Reflective Conservatoire Special Issue Editorial

byHelena Gaunt

Helena Gaunt,





Guildhall School of Music & Drama, UK

We are experiencing a paradigm shift in specialist education in the performing arts: in what it takes to prepare students for professional life, and in the potential for this work to resonate beyond the immediate disciplines. The imperative to respond proactively to the pace of change in the creative industries, and in higher education more generally, needs little rehearsal. Since the rise of the portfolio career in the arts (Bennett and Hannan, 2008; Rogers, 2002) and the advent of the Bologna process bringing widespread awarding of degrees in these practice-based disciplines (EACEA, 2010; Gaunt and Papageorgi, 2010), artistic and pedagogical innovation through reflection, research, collaboration, interdisciplinarity and social engagement have gained momentum. Over the last 30 years significant renewal of our practices in specialist education has become a norm.

However, this period has largely been characterised by adding to existing practices within curricula, and there is now a significant challenge to take stock and evaluate the achievements.

  • To what extent have innovations delivered what is really needed?
  • At what point do curricula become overloaded, thereby diluting quality?

To my mind at least, there is a need now to revisit fundamental principles and values, to find ways to integrate traditional and newer areas of activity, and to clear out the clutter. Without this, it will become increasingly difficult to be sufficiently agile to respond effectively to the ever more rapid changes in cultural and educational landscapes.

Beyond the performing arts themselves, an even more powerful imperative towards a paradigm shift is also emerging. This concerns ways in which the performing arts connect within society as a whole, with how artistic and educational practitioners find ways to offer their expertise and experience. We know that music, theatre and dance are essential to our humanity in any society. They champion fundamental values and experience, human interdependence and interaction, individual and collective creativity, and the disciplined pursuit of a passion over a lifetime. They help us make sense of complex situations, and call us to recalibrate our own ethical compass and leadership, whatever our primary focus in life.

 In sum, they have enormous and multilayered value (Mowiah et al., 2014).

Yet so often, not least in higher education contexts, performing arts practices remain cloistered, doing little to help the cause of connectedness. Traditionally, practices of specialist education/training in the performing arts (and perhaps particularly in the focused environments of standalone conservatoires, drama and dance academies) have played out in relative isolation. Concentrating on the craft of an individual discipline, they have been less inclined to make connections across boundaries. In addition, those teaching have typically worked alone behind closed doors, often having inherited a powerful hierarchy underpinning the transmission of a craft from master to students. There have been relatively few opportunities for such teachers to engage in shared reflection and exchange.

Fortunately, proximity to professional practice in making and performing has in many cases enabled change to find its way into the educational frame. Standards have consequently continued to evolve aligned to the professions, and in many contexts a focus on, for example, making new work sits alongside engagement with a canon of established repertoire. Nevertheless, pedagogical renewal has tended to receive less institutional support and has been remarkable in some cases by its absence. Pedagogy has not kept pace with artistic, wider educational and societal developments, and has relied largely on a natural but gentle evolution of embedded traditions as they are passed from one generation to the next.

This is problematic in many contemporary contexts where long-held assumptions about the purpose and value of the performing arts are being challenged. It is essential that pedagogy and curriculum development now catch up and indeed start to help to drive the evolution and sustainability of these arts forms in society. At the very least, each and every emerging practitioner in the performing arts must be enabled to establish genuine roots in their discipline, to articulate their vision and purpose and reappraise these continually, and to connect their artistry in society in different ways.

At the same time, it is essential that the proverbial baby is not thrown out with the bath water. The mandate to lead change is considerable, but the challenges of realising it are indeed complex. Specialist education must continue to champion and embody the particular principles and highest quality of skills that are the hallmark of the performing arts. It is only too easy to dilute these and to abandon notions of excellence as horizons broaden and choices diversify. It is critical, therefore, to continue focusing on effective renewal within individual disciplines, as well as paying greater attention to the contribution that these disciplines can make to the humanities as a whole, and to society.

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