Copyright © 2008
Royal Northern College of Music
Vol 2: 26-35
The role of chamber music in learning to perform:
a case study
Rosie Burt-Perkins and Janet Mills
ABSTRACT This paper draws on findings from the Learning to Perform pro-
ject, a three-year longitudinal investigation of musical learning at a UK conser-
vatoire. In particular, focus is placed on the role that chamber music can play
in the development of musical expertise. While the conservatoire centres its
curriculum on one-to-one instrumental lessons, it also offers tuition and as-
sessment for chamber music. In this paper, we propose that chamber music
may be one way in which students can “expand” their learning as well as nur-
turing skills that may promote their careers. We focus on the development of
one wind quintet, concentrating on in-depth understanding of the opportuni-
ties or constraints that it affords learning. Using interview data, triangulated
by questionnaires and observation, we track the quintet’s successes and disap-
pointments, and the impact that the experience had on the learners involved.
The quintet emerges as a space in which students can challenge and be chal-
lenged, where they can learn deeply and where they can develop skills within
and beyond music. Following a decision to be assessed as part of their degree,
the group coherence begins to diminish, so that the quintet eventually dis-
perses. We suggest that these findings have emergent implications both in
terms of musical expertise and conservatoire curricula.
KE Y W OR D S : Expansive learning, conservatoire, quintet, peer learning, cur-
This paper draws on findings from the Learning to Perform project, a three year longi-
tudinal investigation of musical learning at a UK conservatoire. Using a mixed-methods
approach, Learning to Perform has tracked two groups of learners through three years of
their conservatoire education. While the conservatoire centres its curriculum on one-to-
one instrumental lessons, it also offers tuition and assessment for students who seek to
engage in chamber music. Here, we consider the role of chamber music in learning to per-
form, using theoretical and empirical discussions to develop knowledge of how conserva-
toire students learn.
Since Learning to Perform’s inception we have argued that “practice makes perfect” is
a part-truth when it comes to learning to perform (Mills & Burt, 2004). Rather, we build on
the agency of students, teachers and institution as we investigate learning that we con-
ceptualize as situated within its context (Lave & Wenger, 1991). In particular, we seek to
understand how students interact within their environment to shape their developing port-
folio of skills as they prepare for a career in music. We know that such a career will be
broad and diverse, typically taking the shape of what has become known as a “portfolio”
career (Mallon, 1998; Rogers, 2002). But how do conservatoire students learn, and to what
extent does this learning prepare them for such a career? In the paragraphs that follow
we discuss three theoretical lenses that we have applied as we seek to answer such ques-
Firstly, we draw on the work of Bransford and Brown (2000), who suggest that learners
may be either “accomplished novices” or “answer-filled experts”. As Mills (2007) explains:
“‘accomplished novices’ are rightly proud of their achievements, but constantly strive to
know more, and to push out the boundaries of their expertise. By contrast, ‘answer-filled
experts’ know and communicate the information associated with expertise in a more self-
contained way” (Mills, 2007, p.25). We already know that conservatoire teachers emerge
as “accomplished novices” (Mills, 2004). Given that these teachers are recruited as highly
successful performers, we can hypothesize with confidence that such an approach to
learning is beneficial to musicians. Here, we propose that participating in chamber music
may be one way in which students can develop their expertise in a manner that nurtures
an “accomplished novice” approach to learning.
Bransford and Brown’s (2000) conceptualisation of expertise is markedly different from
some of the theorising that has been previously applied to musical learning. Ericsson,
Krampe, and Tesch-Römer (1993), for example, established clear links between deliberate
practice and musical performance expertise. We suggest, however, that theories which
take a more holistic approach to understanding learning may elicit a new understanding of
what it is to learn to perform. Bransford and Brown provide one such lens; we draw sec-
ondly on Entwistle and Ramsden’s (1983) notion of “deep” and “surface” learning.
Through working extensively with students in higher education, Entwistle concluded that
students who learn deeply are those who seek challenges in their learning, and who ad-
vance their skills as learners as they get the opportunity (see also Entwistle, 2005). Those
who are “surface” learners, on the other hand, take information “as it comes”, are not
likely to think around this information, and do not always seek challenges in their learn-
ing. Given the complexity of the task facing conservatoire students (Burt, 2004), we use
the concept of deep learning, in conjunction with Bransford and Brown’s notion of “ac-
complished novice”, to examine the development of musical expertise. We propose that
when students are learning as part of a chamber group they have the opportunity to en-
gage in deep learning by questioning their own and their peers’ contribution to the group,
thinking deeply about the musical interpretation of the group, and so forth. In this paper,
we investigate the extent to which this is the case, and how it shapes the learning of the
The writing and thinking of Bransford and Brown (2000), and of Entwistle and Ramsden
(1983), have informed Learning to Perform since its inception. Since that time, we have
extended and added to this thinking through the notion of “expansive learning”. Defined
by researchers exploring learning at work (i.e. learning “on the job”), we take expansive
learning to be “participation in multiple communities of practice inside and outside the
formal educational setting; opportunities to extend identity through boundary crossing”
(Fuller & Unwin, 2003, p. 411). There are three main points here.
Firstly, expansive learning is about participating in multiple “communities of practice”
(see Lave & Wenger, 1991). These communities of practice involve musicians in a commu-
nity in which they share aims with other musicians; chamber music provides a clear exam-
ple. Playing in a chamber group – as part of a portfolio of activities – is one way in which
students can become more expansive learners. Secondly, expansive learning is about ex-
tending identity; that is, broadening the ways in which one thinks about, and describes,
oneself as a musician. For many of the students at the conservatoire, being a chamber
musician becomes an important part of identity (Burt & Mills, 2006). We suggest that this
is important both in terms of career preparation and in terms of enhanced learning prac-
tices. Finally, we make clear that while we present expansive learning as a potentially
useful way to progress as a musician, we do not argue this at the expense of “restrictive”
learning. As musicians, a certain degree of restrictive (or surface) learning may well be
important to the development of expertise; here, though, we suggest that expansive
learning also plays an important role.
We move now to develop this thinking through the examination of the “rise and fall” of
one wind quintet at the conservatoire. Starting from the premise that chamber music is
one way in which students can expand their learning, we investigate the quintet in terms
of the learning of its members, and the extent to which their experiences led to deeper,
or more expansive, learning. Specifically, we ask:
1) What did the students learn from being part of this chamber group?
2) Did their experiences lead to expanded learning?
3) What are the implications in terms of the provision of chamber music at the
We adopt a mixed-method methodology to answer these questions, drawing on data
collected as part of Learning to Perform. Informed by a pragmatic approach to conducting
research, we agree with Gorard and Taylor (2004) that methodology should be selected in
order that the researcher can best answer the particular research question(s). To this end,
we take one wind quintet as our case. We do not seek to generalize from this case, but
rather to understand the learning of its members both intrinsically and instrumentally
(Stake, 2000). That is, our purpose is to learn from the case what we can about both the
quintet and about expansive learning.
Within the case study, we draw on multiple sources of data (Yin, 2003) in order to
combine different “lines of sight” (Berg, 2007). Table 1 summarises the data collection
procedure. Members of the quintet are not identified by instrument to protect their ano-
nymity, and all names are pseudonyms.
Data Collection Procedure
Interview 1, Sept 2004 X X X X X
Questionnaire 1, Sept 2004 X X X X X
Interview 2, Jan 2005 X X X
Interview 3, April 2005 X X X X
Concert observation, April 2005 X X X X X
Interview 4, Sept 2005 X X
Interview 5, Jan 2006 X X X
Interview 6, April 2006 X X X
As Table 1 indicates, all members of the quintet were involved in three sets of data
collection in the academic year 2004-05. The predominant source of data was semi-
structured interviews, conducted individually with each student by one or both of the au-
thors. Interviews explored the students’ learning experiences, investigating their hopes
and fears, short and long-term goals, identity and perceived progress. All interviews were
recorded with permission and fully transcribed. These data were triangulated with results
from a structured questionnaire that probed musical history, career aims, and attitudes
and experiences of instrumental teaching. Finally, in April 2005, the first author observed
one of the quintet’s concerts.
Following this initial data collection, all members were invited to attend termly inter-
views; Table 1 shows the uptake of this invitation, which varied amongst members. Sub-
stantial efforts were made to re-interview all members of the quintet, but these were not
always successful. While we recognise this limitation in our data, we present the quintet’s
experiences from the perspectives of those interviewed, and are careful not to generalise
to members who may not share these opinions.
Analysis was conducted in a broadly interpretive framework, using the lens of “expan-
sive” learning to interrogate the data. Questionnaire data were entered into SPSS and ana-
lysed quantitatively, mainly for descriptive patterns. Interview and observation data were
uploaded into Atlas.ti software and analysed for emergent themes that shed light on the
research questions: what the students were learning and in what ways, if any, their in-
volvement in the chamber group expanded this learning. The research questions were then
addressed predominantly through the qualitative data, with the quantitative data used to
triangulate and support our developing arguments. The emphasis during analysis was on
the “emic” voice, seeking validity through capturing the student voice at different times,
and with reference to different sources of data.
Results: The “rise and fall” of a wind quintet
First, we provide some contextual data on the quintet’s formation, working practices
and goals. Second, we present the results in two phases. We examine the quintet’s “rise”
as its members develop, progress and learn expansively from their experiences; then we
investigate the quintet’s “fall”, as they begin to aim for different ends, work in different
ways, and ultimately disperse.
The quintet formed voluntarily, and membership had been constant for ten months
prior to data collection. At this point, the quintet rehearsed two or three times a week,
for approximately two hours at a time. All members were female, and the quintet had
opted to take “chamber music” as an assessed option in the academic year in which we
began researching them. All chamber groups at the conservatoire have access to free
coaching from an instrumental teacher (professor) of their choice.
Analysis of the data revealed three emergent themes that illuminate the learning of the
quintet: 1) space for challenge; 2) space for deep learning; and 3) space for developing
Space for challenge
The time spent in rehearsal emerges as both safe and challenging. Working from the
security of sharing the same aims, the members feel comfortable challenging themselves
You need to have the right kind of group dynamic otherwise it is really not going to
work. And we do. We all want to do it. We do talk about whether people think it is
going well or not. People do tell me honestly what they think - sometimes it is what
you want to hear and sometimes it is not (Jackie, Interview 2).
The fact that the quintet discuss their progress, in what appears to be an open way, is
evidence of what Davidson and King (2004) refer to as “affiliation” within the group. The
members are affiliated both to each other (“I am in a group with four of my best friends”,
Simone, Interview 2) and to a broader sense of commitment to the group (“we all want to
do it”, Jackie, Interview 2). Furthermore, all members of the group aim to be performers
in their professional lives (questionnaire data), indicating a shared view of their future
careers. This dynamic, it appears, enables the group to have an open and honest dialogue,
in which “if anyone has any ideas, they just put them forward” (Clara, Interview 2).
These students are open to criticism, find that the quintet offers them this opportunity,
and reflect on this as useful and necessary.
Space for deep learning
The quintet also provides its members with the opportunity to engage in deep learning
(Entwistle & Ramsden, 1983), both verbally and through the music:
We spend a lot of rehearsal time talking about the music rather than playing and
then we do a lot of slow work on technical bits and getting the intonation together
and getting passages together - really tight - like in time. So if someone isn't playing
in that bit they will clap the beat and then the others will play and we will do it
slow and then speed it up and…we are quite happy to wait for the others to do that
and I think that is good (Simone, Interview 2).
While ensembles vary in the amount of time that they spend talking (Ford & Davidson,
2003), this quintet discuss the music as part of their rehearsing. As one member suggests,
the group are responsive to each others’ needs, offering all members the opportunity to
share their views: “it is quite good because there isn’t just one person who leads the re-
hearsal. We just all pitch in” (Clara, Interview 1). In this forum, the students are learning
to think creatively and critically about the music that they are playing, and to express
these opinions to other musicians. Indeed, Chaffin and Lemieux (2004) identify the ability
to be able to envision the “bigger picture” of a piece of music at the same time as practis-
ing minute details as one of five characteristics of musical excellence.
In practising the details, however, the quintet also engage in deep learning. Displaying
evidence of what Davidson and King (2004) term an “economical rehearsal approach” (p.
110), the quintet focus on mastering particularly challenging parts of the music. Their ap-
proach to this reflects a group responsibility, with members finding ways to help others
and to think creatively to work through problems. There is little sense in which the stu-
dents are “restricting” their learning to surface details. The ethos of the quintet, at this
time, appears to be to learn thoroughly, to help others to learn thoroughly and to use dif-
ferent strategies to reach this end.
Space for developing transferable skills
An ongoing trend throughout these results is the amount of learning occurring through
peer interaction (see also Ritterman, 2000). “Being able to play with other people”
(Simone, Interview 2) is one part of this, as is the support that a chamber group can offer:
At least with a group you know you’ve got something to back you up and… it’s kind
of more pressure cos you know you’ve got to work as a…like if you fail then you fail
the group, but that kind of helps in a way cos you know you’ve got to just forget
about you being nervous cos otherwise it’s not going to just affect you (Lottie, In-
For this member, the security of the group is both a comfort and a challenge as she
seeks to perform to the highest standard. Her ability to “just forget” about being nervous
is a skill that she may be able to extend to other contexts as she continues to develop as a
musician. While this is a predominantly musical skill, the chamber group also expands
learning beyond performance:
I suppose when you’re practising yourself you are having thoughts and reactions in
your head, and at rehearsal you have to try and put it into words and explain what
you think to other people and also, sometimes, having patience with other people as
well is a big thing because sometimes some people do not pick up on certain things
as quickly as others (Clara, Interview 2).
We know from their questionnaire responses that all members of the quintet expect
and hope to be instrumental teachers when they graduate; the communication skills that
they are harbouring through the chamber group will be highly relevant to this. Indeed,
communication skills – and what are being termed “transferable” skills more generally –
are increasingly being flagged up as central to conservatoire graduates’ skill portfolio.
Bennett (2008) argues that communication skills are essential to musicians’ work as teach-
ers, performers and administrators. Chamber music appears to be one way in which these
students are building and strengthening these skills.
At the first sweep of data collection, then, we see chamber music affording opportunity
for expansive and deep learning. The members display signs of being “accomplished nov-
ices”, striving to improve their learning, to find new ways of doing this, and to learn from
each other. As Fay emphasizes, the quintet share a sense of pride in their achievements at
this time: “[we have an] established chamber group, think it’s very hard to do” (Fay, In-
terview 1). Having decided to take chamber music as an assessed option, however, we be-
gin to see “cracks” emerging in the group’s coherence.
As the end of year assessment approaches, the group inevitably begins to come under
pressure: “the quintet chamber exam…we have got no time to rehearse at all. We are
busy and…only [have] two weeks notice…so, yes, I am worried about that” (Simone, Inter-
As this student suggests, the examination date was announced with relatively short no-
tice, placing the quintet under pressure both in terms of being assessed and in terms of
preparing thoroughly for that assessment. The ways in which the group responds to this
pressure, and the effects that it has on them, can be seen in the diminishing group coher-
Diminishing group coherence
The sense of “affiliation” that was previously evidenced within the group begins to dis-
solve as the quintet moves towards its assessment:
Our quintet isn’t good at the moment. We haven’t rehearsed it much. It was kind of
thrown together very quickly…Hopefully we will get a better mark in the exams…I
played it OK but everyone had their individual mistakes and there were just a lot of
group things that weren’t together and it wasn’t very tight and it is just frustrating
because some people in the group were satisfied with the way we played and some
people weren’t so it makes it difficult. Some people were pleased and then I wasn’t
with it and that is quite difficult…(Jackie, Interview 3).
The “deep” learning that the quintet was affording its members is not replicated here.
Rather, the student paints a picture of hasty rehearsals, a lack of preparation for per-
formances and disagreements as to what constitutes high quality. Some light is shed on
this by Fay: “I think some people in the quintet aren't as keen as the rest of us and that is
kind of annoying really” (Fay, Interview 3).
The shared goals that we saw before seem to have been replaced by divergence within
the group. This divergence is also evident in the students’ identity, which differs across
the members, ranging from “overall musician” (Simone) to “performer” (Clara) to “music
Observation of one of the quintet’s concerts at this time triangulates the interview
data. Jackie’s reflection on the group’s lack of coherence was indicated by their on-stage
presentation, most notably in disjointed bowing and exit at the end of the performance.
Non-verbal communication highlighted the emerging division within the group, with some
members sharing looks that indicated disappointment following the performance. Although
the quintet remained together during the following academic year, none of the members
interviewed reported it as a key component of their learning; they did not mention their
chamber group peers when they were asked who influenced them musically.
The group dispersed at the end of their final undergraduate year. By this time, Simone
feels that she is ‘no longer in a chamber group, and I don't spend enough time at college
to have friends’ (Simone, Interview 6). Retrospectively, Clara comments that:
I am not actually a huge fan of wind quintets. It is great to learn all the repertoire
and stuff - but I do prefer the solo repertoire…so I suppose that has had an impact
on my playing (Clara, Interview 6).
The quintet has thus moved from being a cohesive unit that gave space for expansive
and deep learning experiences, to a scattered group of individuals who no longer play to-
gether. In the following section, we discuss the implications of this in terms of the indi-
viduals involved and for the institution.
At a more “macro-” level, Learning to Perform has concluded that musical expertise
requires a complex balance between depth and breadth of learning (Burt-Perkins, 2008).
Depth of learning refers to in-depth practical mastery of the students’ specialism and mu-
sicianship, while breadth of learning includes looking outwards to find new ways of ap-
proaching in-depth learning, as well as looking beyond the specialism to become a more
holistic musician (Burt-Perkins & Lebler, 2008). The quintet appears – at its peak – to have
offered its members both, making it an invaluable learning space.
Speaking a year after her graduation, Clara told us that although there was “so much
tension and arguing” she does not “regret it… I know the repertoire now. It was a positive
experience”. Indeed, for all members the experience was, at least for a time, a way to
expand learning. In considering the reasons behind the quintet’s dispersal, the work of
Alexander (2003) provides a useful stimulus for discussion. Alexander identifies two types
of what she terms “individual interest” that feed into the development of expertise: gen-
eral and professional (p. 11). For musicians, general interest may revolve around listening
to music or reading about music, while professional interest may revolve around “goal-
orientated interest” in particular performance opportunities. It would appear that the
professional interest of the quintet members diverged, so that they were essentially work-
ing towards different end-points, both in terms of the quality of their music-making and
their individual interests in music. For a chamber group to play a sustained role in the de-
velopment of musical expertise, the general and professional interests of its members may
need to remain aligned.
How, though, can chamber music be integrated into conservatoire life in a way that
nurtures and sustains this alignment? We suggest that the decision of the quintet to be
assessed marked a turning-point in their development. Once the quintet became impli-
cated in determining individual’s degree classification, the emphasis moved from explor-
ing music together to fulfilling assessment criteria. The quintet ceased to be a safe envi-
ronment in which to challenge each other and learn expansively, and instead became a
source of stress and tension. The group cohesion, so important to a flourishing ensemble
(Davidson & King, 2004), was diminished as the goals of the endeavour were subtly
changed by the looming assessment. We do not yet know whether other groups have ex-
perienced trajectories, but suggest that this quintet’s “rise and fall” merits further inves-
Should chamber music be separated from formal conservatoire assessment, for exam-
ple? Such a move is, of course, radical if not drastic. We suggest, however, that conserva-
toires monitor the impact of assessment on chamber groups, reflecting on whether the
inherent advantages of such work may be best left outside (at least in part) of formal cur-
ricula. One solution, for example, is to encourage a reflective, peer-based, form of
evaluation that works alongside formal assessment (see, for example, Lebler, 2006). Such
an approach could reduce the pressure of formal assessment, as well as adding to the po-
tentially expanding nature of the learning opportunity. Further solutions could include en-
couraging chamber group members to reflect on their progress and potential weaknesses
as part of any assessment procedure, and/or for conservatoires to implement a monitoring
system that helps students to think deeply about the learning experience that chamber
music affords. In any case, this quintet shows us how valuable chamber music can be in
developing musical expertise; here we argue that students, teachers and institutions need
to monitor this to ensure that it remains so.
ACKNOWLEDGMENT Learning to Perform was funded by the Economic and Social Re-
search Council’s Teaching and Learning Research Programme. Award number RES-
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Rosie Burt-Perkins is a Research Officer at the Royal College of Music London. Rosie com-
pleted her BMus (first class) and MA (with distinction) at the University of Sheffield and is
currently studying for her PhD at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge. Rosie
works widely across music education and psychology, with particular interest in enhancing
the learning experiences of conservatoire students. Rosie was appointed as a commis-
sioner to the International Society of Music Education’s Commission for the Education of
the Professional Musician in 2008. She is a regular contributor to international conferences
and has published in the areas of musicians’ career development, the transition from
school to conservatoire, and preschool children’s emotional responses to music. Rosie is a
clarinetist, and coordinates the RCM’s Grove Forum seminar series.
Until her untimely death in December 2007, Dr. Janet Mills was a Research Fellow at the
Royal College of Music, London, where she led the Music Education Research Team and ran
nine music education projects. She began her career as a secondary teacher, and became
a teacher trainer at Westminster College in Oxford and the University of Exeter before be-
ing appointed HM Inspector of Schools, and Ofsted’s Specialist Adviser for Music. Her pub-
lications include the books Music in the Primary School (Cambridge University Press, 1991)
and Music in the School (Oxford University Press, 2005) and she has published countless
articles on music education in international research journals. A new book on instrumental
teaching was published by the Oxford University Press in September 2007. In 2004 she won
a National Teaching Fellowship. She worked widely in schools, higher education and the