisation of the musical profession, in the sense of becoming more realistic about the necessity of earning an income alongside artistic ideals.


Entrepreneurial or career skills are indeed important to all the institutions described in this exposition, with many of them focusing not only on how to monetise musical skills but also on the necessity of becoming a so-called ‘portfolio’ musician, whose practice can be adapted to a diversity of contexts and circumstances. The focus on flexibility and the portfolio aspect, however, although understandable, can seem to stand in contradiction with these institutions’ outspoken desire to form musicians with a strong artistic voice. It also raises the important question of whether institutions train students to fit into society, or whether students should become empowered to act upon society as professional musicians according to their own informed visions. Another issue often encountered when discussing with students the ‘portfolio’ issue is their insecurity with regards to their future possibilities. While employability, economic insecurity and the risks of professional life are real problems, could it be that an excessive focus of the institutions to this respect coupled with the multitude of possible choices might be instilling fear and confusion in the students, and that the employability discourse could be addressed with a tad more optimism?

 

The discourse on craftmanship  is based on the traditional master-apprentice teaching model, and focuses on developing skills on a particular instrument. It values the preservation of tradition and formality, and is viewed by some as student-centered because teachers tailor the lessons according to the individual development of each student, even though the vision for what this development should be often corresponds to their own views on the profession, instrument, repertoire, etc.

 

The discourse on artistry raises the question of what it means to be or become an artist today, and what music is today. That being so, it is not possible to separate this discourse from employability, but the artistic discourse and artistic ownership comes first. This discourse is often but not always connected to traditional values, idealism, and a romantic attitude to art as above monetary concerns. Artistry is also closely linked to the notions of creativity and of developing an original voice, and possibly an innovative one, considering the challenges and desire for novelty of today's social and professional landscape.


When it comes to innovation, this seems to increasingly take the shape of crossgenre music-making, collaborations across art disciplines or new formats to present and disseminate musical work, all of which are being embraced by many institutions. As such, the search for artistry, idiosyncrasy and the new can appear in conflict with the 'craftmanship' model, still today profoundly linked to the idea of a 'conservatoire', or the German tradition of considering music academies as 'Hochschule', at the same level of technical schools. What skills to keep, which to discard? What does one need to know and do in order to still be called a musician?

 

To make old and new coexist, as in the building designed by architect Zara Hadid for the Antwerpean harbour in the backdrop image to this text, seems to be one of the core objectives of many of the examples presented. The mission statement published in the front page of the bachelor programme of the Royal Conservatoire in Brussels illustrates this perfectly:


The teaching team is made up of artists of various nationalities, all actively and abundantly present on national and international stages, as soloists, chamber musicians, musicians in major national orchestras, conductors or renowned composers. They endeavor on the one hand to perpetuate the tradition of excellence and high standards of the Conservatory and of their great predecessors, such as, for the violin, Vieuxtemps, Wieniawski and Ysaïe, and on the other hand, to accompany their students on all paths of contemporary musical activity and life. [...] Emphasis is placed on the development of their ability to build a singular artistic universe, among other things through the personal artistic project that closes their studies, underpinned by scientific and artistic research, but also on their ability to a place in collective creations.


Finally, the discourse on holism focuses on the education of the student as a responsible citizen. It is centred on the holistic development of the student, including not only their musical skills, but also their personal and professional growth. It is centered on the idea that music education should not only be about the music, but also about the person, and the role they play in society. This specific discourse strongly connects to the notion of social and individual responsibility. Most institutions studied here attempt to cultivate this sense of responsbility through more focus on peer-learning and the fostering of new forms of dialogue and feedback practices. Such practices are ever-prominent in music education in general but also in higher education at large, and coincide with a general questioning of autoritarian discourses and the wish or necessity to relate to the needs and interests of the students, giving them more autonomy in their learning. This is characteristic of the nowadays much bespoken and ever prominent student-centred approach to education, which affects most profoundly the way teachers act and interact with the students and in the classroom.


In a student-centred context, the teacher acts as a facilitator and guide, providing resources and support, but allowing the students to take a more active role in their own learning. On the other hand, teacher-centred education is more traditional, with the teacher as the main authority figure, delivering information and directing the learning process. The emphasis is on the teacher transmitting knowledge to the students, who are expected to be passive recipients of this knowledge. The choice between student-centred and teacher-centred education will depend on the context, goals and the preferences of the teacher, or in the institutions providing specific training to this respect, as is the case at the KonCon. But, when aspired at, it will unavoidably shift the focus from transmitting content to a more metaperspective consisting in teaching the students self-reflectivity, and to know how to learn.


Philosopher and educator Alfred North Whitehead  (The Aims of Education, 1967 [1929]) speaks of ‘ inert ideas’: “ideas that are merely received into the mind without being utilized, or tested, or thrown into fresh combinations” (1967, 1). This type of ideas or knowledge can paralyse the student’s reflective abilities:  'in my own work at universities I have been much struck by the paralysis of thought induced in pupils by the aimless accumulation of precise knowledge, inert and unutilised' (1967, 37). Taking Whitehead's words to the letter means to consider how ideas and skills can connect, to which ideas and visions they can correspond, and how they can be transferred to other skills, contexts and knowledge domains.

In conversations with a group of KonCon students in the Fall of 2022, it has become clear that students are very aware of classroom dynamics and the power of student-centred teaching practices. According to them, there are a few key issues that may cause problems in the classroom. One of the main issues is students being left to their own devices. This can lead to confusion and a lack of understanding. Additionally, dogmatic positions are not appreciated, for they can be unhelpful and can make it difficult for students to engage with the material. Another situation experienced as negative is when teachers may be too focused on the details of the material, which can be overwhelming and can make it difficult for students to understand the bigger picture. Additionally, the lack of sensitivity in a group context, for instance use of humiliating tactics within a group can be detrimental to the student's self-esteem and can make it difficult for them to learn. However, there are also some strategies that they point out as being very effective for their learning. One of the most important is providing positive feedback to students. This helps to build their confidence and can make them more motivated to learn. Additionally, providing justification for the material can be helpful, as it makes it easier for students to understand the material and to transfer their knowledge to other areas. Another effective strategy is to recognize the student's struggles and to work directly with them to address these issues. Additionally, it is important to provide students with the tools they need to look for answers and to master their own learning curves. Finally, consistency is key, repeating the same thing every week for years can help students to master small elements and feel more in control of their own learning.


These interesting remarks by students can relate well to the differences which can be observed in masterclasses by teachers of a younger or older generation. Traditionally, instrumental teachers have had the habit to correct the student's interpretations based on their, or their environment's preconceived ideas of how a piece should sound. We see here pianist Oxana Yablonskaya guiding the student to the 'right' way of playing rubato in Chopin's piano concerto. At no point does she ask the student why she was playing the way she did, or if there was a rationale behind her choices. In this other clip, we see clarinettist Martin Fröst complaining about the insecurity of students told throughout their education, that they should avoid doing and playing things 'wrong'. It would be wrong to turn this issue solely into an age questions, as there are many crossgenerational examples of these different attitudes. The context in which the two teachers shown in the example above operate – a more authoritarian Russian tradition in the case of Yablonskaya for instance – also determines how they approach music and teaching. Yet the main point is that notions of right and wrong are being superseded by personal, informed, choice and a larger interpretational freedom.


The larger responsibility given to the student and the differentiated role expected of teachers is also mirrorred in recent discussions regarding assessment, and whether students should be included in the elaboration of assessment criteria, and even in the formal evaluation of their own trajectory. Along with this issue it is necessary to reconsider concepts of success and the relationship between students and their instruments in case of students profiting extensively from the ever increasing interdiscipinary possibilities made available to them. What is their idea of success and their relationship to music?


The larger question is also whether student-centred education means to teach the students what they want, or empowering them to choose what they want, making them self-aware according to our own views or adopting their views in the formation of their education. A second question is when reponsibility becomes too much responsibility - are we perhaps putting too much weight on the student's shoulders at an early stage of professionalisation? Last, how to balance responsibility, self-regulation and autonomy with educational institutions still being a space of discovery where it is possible to risk, and to fail, for the sake of learning and growth?