In the Student Initiative project, students of the classical music department of Conservatorium Maastricht were responsible for creating, producing and marketing a semi-scenic performance. Comparable to real life in the arts, students could apply for funding and invite instructors.




1. September 2017


1. December 2017

Outcome Students’ ownership

The Student initiative project aimed at letting students take the lead in what they would be doing for one project week in the academic year 17/18 and so arise their intrinsic motivation. It strived to hand over responsibility to the students: they would be the ones who designed the project, they were the ones to decide how many and what kind of teaching hours they needed, they would be taking care of production and marketing tasks, and in the end enjoyed performing it for an audience.

Learning new skills

Students had to write an application to be accepted, including plans for budget, organisation and marketing. To ensure motivation and dedication, all students involved needed to sign the application. A council then assessed the application and provided feedback and support to help students clarify and strengthen their ideas. Students lacked experience about production necessities and needed an increased awareness of how to attract an audience. This phase served as a perfect education: the head spoke with the students about artistic choices, the production people showed them everything they should take care of, and as the professionalism grew, the quality of the project plan improved and the commitment within the group grew.

An unchartered area

The idea was that students themselves should choose a repertoire they wanted to perform. However, when their teachers learned about the initial choice of the students, they argued that this repertoire was not suitable for the students’ voices and development.

Some urgent conversations followed: one way or another there were elements missing in the education of our students as they did not have a good understanding of their capacities or voice development, and neither did they consult their teachers on this when choosing repertoire. This caused stress and at moments distress with the vocal students involved – it seems we find the topic of ‘the piano student who also improvises but does not want his teacher to know’ or ‘the master-apprentice system working as a copy-paste model’ still rudimentary present. The argument was solved with an agreement between teachers and students to do Die Zauberflöte instead. The discussions this led to were, however, a good learning experience for all involved.

As soon as the teachers were okay with the repertoire, we felt relieved and free. These kinds of projects could help to create a normal, professional discussion between teacher and student. This also changed my position in the main subject lesson, at least, that is how I perceive it.

Change in motivation

Taking a lead, both in programming the concert and in thinking about their own study programme, led to a significant change in students’ motivation. Students rose to the occasion and were eager to say what they wanted and to show that they could do it. Motivation is a key word when describing this project and students’ motivation for working on the project was both overwhelming and clearly intrinsic, and in the end, this was also a decisive factor in the quality of their performance.

Usually you feel that the piece you sing owns you, but now, even when we sung Mozart, it was us in a way creating the piece. We organised the preparation, we decided on how we wanted it, we invited the audience, and we loved this piece so much that we dedicated all of our talents and time to it. How is that so different? Anyway, it felt so good…


The collaborative nature of the whole project was served by solid team-work.

There was no hierarchy between us, although not everyone did as much, everyone did what they could. And, I have never felt so open to the others, which had a very nice effect in the vocal rehearsals. We all started to help each other, that was so nice, it was teaching and learning in one!

It was very interesting to find that every student felt they learned incredibly much, but all learned different things.

A new teacher-student relationship

Within the project, teachers needed some guidance on their new role. It was difficult for the fantastic pianists working in the opera class not to take the lead in rehearsals, or to not show their doubts when the young student director made his speech about the piece and his concept. In this way, the project involved a learning process for teachers as well.

Having teachers ‘work for us’, on demand, and they were great! – it was so different, and, how to put this, it meant such a lot to me.

Enhanced musicianship

At the core of the project was the idea that students should be responsible for the whole task of doing a production, anticipating that this would make them discover their own urgency for what they do on stage, and through this become better musicians. These goals were clearly served. Students gave testimonies about how incredible it was that being responsible for organising and marketing made them better, not only at this part of the job, but also as musicians.

It is actually such a surprise to find all of us have become better singers during these months in which we spent all this time on production work….

 The singing is a reward! I did all this effort and now I sing! One really wants it!!!!

I had such a different attitude towards the audience – we did all this work to get them in, and we knew so well why they should come.

Students also testified that they chose tasks not just based on what they felt capable of, but also based on what they wanted to experience and develop. After the project ended, students described going through a personal growth process while doing the project. This growth was connected to students improving their capacities to communicate and collaborate, and that this process made them unite with their music making.

Die Zaüberflöte

Description Creating a real-life learning experience

This pilot was designed as part of the Innovation Research at Conservatorium Maastricht “Year plan – from classical problem to working together” by Susanne van Els (Also see The LIED-project).

Conservatoires’ project weeks should offer a solid lot of learning opportunities for a large number of students. They should include professional working circumstances and level, and be a realistic professional experience. However, education designers often find that many students do not show a professional attitude in terms of preparation or discipline, or they seem to lack motivation. Why are students late to a 10 o’clock rehearsal? Why do many show up without having done the necessary preparations? Could this be due to a lack of ownership? These were questions asked by Susanne van Els as Head of Department.

The Student Initiative project aimed at

  • making students think about their ‘product’, audience, budget and funding in a professional way
  • enhancing collaborative work and entrepreneurship
  • making students reflect on whether doing production work and finding an audience could make them more convincing musicians
  • re-balancing the relation between students and study programme
  • re-balancing the relation between students and teachers: in the budget plan the students could include working hours for teachers, and the teachers would be invited by them for specific help

The teachers’ council and students’ council decided together that one of the annual project weeks at Conservatorium Maastricht would be used for student-led projects. These project weeks are traditionally organised by conservatoire leaders who decide on repertoire and conductor, and the conservatoire’s production office would take care of organisation and marketing. In the Student Initiative, students were responsible for all these tasks. The results included an astonishing learning process, a boost in motivation and a feeling of ownership in students, as well as a wonderful performance of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte.

Practical advice Balancing guidance and ownership

The project aims to ‘have students do everything themselves’, but, of course, there is still a lot of guidance and teaching involved. Students were slow to apply at first, and did not fully understand what was offered to them. The students needed to get the information in person combined with some encouragement from key staff, and help with writing an application.

Furthermore, for such a project to be successful it is important that the idea and philosophy behind it has support among the staff, and that teachers are motivated to develop their role and to deliver optimum commitment.

Keeping the balance between offering guidance without taking away students’ ownership is tricky and at the same time very rewarding. Potentially, this way of working can change relationships between teachers and students, as well as between students. It can also clarify students’ insights in their own learning needs and learning processes. All and all, this enhances the sense of ownership in higher music education fundamentally to the better.

Susanne van Els

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