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by Camilla Overgaard, Susanne van Els

Diversity in Higher Music Education: An E-mail Interview with Camilla Overgaard and Susanne van Els

Camilla and Susanne are members of the Strengthening Music in Society project of the AEC (Association Européenne des Conservatoires, Académies de Musique et Musikhochschulen). Camilla recently obtained her master's degree from the Royal Academy of Music in Aarhus in pop/jazz guitar, while Susanne has had many years of experience working in education after a very satisfying career as a classical musician.

They were interviewed via e-mail by Brandon Farnsworth and Rosanna Lovell of GRiNM in response to their manifesto for the future of music education.

Camille Overgaard and Susanne van Els, Manifesto for the Future of Music Education, 2019

How do the practices and continuities in music education from early learning through to university level shape the music scene of performers, composers, etc., that we see today? And in considering this, how could we see the field of education as a site for radical change with the possibility for lasting impacts in the music we see performed?

Susanne van Els (SvE): Classical music education is built on (early) specialised training. Talent is mostly defined as a given physical and mental condition, and qualities like resilience and persistence are used in the context of technical achievement. Having a musical soul and a deep creative connection with the mystery of classical music, and developing knowledge and understanding is, of course, not just helpful but essential in the long process of mastering an instrument, but in music education this seldom manifests into a meaningful connection. It is such a pity when there is a lack of creativity and contemporaneity in classical music education. For musicians, for audiences, for music itself. The remedy is to change the balance from re-production to making, also within the setting of a conventional classical concert.

All art is contemporary. Music, which is defined by time—real time, the here and now versus as well as united with eternity—is extremely contemporary; Beethoven’s 9th is different every time it has been performed over the past 200 years. All art is both a confrontation and unification of the individual with the collective. When listening to Bach’s St Matthew Passion, a piece almost 300 years old, the deepest individual pain and joy are perceived in an awareness of collective human connection. Therefore, all art is societal.

Camilla Overgaard (CO): The wide variety of different practices within music education undoubtedly shape the multiple existing music scenes in many different ways. More concretely, I believe that the master-apprentice model, which has been and to a large extent still is very dominant within music education, shapes performers especially. The idea of studying with a master to one day eventually become one yourself, can in my opinion be quite repetitive and thereby potentially influence the image of what a musician is in the music scene as well. The opposite could of course also be true, if practices within music education encouraged diversity and ownership amongst musicians from early learning through to university level.

By articulating and nuancing the stereotypical and often hierarchical image of what it means to be a musician, I believe that the field of education can catalyse change in the music we see performed—and more importantly, who feels they can/have the right to perform it.

How do conservatories and music schools need to be organised in order to foster musical diversity? What structures are needed, and what are the biggest challenges faced in realising them?

SvE: Structures are important, but mindset is key. However, one remark about structures: when designing curricula, programs, courses, pedagogic approaches, etc., without changing assessment—for both entrance and graduation—accordingly and fundamentally, nothing happens.

I see a conservatoire as a learning community: students, teachers, staff, visitors, audience, and professional partners meet in order to learn, both individually and collectively. A conservatoire is an institute for learning, but it could also see itself as a place of learning: anyone entering the building should take on a curious, open attitude. Everyone is continually developing, and together we develop the profession and our artform. The concept of a learning community is helpful in contextualising the master-apprentice model, which is a very valuable asset in music training. One of the blind spots in most classical music education is that it is so focused on the individual, whereas the job is collaborative—and a general misconception is the idea of the ‘audience’ as passive consumers instead of the community that we, musicians, are part of, both while performing and creating. A change in mindset that would foster diversity is to see students as active, researching artists. It would give them agency over what they do and keep them connected with why they want to do it. This could change conventional approaches towards ideals, which in classical music are quite hierarchical and heroic. Students need to be given broad options to choose from, not just in the study programme, but also regarding assessment, because they are working towards what success is to them.

CO: In order to foster musical diversity in conservatoires and music schools, I believe it is important that diversity is embedded at all levels within the institution. In my opinion, diversity in music originates from diversity of people, and therefore it is important that conservatories become accessible to a broader range of people. Becoming more accessible is challenging, since it means that existing structures inevitably have to change in order to embrace different kinds of musicians—an example could be changing the entrance exams or assessment criteria at conservatoires. This would very likely lead to a discussion of what or who defines quality, when the goal is musical diversity. How diverse do we really want it to be? How much are we ready to change?

I also want to emphasise the importance of giving students the possibility to choose part of their curriculum themselves. Musical diversity is also fostered by encouraging students to be curious and to expand their musicianship in new ways, for instance, by taking subjects from other departments.

Susanne, how do you help students free their thinking like this? What do you think needs to happen in conservatoires to foster this kind of approach? What kinds of new narratives and images do we need to present in music education?

SvE: Realigning the art of classical music-making towards the component of making, from juvenile training and during the 10,000 hours, is essential. This will keep young musicians connected to their creative side, and it will most likely encourage them to retain a broad scope. Range, which is part of divergent thinking and interdisciplinary work, is essential when working in the contemporary world, and for musicians this means being able to connect and to collaborate whilst also being specialised. One of the most important qualities for teachers is generosity. Inviting students to not just become better than them, but to also be different. Encouragement is a tool from parenting that is most welcome in teaching as well—being there. Process over progress, with ‘joy and belonging’ being keywords for everyone involved. Teachers are active, researching artists, too, and together with students they shape the learning community. Interestingly, narratives of great musicianship are all around us, in real life; for example, Yo-Yo Ma says about learning to improvise while connecting musicians from East and West: “Perfection is not very communicative.” Fighting conventional archaic, male images in classical music means replacing internalised stories of individual heroism with real life stories about companionship and citizenship.

Camilla, what has this process been for you as a student? What struggles have you faced while pursuing your interests in the conservatoire setting? What kinds of new narratives and images do we need to present in music education?

CO: Firstly, my path at the conservatoire has been a winding road. My bachelor’s degree is in music education with classical guitar as my main instrument, whereas my master’s degree is in pop/jazz guitar and song writing. This journey has involved a lot of frustration and a feeling of not really fitting in anywhere, although despite this it has also kept me searching for new possibilities. In hindsight, I think it is because I do not define myself as either a classical or pop/jazz guitarist—I am somewhere in-between the two, and I have found this mixed identity quite difficult to develop in the conservatoire setting. The challenge for me has been having my musicianship split into categories by subjects and departments. To some degree, this is necessary to structure an education programme, but the negative consequence is that we might get stuck inside these categories and not work across or between them. A classical guitarist is considered one thing and a pop/jazz guitarist another, and to some extent this is true, but to me this does not help build an artistic identity. I believe that artistic identity originates from why we do what we do, is expressed in how we are doing it and eventually manifested in what we do. The focus is often only on the what in the conservatoire setting. This led me to search for my what when I should have been searching for my why.  If we shift the focus in music education from what to why, I believe that new narratives and images will emerge.

We are starting to see some really interesting thinking and research about many longstanding issues in the conservatoire. How do you imagine a closer interaction between fields of practical (instrumental) and academic (research) study in music departments at universities?

SvE: Similar to most structures, conservatoires seem to be not very receptive to change. Every now and then I find myself with colleagues saying, “If we could start a new school now…,” and our dream expresses the same kind of freedom that can be experienced in a jam session. The only answer that I can think of, both for this situation and to the question, has to do with connection. Academic subjects could have a large practical component, and the reflective, researching part of the main subject area could have more exposure. Quality assurance outcomes could be discussed together with all stakeholders. Transparency is a great connector: Why could students not be given an insight into institutional financial decisions? What if we acknowledge that students understanding how they are being graded is an important factor in learning? Is it really effective that students only work in cohorts that are arranged by levels? What I am trying to say is that binary or hierarchical thinking is not helpful, and that the only way to connect valuable insights, wonderful people, and different perspectives is through practical daily practice, on the floor. Just do it.

CO: The very first thought that comes to my mind is that it may be beneficial to imagine a closer interaction between people first and fields second. Approaching the question from this angle, I would suggest that a way to enhance interaction could be by developing collaborative projects out of common ground. When different fields are compared or discussed, naturally the focus tends to be on their differences rather than their commonalities. Shifting the focus to these commonalities could potentially help to create this common ground and thereby foster interaction between people from different fields of study. Ultimately, interaction is about sharing knowledge, and I believe that this is done best when people create something together. This is why I imagine that developing collaborative projects with a very hands-on approach could be a way to foster interaction.

Thinking of what we have been discussing so far regarding diversification and intervention in the conservatoire, can you briefly state your vision for the future of the conservatory system in Europe? Where does this take us as classical music creators and educators?

SvE: I have seen how students take on the challenge of quality learning once control has been replaced by trust. This position, for educators, is not about withdrawing; it means stepping in and being there, actively providing guidance, taking the risk of doing instead of telling, taking responsibility together. For students, it means designing their learning pathway and their own future in art.

Allowing diversity always includes letting go, of hierarchy, of status, of secured positions and visions. This is scary. But how else can our artform develop and play a role in contemporary societies? We cannot just teach history. We can teach quality while relating to what young professionals, children of their time, are creating. Classical music touches on everything which is human, and it is the most sacred place I know. Being a musician is the best way to spend your life. It is demanding and exciting, but most of all it is a blessing to be able to speak in and for your community with an artistic voice. Diversity is a rule of nature, and inclusion is a mission for artists. If anything, let conservatoires be places of joy and belonging, mini-societies for experimentation, thinking, and playing while being aware of context, place, and time.

CO: I do not feel that I can put forward a general vision for the conservatory system in Europe, but what I will work for and hope to see in the future is a closer connection between the conservatoire and society in general. In my opinion, building this connection requires a change in mindset on all institutional levels, which comes from many of the things that have been brought up throughout this interview and that are also reflected in our manifesto above. Like asking ourselves why we do that we do, encouraging curiosity and breaking down the hierarchical structures that stand in the way of diverse and nuanced learning, as well as putting music in the hands of the people. I believe that such a change will enhance diversity and innovation and create new areas of work for musicians to benefit both the musicians themselves and society in general. Therefore, as a music creator and educator, I dedicate myself and my work to curiosity, to lifelong learning, and to supporting others in following their dreams.

Camilla Overgaard is a guitarist and songwriter who specialises in the acoustic guitar. She holds a bachelor’s degree in music pedagogics, with classical guitar as her main instrument, and a master’s degree in pop/jazz guitar and song writing from The Royal Academy of Music in Aarhus. She is highly engaged in representational work both as former chair of the students’ council and of The National Council of Music Students and as a board member of the Danish Musicians Union. Camilla is involved in a variety of different projects combining elements from classical and folk music and has collaborated with both actors and architects. In March 2019, she released her debut EP “Det er ganske vist!” with her interpretations of fairy tales by the famous Danish author Hans Christian Andersen. Since 2018, Camilla has been part of the AEC SMS-project as a member of the Student Working Group and as co-chair of the Entrepreneurship Working Group. She works to combine social entrepreneurship and music with the aim of empowering vulnerable groups in society. In relation to her master’s thesis “Meeting in Music - Facilitating empowerment and sense of ownership through musical activities with vulnerable groups,” Camilla initiated two projects, one in a refugee centre and the other in a community centre, exploring how meeting in music can contribute to strengthening the personal resources of people who are considered very vulnerable, help foster intercultural understanding and build social relationships.

Susanne van Els (1963) is one of the leading musicians of her generation. She performed as a soloist and a chamber musician, and she ran a most entrepreneurial life in music, combining her own ensembles and projects, like a series of artistically fresh solo CDs, with travelling the world with the Schönberg Ensemble, doing advisory and policy development work whilst undertaking adventurous collaborations with the other arts. Significant composers like Louis Andriessen wrote new viola works for Susanne. Her recording of Ligeti’s viola sonata for harmonia mundi won both the Diapason d’Or de l’Année and the Deutsche Schallplattenpreis in 2009. After this truly satisfying international career, she started to work in higher education. She was the head of the classical music department of the Royal Conservatoire The Hague. She was responsible for the interdisciplinary projects and joint curriculum at ZUYD Faculty of the Arts. For these institutions, she developed relations with international higher education partners, a.o. in China. She led the European Opera Academy and is currently working on an Erasmus+ Strategic Partnership project for new opera-making and training. She is involved in new initiatives in the arts, and she does policy advice, coaching, and accreditation work. Susanne is a member of the Learning & Teaching working group of the Strengthening Music in Society project of the Association Européenne des Conservatoires. She performs forward-thinking work on assessment and curriculum development in higher music education—a recent article in a publication of the Centre of Excellence in Music Performance Education is “How (not) to teach.”


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