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Practice is Performance: A study of the musical development of popular music undergraduates



Much has been written in the last 30 years about musical practice and performance, but there is little consensus over what practice really means, or how musicians progress by practising. Whilst academics historically focused primarily on the experiences of Western classical musicians and on individual learning in the conservatoire, more recent research has been devoted to popular, jazz and folk musicians. Informal behaviours, such as aural learning, self-teaching and jamming out in the band are central to the way in which popular musicians learn. The current research project has a major focus on the practice and performance of classical and popular musicians as described in university undergraduate students’ reflective essays. This paper offers highlights in the musical development of one cohort of popular musicians over the three years of their study, including examples of their practice behaviours, the development of technique, collaboration with band members and gigging off the university campus, drawn from their reflective essays and semi-structured interviews.
Practice is Performance: A study of the musical development of popular music
Monica Esslin-Peard
Much has been written in the last 30 years about musical practice and performance, but there
is little consensus over what practice really means, or how musicians progress by practising.
Whilst academics historically focused primarily on the experiences of Western classical
musicians and on individual learning in the conservatoire, more recent research has been
devoted to popular, jazz and folk musicians. Informal behaviours, such as aural learning, self-
teaching and jamming out in the band are central to the way in which popular musicians
learn. The current research project has a major focus on the practice and performance of
classical and popular musicians as described in university undergraduate students’ reflective
essays. This paper offers highlights in the musical development of one cohort of popular
musicians over the three years of their study, including examples of their practice behaviours,
the development of technique, collaboration with band members and gigging off the
university campus, drawn from their reflective essays and semi-structured interviews.
The “Art of Practice” research project at the University of Liverpool Department of Music
seeks to explore how students of classical1 and popular2 music acquire the knowledge, skills
and expertise of practising. The main field of enquiry is to discover how an individual
matures through musical practice. This prompts not only an investigation into the process of
practice, but also the educational and social context of the learning. This paper presents a
review of relevant literature and reports on the experiences of popular music undergraduates,
based on data gained from reflective essays for the three years of their study, and in one-to-
one interviews with the Head of Performance and selected students.
It is well documented that practice is a key part in the development of musical performance
excellence (e.g. Austin & Haefner-Berg, 2006). Classically-trained musicians often report
10,000 hours or ten years of practice to reach professional standards (Ericsson et al. 1993).
Extensive research has been conducted over the last 30 years by academics into the practice
habits of classically-trained musicians. For an overview, see Miksza (2011). Surprisingly,
researchers have not agreed on a single model of musical development which encompasses
practice behaviours. Hallam (2001:28) investigated expert practice and conceded that even
the definition of an expert is open-ended. However, she concluded from interviews with 22
1 “Classical” is used to describe musicians who have been educated in the tradition of Western classical music,
for example, those who play orchestral instruments or piano or sing and largely perform works from the Western
classical oeuvre. These musicians generally start their instruments at a young age and are used to the expectation
of several hours of practice a day as adults.
2 “Popular” is used to describe musicians who are largely self-taught and whose preferred style of music is
popular. These musicians typically learn from peers or musicians whom they admire, and – prior to entry to
higher education – develop their skills more informally through experimentation and group practice sessions.
professional musicians that they do indeed “learn to learn”. Papageorgi et al., (2010:34)
suggested that professional musicians develop over seven stages: although their research was
conducted with classical musicians, the model importantly touches upon the formation of
musical identity, which is key for popular musicians in a band.
Green (2002:16) gave a definition of informal learning, based on the behaviours of adult
popular musicians, and revealed that popular musicians are largely self-taught, influenced by
their peers, and work aurally with reference to audio or video material, rather than using
printed notation. Lebler (2007, 2008) explored peer learning and assessment amongst popular
music undergraduates and highlighted the importance of university courses mirroring
professional practice in the music industry in the sense that students learnt to produce
recordings as well as performing. This compares with the wider skills which form a part of
informal learning identified by Welch et al. (2008). Their research focused on adult classical,
folk, jazz and popular musicians. The other-than-classical musicians identified professional
skills such as networking, listening to music of their preferred genre and making music for
fun as being more important than private practice. Mak (2009) described non-formal learning
as highly contextualised and involving high levels of participation from learners, which is
typical for popular musicians working in a band.
In their review of the development of popular music tertiary education at an Australian
conservatoire, Lebler & Weston (2015: 125) pointed out that early popular music courses
were based on pedagogical approaches which were more suited to classical musicians, such
as a teacher-led programme of study and a focus on individual technical development.
Przybylski & Niknafs (2015: 104) noted that although some institutions were adopting
informal learning strategies, ‘there is still a discrepancy between the ways in which musicians
learn and practise music making inside and outside the academy.’
Folkestad (2006) importantly presented the notion that musical learning can take place across
a formal-informal learning spectrum, which is echoed by the research conducted by Mornell
(2009) in Germany. In the last ten years, research has started to emerge which attempts to
posit a theory for musical learning for popular musicians; Smith (2013:22) has developed a
‘Snowball Self model’ to describe the complex nature of the development of drummers,
pointing towards the need to include social and psychological factors to understand musical
maturation. Siedenburg &Nolte (2015) have posited a model for popular music learning in
German music schools for adolescent students which focused on the importance of
community involvement and peer learning in locations which are suited to band practice.
Jorgensen (2011) has highlighted that learning may take place outside of lessons and lectures,
pointing once again to a more informal approach. Such an informal approach, both in terms
of pedagogy and location would seem to be key, as popular musicians may regard formal
tutor-led approaches to learning as “anti-establishment”, as Parkinson (2013) noted.
Finally, reflective practice – as an approach to learning – has been embraced by tertiary
educational institutions in England, Scotland and Wales over the last two decades, following
theories of reflective practice that were developed by Schön (1987) and refined for
educational practice by Ghaye (2011) and Pollard (2002), amongst others. It is reported that
reflective journals or practice diaries offer one type of tool to develop metacognitive thinking
skills. Leon-Guerrero (2008) emphasized that music students need to develop skills in
reflection in order to develop their understanding of practice and performance. Lebler &
Weston (2015:128) have also described the introduction of written reflection as part of the
peer assessment process of recordings made by popular music students. As Mak (2009:42)
suggested, openness to different styles of learning, including reflection, could be a unifying
factor which brings together formal and informal learning, creating lifelong learning.
The research question
The primary goal of the research into the practice and performance behaviours of music
performance undergraduates at the University of Liverpool is to establish how, through
written reflection, they understand their own maturation as musicians over a three year
course. Thus I draw upon their reflective essays, supplemented by tutor and student
interviews and student focus groups, to identify how musical maturation relates to established
theories of musical learning, both informal and formal, and highlight the factors (individual,
group, sociological and cultural) which influence this process. The research question is ‘What
are the key factors which contribute to the musical maturation of popular musicians taking
the performance module?’ It is important to note that the findings presented in this paper are
drawn on the subset of data concerning popular musicians. The wider of scope of the research
project is to compare the musical maturation of popular and classical musicians, which is not
discussed here.
The institutional context
The University of Liverpool offers three-year undergraduate courses in Music and Popular
Music. The intake each year is approximately 65 students who can choose the performance
module3 in all three years of study. We focus below on the core elements available to popular
musicians, whilst acknowledging that classical musicians follow a similar course. The
popular performance module, which does not explicitly include jazz, requires popular
musicians to perform twice a year. These performances are assessed by university faculty
staff using a standard marking protocol generating 70% of the final grade. All performance
students (both popular and classical) are expected to keep a practice diary, or online practice
blog. The diary is used as a prompt for the 1,500 word end-of-year reflective essay about the
individual experience of practice and performance which is marked according to agreed
criteria, (see Appendix 1), generating 30% of the final grade. This combination of practice
diary, with an assessed reflective essay and performance, is unique amongst comparable
universities. The two tutors for popular (and classical) performance hold weekly two-hour
workshops for students, as one of the tutors explained in interview:
The first years – pop and classical – get a lot of input in class into aspects of learning
and practising. Some sessions are people explaining in front of the class what their
one-to-one instrumental or vocal lesson content has been, followed by “how” they
practised it, what problems arose, discussions as to how it could be practised and then
all have to make notes as to what they could use, (Shorrocks, 2015).
It is important to note that the tutors take care not to “instruct” their students how to practise.
Even though bands may be visited during rehearsals, coaching from tutors is deliberately kept
to a minimum: the emphasis is on a process of self-discovery, which is enhanced by
3 The Performance Module is one of a range of optional modules which may be chosen by students who have
strong instrumental and/or vocal skills. Two specialist modules are offered, for classical and popular musicians.
The pedagogical focus for the popular musicians’ module is on developing performance skills within the
traditional acoustic or amplified rock or pop band, with students encouraged to write their own material in the
second and third years of study. No formal tuition in song-writing was offered to popular performance students
at the time of this research.
discussion with peers and tutors. This concurs with Cowan’s approach, as a mentor to
engineering students (2013:4):
I want to empower each learner supportively […] I try to help them to be the best that
they can be – but always leave them to decide what to do and how to do it. I certainly
do not instruct, or tutor.
Cowan highlights the concept of empowerment, which has been explored extensively by
Rappaport (1995) and linked to theories of narrative research in a community context.
Rappaport goes on to explain that community and organisational narratives may have a
strong effect upon the behaviours, beliefs and identities of those involved in an empowering
process. This would seem to be very relevant for the present research project, as I am seeking
to understand how students progress during their three years of study.
Data Gathering and Methodology
The data for this project are drawn principally from the students’ reflective essays, which are
made available to the lead researcher at the end of each academic year, after formal
assessment results have been made public. In addition, semi-structured interviews were
conducted by the researcher to gain more insights into student experiences. These interviews
took place on campus with students who had volunteered to provide more detail and
background about their musical learning.
As the research project developed, it was recognised that it would be useful to collect
background data about students’ secondary school experiences, the influence of teachers,
parents, peers and admired musicians and pose open questions about students’ prior
understanding of the term “practice” and their experiences of making music. Data were
gathered through a questionnaire which was emailed and handed out to musicians
participating in this study in their final term in May 2015. The return rate for popular
musicians was 47%. For reasons of space, I am not formally addressing the prior musical
experiences of the cohort.
Data are drawn from the reflective essays, with only two quotations from interviews. Close
reading of the student reflective essays (n=32 for each of three years, 96 essays in total) has
resulted in the identification of common themes, verified by an independent professional
popular musician (performer/recording specialist) working in music education. These data
can be used for both quantitative and qualitative analysis, using a mixed methods approach,
(see Bryman, 2006).
Quantitative data derived from counting frequencies are used to show trends. As this study
focuses on the self-reported behaviours and musical experiences of students over three years,
qualitative data drawn from the reflective essays and interview transcripts play a much more
important role. The key principles underlying the analysis of the data are theories of narrative
research and phenomenology. I am not seeking a priori to establish a hypothesis about how
students mature musically, but rather use the reflective essays (which I might also term
narratives, following Rappaport 1995: 796) to try to understand the learning and
developmental process from the students’ point of view. The initial findings and conclusions
which are reported here are therefore made based upon the comments made by students; this
also accounts for the deliberate inclusion of verbatim quotes from student essays in this
The qualitative analysis of the reflective essays is based on the principles of textual analysis.
Following McKee (2003), the focus is on understanding how students make sense of their
practice behaviours. Repeated close reading of all the available narratives was considered to
be the most appropriate method to gain an understanding of how students’ behaviour and
attitude towards practice was changing, which is similar to the “zooming in” approach of
Johansson (2013) and methods adopted by Green (2002) and Smith (2013) in exploring data
generated from interviews with popular musicians.
Ethical considerations
Ethical approval was obtained from the university Ethics Committee in October 2012.
Students were given information about the research project and a total of 47 signed a consent
form to confirm that they understood the nature of the study and wished to participate, and
that they were free to withdraw at any time for any or no reason. This form also offered an
opt-in clause for taking part in interviews.
As the lead researcher, and a full time music teacher in London and part-time doctoral
student, I have made considerable efforts to keep my distance from students when conducting
focus groups and one-to-one semi-structured interviews in order to avoid influencing the
content of reflective essays. I was not involved in any marking or assessment of the cohort’s
reflective essays nor performances.
Findings – The 2012-2015 cohort of popular musicians
Thirty-nine first-year students enrolled for the popular music performance module in October
2012, thirty-two of which had given their consent to take part in the research project. As can
been seen from Figure 1 below, the most common areas of musical experience gained before
entering university were vocals, guitar and keyboard. Fifteen of these students reported that
they had secondary musical skills, for example, a lead guitarist who also sang, and three
mentioned both second and third areas of instrumental or vocal expertise, for example, a
singer who also played trumpet and keyboard.
Figure 1. First Year Popular Musicians, 2012 (n=32) Instrumental and Vocal Skills
(Multiple answers possible)
These data strongly suggest that whilst students may have considered that they specialised on
one instrument, perhaps because they had lessons at school, they nevertheless extended their
instrumental or vocal skills to meet the needs of bands they were playing in. It was not
uncommon to find guitarists who were also vocalists, or 6-string guitarists who could also
play bass guitar if needed. The exception was the four drummers, who only drummed. No
other students reported that they had experimented with drumming, perhaps because
drumming was seen as a specialist skill.
Themes in Reflective Essays
In close reading of the reflective essays, three main themes emerged related to musical
development, namely technique, insights and targets, which have been discussed elsewhere
with regard to both first and second year popular musicians (see Esslin-Peard et al. 2015:
132-134 and 136-138).
For the purposes of this paper, the focus is upon self-reported descriptions of musical
learning. Drawing upon the reflective essays, the themes to be discussed below are lessons,
individual practice, writing original material, the influence of other musicians and
experiences within the band, both in practice and in performance.
All students are offered one-to-one tuition in their principal study, provided free of charge by
the Department of Music. Unlike their classical musician peers (n=15) who all took lessons,
initially, 40% of popular musicians did not opt for one–to–one instrumental or vocal lessons,
but this proportion decreased each successive year, presumably as more became aware of the
potential benefits from talking to their peers or recognising that they needed help to improve
their technical skills, (see Figure 2 below).
Figure 2. Popular Musicians: Lessons over three years (n=32)
One drummer explained why she did not take lessons in her first year:
I have never had any instrumental lessons. It was never part of my agenda, growing up.
Mostly because, it was time-consuming, costly, and there weren’t many female drum
teachers. The first ever drum lesson I had was in Liverpool. It was an interesting
experience. For me, it was like going to the dentist for the first time, (LF, 2013).
This echoes the discussion of the challenges facing female drummers by Smith (2013:139-140).
This student drummer subsequently revealed that she had started lessons in her third year,
illustrating a change in attitude:
Perhaps I felt a bit more relaxed because he was a friend before a teacher. And it is all
very casual. I learnt new rudiments and learnt to like the metronome. I am a lot more
solid with tempo than I was last year, (LF, 2015).
Nevertheless, the data show that there was an increase in uptake in the second and third years,
perhaps because students heard that lessons could be useful and, as is discussed below,
because technique development is related to the increasing complexity of band repertoire. As
students realised that they needed technical competence to perform in public, they were more
likely to turn to professional peripatetic teachers for individual lessons and support. It is also
important to note the possible effect of the institutional culture on student attitudes to lessons.
The popular performance course evolved alongside a classical performance course and thus
there is perhaps an unspoken institutional expectation that individual tuition and the
development of technique should be valued.
Individual Practice
The notion that individual practice facilitates the development of technique, supported by
regular lessons is not self-evident for many popular musicians, who often appear to work
through musical challenges during band rehearsals, rather than practising on their own.
In the first year, 63% of students mentioned individual practice, and 74% mentioned
technique, but there were no reports of how long students were practising on their own. All of
the 60% of first-years who were taking individual lessons wrote about technique, citing new
areas of repertoire, such as jazz modes and scales for guitarists, and a wide variety of warm-
up techniques for vocalists.
First-year students described a variety of learning behaviours which encompassed informal
playing along with audio or video tracks, using YouTube lessons and working aurally,
echoing Green’s findings (2002: 86-93) with adult popular musicians. A drummer
commented that ‘I found the practice tedious, so I bought a Rockability book’. Levels of
motivation for individual practice were reported by some to be low, like this singer:
‘I did not feel motivated to practise in the first term’.
However, the reflective essays demonstrate a gradual increase in motivation to practise over
the three years of study. In the third year, technique is mentioned by 66% of students in their
reflective essays, both in principle, with mention of particular aspects of technique, and in the
context of recognising that technique needs to be improved to meet the requirements of
performing with a band. A third-year guitarist described using both formal and informal
learning methods:
What I believe has improved my playing this year is that I have spent a considerable
amount of time practising scales. During such practice I have been using a
metronome, which I believed has had beneficial and noticeable results on my rhythm,
which has greatly improved […] What has also been greatly beneficial to me has been
learning by ear note for note other people’s songs; this has developed my playing,
understanding, musical ear and songwriting. For instance, I have been learning jazz
and blues standards, which have helped me find new chords and progression.
Furthermore, the more complex melodies have helped make my voice more melodic
and trained my ear, (RJ, 2015).
This comment suggests that this student had decided to adopt a more formal approach to
developing his technique, as well as working on his aural improvisation skills through the
medium of jazz. A realization that the development of their craft was important was
recognized by all the singers who had lessons who described not only regular use of warm-up
techniques, but also a greater awareness of pitching, control of breathing and projection.
First-Year Students: The Band Experience
At the start of the first year of study, students were assigned to bands by their performance
tutor. This led to considerable difficulties for many of the students: 59% reported problems
with attendance at band practices, saying ‘We never knew who was going to turn up, it
caused tensions’ and ‘Attendance hasn’t always been 100%. I can’t perform if nobody else
shows up’.
Students had access to dedicated rehearsal spaces within the department, but even this did not
facilitate regular rehearsals for many of the bands. Reasons given for lack of attendance
included part-time jobs, going away for long weekends and involvement in other bands
outside the university which were considered more important.
With the pressure of the first assessed performance in December, one might expect that bands
would quickly agree on the songs that they would be performing. But 37% struggled to agree
on repertoire for their gigs: ‘There was a divide in musical taste. We were unable to decide on
songs.’ Eventually all the students managed to finalise their set lists, but not without some
arguments, which were mentioned in 33% of the reflective essays:
This band was in all honesty a nuisance. Many of the scheduled practices were half
empty, with the few practices that were fully attended, rife with arguments, raised
voices with lots of finger pointing and shoulder shrugging, (DM, 2013).
Writing original material
In the first year of study in tutor-assigned bands, the majority of students put together sets of
musical covers for their assessed performances. However, in the second and third years, the
expectation was that undergraduates would write their own material. Song-writing as such
was not taught as a module: instead, students were expected to discover how to create
original material on their own. Figure 3 below shows the development of song-writing skills.
Figure 3. Development of individual and collaborative song-writing skills (n=32)
Year of Study First Year Second Year Third Year
11% 44% 52%
Composition within
the band
22% 44% 66%
In the first year, song-writing was taking place outside the tutor-assigned bands, either by
individuals or bands formed outside the course, such as The Sneaky Nixons.
In the second and third years, when bands were formed through choice, the majority of
students were involved in creating original material. Band communication and cooperation
improved markedly, but it was not always apparent which band member or members were
responsible for leading the creative process. One lead singer recognised that taking tight
control of artistic creativity helped to keep the band together:
We have never really had a solid line up and I feel that that has stopped us from
forming any kind of identity as a group. The only thing I feel has led us in any form of
direction lies with the fact that I’ve written all of the songs, therefore we can assume
some form of consistent style has been retained, (LT, 2015).
On the other hand, one singer-songwriter and lead vocalist with two bands was frustrated that
he could not pursue his individual interests as a singer-songwriter:
Whilst I greatly enjoy being a member of multiple bands/ensembles, I feel that as a
result of focusing on pursuing the success of these groups, I have unwillingly
accidentally managed to severely neglect my musical pursuit as a solo artist
throughout my time at university, (DG, 2015).
Whilst this paper does not focus on song-writing in detail - for an interesting discussion of the
experiences of undergraduates following a taught song-writing module, see Blom & Poole
(2015) - the student comments in general point to a lack of institutional support and
instruction in song-writing. In order to address this, for the academic year 2015-2016, the
university has appointed a part-time tutor in song-writing, which may change students’
perceptions of their own ability to write original material, which is not within the scope of the
present study.
Third-Year Students: Taking control
The data gathered from the students’ reflective essays cover a wide range of topics, and an
account has already been given of a broad range of factors which influence musical
development in the first two years of study (see Esslin-Peard et al., 2015: 141-142).
In the third year, there was a marked difference between the progress made by students who
were in bands playing in the city of Liverpool and further afield, and those only playing for
course assessments on the university campus. Practice became more important for all the
students, related to the needs of their bands, whether for university assessment or external
gigs. Undergraduates reported both a more disciplined approach to practice, and more focus
on technique, as the following comments illustrate: ‘This year my practice has become much
more focused’; ‘Disciplined and intensive private practice to improve my technique.’ These
students also displayed behaviours which pointed towards the deliberate use of metacognitive
practice strategies: ‘I started by practising the difficult things, slowly at first, then gradually
increasing the tempo’. Some students who were in multiple bands described their practice to
develop their craft within bands, rather than on their own, noting that they were not motivated
to develop their technique in private practice, as a guitarist explained: ‘My personal practice
is sparse: from playing for eight hours a week in bands, my motivation [to practise alone] is
Regular performances on and off campus not only stimulated students to practise more, but
also to think more critically about their performance. One singer reported ‘the band had more
purpose than just to perform at the final [university assessed] performance. We started getting
gigs at various venues.’ There was also an increased understanding about stage presence. A
vocalist explained that ‘the more I was gigging, the more confident I was getting, especially
with my backing vocals.’
As two members of the band The Sneaky Nixons explained in interview, they regarded public
performance as practice, whether the gig was good, bad or indifferent. This brings into focus
the importance of learning to deal with different venues, acoustics, technical equipment and
playing to a live audience. Supporting a more famous band in another city was a tricky
experience, compared with the home crowd, as the lead singer explained:
The away days in Manchester where you play in front of twenty people are tough
trips. Especially compared to the previous night in Liverpool where the venue was
twice as big, the crowd hit one hundred and pretty girls all come running to offer
congratulations after the show, (DM, 2015).
This view was echoed by another lead singer:
It is these gigs outside of uni [university] that I feel make us stronger as a band. It’s
playing to a group of people who not only don’t know you, but on the most part don’t
care if they offend you that makes it such an effective part of gigging, (LT, 2015).
Playing in front of audiences also had an impact on the eight piece function band, Soul Funk
Continuum, as one of the saxophone players explained in interview:
These gigs have pushed us to increase the professionalism of the band and get two
hours’ worth of music that everyone knows really well. Playing gigs a lot has also
helped the band to develop, as gigs are when you find if the music really works and
also how well you know music, and what needs work, (AW, FSC, 2015).
Similarly, a drummer reported that regular external gigs helped not only with their sets, but
also with confidence when performing:
Playing our new songs in lots of new venues every other week or so has tightened our
set far more than just practising in the practice rooms could do. The experience gave
us more opportunity to play the songs in a genuine live situation and see what worked
and what didn’t, as well as gradually get more comfortable on stage, (CA, 2015).
Many of the students took advantage of Liverpool’s vibrant music scene to see other amateur
and professional bands in performance, which helped them to understand their own
performances in a more holistic way, as one bassist related:
For me, it always feels like we are doing more than just playing a song. Instead, we
are creating an atmosphere, creating an image for the audience. It doesn't matter,
when the song is playing, how intricate my bass lines are because the bass lines are
not a single item, they are part of the collective, (AS, 2015).
Although the students themselves were responsible for organising their own gigs, it is clear as
Jorgensen (2011) suggests that an important part of their musical maturation was taking place
outside the lecture theatre. In other words, the performance itself, as the students reported, is
regarded as practice.
I have already presented the key factors in musical maturation over the first two years of
study, drawn from the students’ reflective essays. For details, see Esslin-Peard et al. (2015:
141-142). In this paper, I want to draw attention to the experiences of the 13 students from
the 2012-2015 cohort who were awarded a first class undergraduate degree (70% of marks or
over) for popular music performance.
An analysis of the data from these 13 students showed that the most important factors
pointing towards a high grade were writing their own material (100%), external gigs (100%),
taking individual lessons (92%) and recording in the studio (38%). Importantly, as the music
department does not offer lectures in song-writing, or recording techniques, nor how to obtain
bookings for external gigs, the statistics above point strongly towards the power of self-
directed and collective peer-to-peer informal learning, driven by the aspirations of members
of the bands and a willingness to take risks beyond the university campus. This would
suggest that the students are empowering themselves, which echoes the findings of Rappaport
(1995: 796):
The goals of empowerment are enhanced when people discover, or create and give
voice to and give voice to, a collective narrative that sustains their own personal life
story in positive ways.
This would appear to hold true for the post-graduation aspirations of eight out of these 13
students, who are still performing regularly, either in bands formed in Liverpool or back in
their home towns, as evidenced by their posts on social media and online media reviews of
their gigs.
Another significant success factor for these first-class students was their membership of
multiple bands – eleven were in at least two bands, with one bassist playing in six bands in
his final year. The two lead singers were the exception, as they sang with only one band,
perhaps because they identified more strongly with their own bands.
Conclusion and areas for future research
From an institutional perspective, the evidence suggests that there is a delicate balance to be
maintained between offering music students a large amount of freedom to find their own way
in this creative art, whilst still offering a scaffold of elements of formal structure, including
individual tuition, the weekly lectures and regular assessment that is both formal and
informal, formative and summative. Whilst the current longitudinal data cover only one
cohort of students, further research may throw light on knowledge sharing between different
cohorts (i.e., more experienced and relatively naïve), which may support networks to
facilitate the arrangement of external gigs, or choosing appropriate recording venues.
Whilst the maturation of popular musicians may appear to contradict the established learning
path of classically-trained musicians, this research project suggests that undergraduates
studying popular music initially exhibit a strong bias towards informal learning behaviours,
which may reflect their prior experience of playing in bands in secondary school. However,
as they progress through their three-year course of study, some begin to adopt formal learning
strategies, including some metacognitive practice strategies, to help them to perform more
effectively with their bands. Moreover, for those who start to go into the studio to record
tracks, there is a clear understanding that the quality of the product they are producing,
namely a potentially viable commercial track, or music video, requires professional levels of
performance. This echoes the findings of music educators running the popular music course
at Griffith University in Australia, see Lebler & Weston, (2015).
The current research project may be influenced by local socio-cultural factors, c.f. the spirals
of reflection model (Esslin-Peard et al, 2015: 143), and the background biographies of the
participating musicians, which is part of the ongoing research, but is not discussed here.
Nevertheless, the data gathered suggest that popular musicians mature independently, without
necessarily relying on the input from tutors. The key motivating factor is the potential, or
actual success of the band(s) in which they play, strongly underpinned by performances in
front of external audiences.
These findings are echoed by the lead singer and manager of the most successful student
band of the cohort, The Sneaky Nixons, writing at the end of his third year of study:
We have now signed two record contracts, released two singles and an E.P. with three
more singles and a second E.P. on the way. We played three times in Manchester, once
in Brighton and once in London, with many more dates to follow. […] Although we
are far more successful than the majority of other incompetent university bands, we
are still a million miles away from any real commercial success, (DM, 2015).
Whilst the experiences described above may not be typical for the cohort, it is clear that the
popular musicians in this study are empowered to extend their learning as far as their
motivation allows, and some may, over time, be successful commercially. Despite
considerable inter-band conflict in 2015, The Sneaky Nixons completed a three day recording
session in March 2016 and are performing regularly. Plans are in place to interview the band
members in the coming months, three of whom graduated in 2015.
This points to the need for more longitudinal research following student cohorts after
graduation. Combined with data from the background questionnaire and reflective essays,
this could enable researchers to explore the development path of popular musicians from
secondary school to their emergence as professional musicians.
Research is continuing with current students on the performance courses which may, in time,
reveal more consistent trends in musical maturation which could have implications for course
design and changes in the pedagogical approach for popular music studies in tertiary
This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial,
or not-for-profit sector.
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List of sources for quotes from students.
Names have not been given to protect the identity of participants.
AS (2015) Reflective essay guitarist
AW (2015) Interview saxophonist interview conducted 29.14.2014
CA (2015) Reflective essay drummer
DG (2015) Reflective essay vocalist
DM (2013) Reflective essay vocalist
DM (2015) Reflective essay vocalist
LF (2013) Reflective essay female drummer
LF (2015) Female drummer interview conducted 18.2.2015
LT (2015) Reflective essay lead singer
RJ (2015) Reflective essay guitarist
Monica Esslin-Peard
Department of Music
University of Liverpool
80-82 Bedford Street South
Liverpool, L69 7WW
Appendix 1: Assessment Criteria for Reflective Essay for Performance Modules (Years 1, 2 & 3)
F Fail
E Pass
Class 3
Class 2.2
Class 2.1
Class 1
Inadequate understanding of
issues and insights into the
field of study
Very limited
understanding of issues
and insights into the field
of study
Basic understanding of
issues and insights into the
field of study
Clear understanding of issues
and some insights into field of
Clear understanding of issues
and good level of insights into
field of study
Outstanding grasp of issues and
high level of critical insights into
field of study
No review or reference to
Inaccurate and/or scant
review of literature
Unfocused review of
Basic critical competence in
reviewing literature
Wide ranging, coherent and
critical review of literature
Extensive, insightful and critical
review of literature
No reference to lecture
material, content or activities
Inaccurate reference to
lecture material, content
or activities
Unfocused review of lecture
material, content or
Basic critical competence in
reviewing lecture material,
content or activities
Wide ranging coherent and
critical review of lecture
material, content or activities
Extensive, insightful and critical
review of lecture material, content
or activities
Confusion in the application
of knowledge
Little development of
ideas in the application of
Limited development of
ideas in the application of
Elements of independent
thought in the application of
Elements of creative thought
in the application of
High levels of creativity and
independence of thought in the
application of knowledge
Lack of understanding of
how established techniques
of research and enquiry are
used to create and interpret
knowledge and how these
apply to students’ own
research and/or practice
Scant understanding of
how research and enquiry
are used to create and
interpret knowledge,
skills and creativity and
how these apply to
students’ own practice
Basic understanding of how
research and enquiry are
used to create and interpret
knowledge, skills and
creativity and how these
apply to students’ own
Some understanding of how
research and enquiry are used
to create and interpret
knowledge, skills and
creativity and how these
apply to students’ own
Good understanding of how
research and enquiry are used
to create and interpret
knowledge, skills and
creativity and how these
apply to students’ own
Outstanding understanding of how
established techniques of research
and enquiry are used to create and
interpret knowledge, skills and
creativity and how these apply to
students’ own practice
No handling, presenting and
inferring from external data
Inadequate or confused
handling, presenting and
inferring from external
Some evidence of an
attempt at creative and
critical handling, presenting
and inferring from external
Some evidence of creative
and critical handling,
presenting and inferring from
external data
Creative and critical handling,
presenting and inferring from
external data
Convincing creative and critical
handling, presenting and inferring
from external data
Disorganised and unfocused
presentation of arguments
and conclusion
Basic competence in
organisation and
presentation of arguments
and conclusions
Some clarity and focus in
organisation and
presentation of arguments
and conclusions
Some evidence of fluency in
organisation and presentation
of arguments and conclusions
Fluency in organisation and
presentation of arguments and
Exceptional clarity, focus and
cogency in organisation and
presentation of arguments and
... In music education, Leon-Guerrero (2008) reports that music students need to develop skills in (and of) reflection in order to develop their self-regulating capabilities for practice and performance. Esslin-Peard (2016 investigates the relationship between reflection and musical learning with classical and popular undergraduate performance students, highlighting the different speeds at which students adopt reflective practice in rehearsal and performance, based upon individual practice diaries and an assessed end of year reflective essay. The Head of Performance does not 'instruct' his students how to reflect, preferring to let them create their own learning journeys. ...
Conference Paper
Full-text available
Reflection has been a part of tertiary education in England and Wales for over twenty years. Reflective practice is employed, for example, in the training of teachers, medical staff, engineers and students of the performing arts. The development of reflective skills, as Boud (2010) points out, may lead to surprising outcomes which challenge students to reconsider their approaches to individual and group learning. Assessed written reflection has been a part of undergraduate performance modules at the University of Liverpool for the last ten years and research is currently being conducting into the role of reflection and musical maturation of undergraduate classical and popular musicians which is described by Esslin-Peard et al., (2015, 2016). The University of Liverpool offers a M Mus in Performance which, over the last five years, has attracted increasing numbers of students from mainland China. According to Wu (2014), South East Asian students must deal with linguistic, academic, social and cultural challenges. In this pilot research project, we analyse the reflective writing of Chinese M Mus students in an effort to understand whether cultural heritage, a Confucian approach to pedagogy based on effort and rote learning and prior individual musical experiences help or hinder the develpoment of reflective practice. This study offers insights into the challenges facing both Chinese students and faculty staff working with reflective practice which will be of interest to researchers working with Chinese students in other academic disciplines.
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