Thoughts on the Reflective Conservatoire Conference

It is sadly not often enough that we get to stop and think about what, as educators and practitioners, we do on a daily basis – it is so easy to get caught up in the daily operations and delivery, but the Reflective Conservatoire Conference held at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama earlier on this month and entitled “Creativity and Changing Cultures” was the place to do just that. I always need time to digest and reflect on momentous events such as these. Two weeks on from the conference, rightly characterised as “paradigm shifting”, I have tried to articulate here what I consider to be the main themes of the conference as I experienced it. And let me emphasise, this is just one snapshot of a vibrant event where multiple sessions were running simultaneously;  this post is in no way a review of the entire conference.

To my mind three key trends/questions underpinned this event:

How do we handle change?

The list of participants and institutions registered for the event just goes to demonstrate the great variety of organisations that are stakeholders in the training of today’s artists. This collection of participants demonstrates the way our industry is responding to the times that we live in and to the challenges that we face thus ensuring that a range of solutions is put forward in answer to our sociocultural and economic context. It is at events like these, when we get the opportunity to stop and reflect about our strategic artistic visions as educators, that we can truly articulate the value that our own unique institution can bring to the student experience. It is also a good opportunity to appraise the landscape and (re)position ourselves in an ever-changing world where paradigms are shifting and change is accelerated.  Our role is to empower students to avoid becoming victims of their sociocultural context: to enable them to become agents for change instead.  Herein lies the supreme and indisputable value of an arts education. Like our students we are shaped by the times we live(d) in; our own personal histories and interactions with social contexts come into play through our teaching, curriculum design projects and aspirations for education. Crucially, our students come from ‘change’ and they may well understand it better than we do. A John Wooden quote was referenced in one of the presentations and bears recalling here: “Failure is not fatal but failure to change might be.” We  teach and work in an exciting but also complex and uncertain landscape, one where impact needs to be measurable, and not just in financial terms. While we may ourselves have experienced change as an evolution our students are experiencing it as a revolution. Revolution may be a lot more exciting than evolution, but, as history shows us, it needs to be nurtured with vigilance.

Collaboration as normalized working practice

As buzzwords go ‘collaboration’ fulfils the dual role of being trendy and capturing something very essential to our learning and teaching practices. I like it because it resonates with Stravinsky’s characterisation of himself as a “maker”.  Today’s graduate is a multifaceted artist characterised variously as maker/creator/collaborator/improviser. Above all an aspiring artist is an ‘integrated artist’ with creativity and diversity being part of his performing toolkit. Crucial elements of the student trajectory include creativity, collaboration, improvisation, the ability to learn from peers and contextual situations and the capacity to undertake cross-disciplinary work. These qualities have always been key to successful artists – what has changed now is that we articulate these in our curricula and we foreground and support them more actively.  It is our job, as I see it, as educators and arts leaders, to encourage students to be both ‘in the moment’ (of performance) and to then enable them to move beyond it. Our institutions are both incubators and pressure cookers: functioning as incubators for experimentation, change and new thinking and supporting development within those parameters but also creating the pressure cooker atmosphere that is the working context of our current arts landscape.

How do we define creative entrepreneurship?

The multivalent term that is ‘creative entrepreneurship’ can be (in rather too facile a manner) translated into the need to equip students with basic business skills. This uncomplicated definition however strikes me as a misappropriation of the term and says nothing about the essential role of creative thinking. In some of the sessions at this conference it became clear that while students do need some basic careers and business guidance, what they want and what we mean by ‘creative entrepreneurship’ is something quite different. It is a ‘mindset’ where artistic vision is enabled and manufactured through context as well as the use of soft/hard skills. This mindset can be a unique selling point for our students. It is obvious that students need to sell what they are ‘offering’ but more importantly and in order to be successful in a contemporary context, students need to be enabled to create a sense of worth around the outcome, whatever that outcome is. This is how our students remain relevant and take on leading roles in the artistic communities they live and work in.  It is up to our students to decide on their own USP as artists and in doing so they are playing with a delicate balance between tradition and innovation. Our role is to enlighten and explore that precarious but intoxicating path with them.

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