Evoking the ‘learning muscle’
Motivation is key to being a professional musician because it helps the musician’s passion for music survive the huge technical and mental demands of the profession and contributes to making students into lifelong learners. The students both displayed and reported strong motivation for producing a high-quality performance, even without the usual drivers of assessment, ECTS grades and fixed learning outcomes. As there were no formal assessment in the end, students felt free to experiment and take risks in the creative process. The combination of a feeling of freedom and responsibility, the collaborative aspect and the aim of performing in the grand Basilica might all have contributed to the high motivation students both reported and displayed during the process.
Teachers involved in the project were convinced that having no formal assessment even worked as a trigger for the students to push themselves more than expected, and indeed the quality of the result, the Lieder, was consequently higher than the teachers had expected.
A different teacher role
The project offered an opportunity for the teachers to experiment with new ways of teaching. They were asked to take on the role of co-worker or facilitator of the process and avoid steering the process as teachers are traditionally expected to do. After the initial introductory workshops and lectures on Lieder, composition techniques, improvisation and performance which was led by the teachers, it was the students’ responsibility to bring in the competence of their teachers when they needed it. Even though the teachers were encouraged to try out a new role, they struggled to find a balance between giving guidance and exercising their authority as experts in their field without being authoritarian. This shows that it is not sufficient for teachers to want to change their role and relationship with the students; it also takes a significant amount of trial and error, and teachers in this project found the opportunity to discuss and reflect together with other teachers as highly valuable.
A surprising learning outcome
Teachers and students participating in the project came from different disciplines. Yet the project was not pre-designed as an interdisciplinary project. The students were expected to collaborate as experts in their field with others expert students belonging to other disciplines. What happened, however, was that the students were open for trying out different areas than their main subject of study, not just in the creative process but also in the performances. Singers composed, composers played the organ, and organists and pianists sang. It was also remarkable to find that the students did not feel limited by their usual role, level or preferences. One singer, for example, stated that she was happy to find there was no music theory involved, not even recognising that the harmonic reduction of a Kurtág piece and development of a leitmotif that she did during the project was clearly theoretical.
A holistic approach
The LIED project was an elective module that lasted for six weeks and involved four groups of 14 students in total. The project was interdisciplinary and included a music theory teacher, a choral conductor, an organist and a composer from the conservatoire as well as a performance teacher from the Theatre Academy. During the process the students first studied the lieder of Schumann and Schubert and then moved on to composing their own lieder, using a German text and ten compositions by Kurtág as musical building blocks. The LIED project was a pilot project and part of the Innovation Research “Year plan – from classical problem to working together” (Susanne van Els 2016/17). This plan aims to find new ways of organising the weekly schedule and academic year for classical music students, taking in account problems with rewarding and supporting student initiatives and professional practice outside the programme. It also seeks to stimulate projects that integrate the usually separate topics of music theory and entrepreneurship into performance practice, aiming for a holistic approach to students’ learning.
The audience perspective
Students were asked to decide on a concept that they wanted to convey to the audience in the final performance. This stimulated their creativity, and encouraged them to consider the audience perspective from the beginning of the creative process. A central question posed was: which musical, performative and theatrical tools can we use to transmit our message?
Assessment was replaced by trust
The project did not involve any formal assessment. Two central questions that then arose were:
- How would the students know whether they did well or not if there was no predefined description of what constituted a good performance?
- Would the students put in their best effort if they knew there would be no assessment?
Despite these considerations, the project leaders decided to test the assumption that the students would rise to the challenge of an announced concert and strive towards high quality even though there was no formal assessment in the end. Instead of a traditional assessment, a final evaluation followed the concert, arranged as a group interview with all students, teachers and head of education. In this dialogue, awareness of the implicit learning was addressed as a central topic.
Practical advice Student autonomy and reflection
It seems to be of utmost importance to hand over the project to the students and leave as much as possible for them to decide, including goals and methods. The students’ ownership of the project was crucial to the activation of the students’ ‘learning muscles’. The next step will be to leave the design of a project open to the students as well.
Reflection as an integrated part
An important learning goal for the assignment of creating their own Lieder was to enable students to develop ownership and more ease when performing the original Lieder of Schubert and Schumann, which students often perceive as ‘God given notes’. Reflections on how the students’ experiences from the creative LIED project could transfer back to performing Schumann and Schubert could have been part of the project, but then preferably afterwards as such reflection during the process could make the students over-conscious.