Practice-based research: International Perspectives, South African Challenges – Stellenbosch University, 6 December 2011

In 2010, Stellenbosch University introduced an ‘integrated’ PhD programme in its music department. The ‘integrated’ nature of this degree resonates with the characteristics of ‘practice-based research’ (PBR), an emerging research tradition that has been at the centre of several debates in arts research in recent years. Although practice-based doctorates are now well-established in many creative disciplines, its application in music has only more recently come to the fore.  In the 2007 issue of The Dutch Journal of Music Theory, which is devoted exclusively to ‘Practice-based Research in Music’, the editors cite a ‘perceived deficiency’ in the PBR discourse, which ‘deal[s] mostly with visual arts and dance’ (Borgdorff 2007:v), and where ‘[M]usic is virtually absent’ (ibid.). Draper and Harrison comment that ‘[P]ractice-based doctorates are well established in many creative disciplines, but it is only recently that similar music programmes have come under scrutiny’ (Draper 2010:1).

The purpose of this presentation is to give a brief outline of some important developments in PBR internationally, and to focus the debate in the South African context. Borgdorff, writing from a European perspective, highlights the fact that the international debates around PBR display elements of both philosophy (especially in terms of epistemology, ontology and methodology) and of education politics and strategies (Borgdorff 2007:1). This binary structure suggests the form of this presentation: philosophical considerations pertinent to PBR in music will first be examined, followed by a delineation of the position of PBR in education politics, both internationally and specifically in South Africa. In general, the focus will be on PBR and doctoral studies.

I will begin the discussion of some philosophical aspects of PBR by presenting a possible definition of the term. Linda Candy from the University of Technology, Sydney, defines PBR as follows (Candy 2006):

Practice-based research is an original investigation undertaken in order to gain new knowledge partly by means of practice and the outcomes of that practice. In a doctoral thesis, claims of originality and contribution to knowledge may be demonstrated through creative outcomes in the form of designs, music, digital media, performances and exhibitions. Whilst the significance and context of the claims are described in words, a full understanding can only be obtained with direct reference to the outcomes.

This general definition delineates two important aspects of PBR: first, that the ‘contribution to new knowledge may be demonstrated through creative outcomes’; second, that the ‘significance and context’ of these contributions are presented in the form of written text, thus creating the possibility of peer review. 

According to Sligter, research in the humanities should not be limited ‘to the verifiable knowledge … as sought after by the exact sciences’ (Sligter 2007:41). The knowledge that PBR engages is generated by practice, and is to some extent embodied in the creative outcome of the work. In this sense, knowledge generated through PBR can be said to be both perceptual and conceptual: in music, the initial research questions or problems are suggested through the personal experiences of the performer while engaged with practice, and followed up in a reflexive and methodical manner. The outcomes of the research are presented in some form of discursive medium, usually accompanied by practical work (in the case of a doctoral thesis, audio-visual recordings of performances could be included).

A recurrent issue in the PBR debate is the difference between PBR and ‘pure practice’. Schippers states (Schippers 2007:35):

We can easily identify research methods and patterns in almost any progression towards a performance, from defining a general idea or concept, to the initial choice of repertoire/material, to research into books, scores, records or memory, to final choices of approach, repertoire and material. In processes commonly identified as research, these stages would correspond to defining the research question, literature review, and choice of methodology.

The issue, therefore, is not so much with the nature of the processes followed by performers as opposed to researchers, but with the implicit nature of the knowledge gained through practice. What distinguishes PBR from ‘pure practice’ is the act of making these processes explicit, and changing the nature of the knowledge gained from ‘subjective’ to ‘objective’.

According to Candy (2006):

Searching for new understandings and seeking out new techniques is part of everyday practice. However, this kind of research is, for the most part, directed towards the individual’s particular goals of the time, rather than seeking to add to our shared store of knowledge.

Furthermore, the 2004 brochure for the doctoral programme in the creative and performing arts organised by the Orpheus Institute in Ghent, Belgium, states (Tomassi 2007:2):

Artists may create or re-create artworks using a researching mind. But the PhD in the creative and performing arts is based on research that is deeper or broader in scope. Candidates must already be able to create or perform at a high international level. Their artistic work has raised questions or problems that can be further articulated and analysed only through research. Hence, by posing and resolving such issues, the artists also alter their creative or performing processes.

These texts highlight the fact that discursively articulated research outcomes are essential to PBR. This distinguishes it from practice not purely in terms of processes, but specifically in terms of outcomes.

Candy’s definition of PBR quoted above is articulated from the perspective of the art and design discipline, and leaves some specifically music-related issues unanswered. The transient nature of musical performance means that ‘outcomes’ in the case of performances are demonstrably different from outcomes generated by artworks or designs. This complicates the ways in which knowledge ‘may be demonstrated through creative outcomes’. This core issue of PBR in music can be addressed by individual practitioner researchers in their individual research projects. Much interesting work has already been produced that suggest ways of dealing with this issue, and it is potentially in this area where some of the most innovative work in PBR will be done in future.

A description of ‘arts research’ that applies specifically to music is given by Borgdorff, who differentiates between research on the arts, research for the arts and research through art (own italics). In this three-part model, the first case (described as the interpretative perspective) denotes research that has art as its object, and is common to disciplines such as musicology, social sciences, art history, media studies and theatre studies (Borgdorff 2007:5). The second indicates art as the objective rather than the object: it implies research that provides insight into concrete practices (an example could be an investigation into extended techniques through the practical engagement with such techniques), and is described as the ‘instrumental perspective’ (ibid.). The last possibility, which Borgdorff calls the ‘immanent perspective’, characterizes practice as the essential component of both the research process and its result; the assumed separation of subject and object is challenged through this approach, which is meant to articulate a form of embodied knowledge (ibid.). The immanent perspective is available exclusively to the practitioner, a fact which is seen by Cobussen (Cobussen 2007:29) to be problematic in terms of research outcomes: unless this perspective is translated into a discursive medium which is accessible to a wider intellectual community, it cannot be said to add to the knowledge store.

Cobussen, drawing on the work of Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger and Suzanne Cusick, argues for ‘embodied knowledge’ or immanent knowledge as intrinsic to the epistemology of PBR (Cobussen 2007:28):

… emphasizing that music-making is first of all a physical activity and that the mere physicality of that activity can teach us something (new) about the music in question, Cusick opens the door to a musical phenomenology and, consequently, for research activities based on the corporeal contribution of the musician, until now almost absent in academic musical practices.

The research activities, based on the ‘corporeal contribution of the musician’, must be assimilated into a discursive medium in order to make them accessible to a wider intellectual community and open to peer review. Schippers quotes examples of PBR doctorates that have used innovative and unprecedented methods of presentation to convey the ‘essence of the artistic process’ (Schippers 2007:36). As PBR develops, increasingly more individual research projects will serve as examples for how the embodied knowledge in practical work can be identified, interrogated, assimilated and presented in doctoral dissertations or theses.

I would like now to present some information on the implications of PBR in terms of education politics, both internationally and in South Africa. During the last two decades, tertiary institutions worldwide have come under pressure to adapt to the ‘rapidly changing social, technological, economic and political forces emanating from the immediate as well as from the broader postindustrial external environment’ (Bartell 2003:43). One result of this transformative process is a general move to integrate practice-oriented and research-oriented institutions. Individual institutions have begun to branch out in terms of their specializations, with conservatoires  in Europe that formerly presented mostly performance diplomas now offering research-oriented master’s and doctoral degrees, and Anglo-Saxon universities, formerly facilitating only purely academic degrees, opening the door to practice-based research projects.

In Australia, where all universities and conservatoires have amalgamated over the last twenty years (Schippers 2007:34), the integration of practice and research is by now well-established: in 2004, 79% of universities were engaged in PBR projects (ibid.), and the Queensland Conservatorium awarded their first practice-based doctoral degrees in 2009. South African universities have undergone similar changes since 1994: the amalgamation of universities and ‘technikons’ (technical or practice-oriented institutions) was articulated as part of the higher education policy in 2002 (Harris 2004:73).

PBR situates practice within research. These two concepts (‘practice’ and ‘research’) traditionally existed in different ontological and epistemological realms. The researcher and the musical artist have in the past occupied two separate roles in the music discipline; what PBR envisages is that one person could fulfill both roles, facilitating a critical exchange between practice and theory, and integrating these two seemingly disparate positions of performer and researcher within the academy. Several groups from different continents and contexts are currently engaged with issues related to PBR, and specifically PBR in doctoral degrees. The work done by the Polifonia Working Group in Europe will be mentioned here; because of time constraints, the important work done at Queensland Conservatorium, Australia, while also significant, will not be discussed.

The ‘Polifonia Third Cycle Working Group’ was created to examine professional music training specifically in Third Cycle[1] studies, and to study issues related to the Bologna Declaration Process.[2] According to the group (Polifonia 2007:9):

 … conservatoires traditionally offer vocational training that leads to a career as a professional musician, composer, or in some cases also as a music teacher … Offering Third Cycle or doctoral studies has historically been the preserve of universities … It would seem logical to be able to research and communicate about music in all circumstances and from all aspects within the institution that deals most specifically with it and by those people who are executants, rather than confining this activity to those institutions that happen to offer musicology as a scientific study field. For this reason amongst others, professional music training institutions have started to offer doctoral studies of different kinds as well.

The working group highlights several problematic issues with regard to PBR, of which one is the lack of precedents for this type of research (Polifonia 2007:12):

These newer research areas do not yet enjoy the support of a well-established framework and their practitioners may work in isolation, in the absence of a network of other researchers, conferences, publications, etc. and no substantial body of previous research may yet exist.

The extent to which PBR could potentially probe beyond the bounds of traditional musicology will become apparent through each individual research project, but the Polifonia working group makes the point that ‘the Artistic Researcher will probably set his or her own kind and level of perception as the ultimate object of investigation as well as the standard for describing and assessing musical phenomena’ (Polifonia 2007:15). This view resonates with the ‘immanent perspective’ articulated by Borgdorff (Borgdorff 2007:5). The idea of immanent perception as primary source, and the development of a personal method of research presentation, are the areas where PBR departs most significantly from traditional types of research. As to the research process, the working group suggests that after the initial phase of identifying a topic, formulating a hypothesis, conducting an adequate literature review and investigating the research question, the process ‘is concluded with the production of documentation that reports the results in an accessible manner and which is available to interested parties, thereby allowing other researchers working in the same field to assess the results and build on them’ (Polifonia 2007:14).

The issue of assessment and examination is specifically addressed by the Polifonia working group. The group departs from the assumption that third cycle studies form part of a coherent educational system comprising of first and second cycle studies, the outcomes of which should adequately prepare a student for the requirements of the research-focused third cycle study. This implies that assessment of practical capability and all issues relating to practical musicianship should be located in the first and second cycle studies, and the participant in a third cycle study should not be judged on a practical level alone (although the working group does suggest that a practical audition combined with a viva voce could form part of the initial application procedure). Rather, the integrated nature of a practice-based research third cycle degree means that the practical work done must be judged within the context of the research outcomes generated by the work.

The South African context presents both similarities and departures from the European situation. According to the Education White Paper of 1997, South African universities must be structured to focus on research, education, and outreach. Performance or purely practical work has no clear position within the university structure. Universities in South Africa are subsidized by the NRF and the Department of National Education (through the SAPSE system), based on the research output of staff members. This system does not recognize creative or performance outputs as the equivalent of research output (for example formal articles or books), which means that practical staff members that are not engaged in research projects generate little or no subsidy from the government for their respective departments. In lieu of this, some individual institutions have created their own ‘reward’ systems for creative and practical output (i.e. composition and performance). The University of Stellenbosch, for example, works on a ‘point’ system according to which practical staff members are compensated financially for practical work done in their respective fields. Similar systems exist at the University of the Free State, Rhodes University, the University of Kwazulu Natal and the University of the Witwatersrand.[3] What this suggests is that many institutions acknowledge ‘equivalence’ in the amount and quality of work done by performers in relation to researchers; this, however, has no bearing on the nature of the output. One could argue that this type of institutional compensation is, in fact, compounding the problem of institutional division between academic and research staff, rather than addressing it in a productive way.

In this context of education politics, PBR can play a significant role, for it facilitates a type of research that is contingent on practical engagement, but produces peer-reviewable research products as a result.

In general, until 2010 South African tertiary music institutions presented professional degrees[4] where traditional research and performance were viewed as separate examinable endeavors, or doctorates that required research output of a scholarly nature. Michael Biggs of the University of Hertfordshire, England, gives the following description of the different types of doctoral or third cycle degrees (Biggs 2000):

We should perhaps begin with a careful description of the degrees to which we are referring. Doctoral degrees are of two main types: the PhD, and awards bearing titles such as DMus, EdD, DDes, etc. The former are exclusively research degrees, in which the student may undertake a programme of research training but is mainly working independently on a research project with a supervisor. The latter are taught or professional degrees, in which the student will be taught for at least one-third of the programme (Harris Report, annex G). In parallel with this distinction, but frequently confused with professional degrees, are practice-based projects or submissions.

This definition, although formulated by a British scholar, also applies to the South African educational system. Biggs’s first definition can be applied to the PhD or DPhil offered by many university music departments. The DMus degree as presented at, for example, the University of Pretoria, fits none of these definitions: no part of the degree is officially ‘taught’, practical lessons are determined individually between student and practical teacher and there is no form of research training involved. Currently, no South African University offers either a ‘professional degree’ as Biggs defines it or a taught degree in music at the doctoral level. The typical Doctor of Musical Arts degree offered at many American universities consists of a large amount of coursework in addition to practical lessons and examinations. No South African university is offering a doctoral degree on that scale at the present time. A doctoral programme based on PBR falls under Biggs’s first type, the PhD, and must therefore not be confused with ‘professional’ degrees.

By 2012, the first students in the integrated PhD programme at Stellenbosch University will complete their studies. The results of these degree processes will hopefully encourage further developments in the application of PBR at South African universities, for it will set a precedent for doctoral degrees that utilise performance as the primary source of new knowledge. PBR in music departments in South Africa hold the prospect of addressing the critically high cost of maintaining such departments through the generation of subsidies for recognized doctoral research and intellectual outputs. But more importantly, an intellectual and artistic engagement with PBR by South African performers and scholars presents much potential for renewal and innovation in a discipline that has been isolated for too long from full academic participation at our universities.

[1] The bachelor, master’s and doctoral level degrees are referred to by the working group as first, second and third cycle degrees.

[2] The Bologna Declaration was signed by 29 European countries in 1999, committing themselves ‘to a harmonization of their higher education as of 2010’ (Sligter 2007:41).

[3] I am grateful to Nina Schumann from Stellenbosch University, Nicol Viljoen from the University of the Free State, Jeff Brukman from Rhodes University, Mageshen Niadoo from the University of KwaZulu Natal and Grant Olwage from the University of the Witwatersrand for furnishing me with information regarding these procedures at their respective institutions.

[4] It should be noted that at present there is no consensus on terminology for third cycle studies at South African universities; the terms  Dmus, PhD and DPhil have all been used by various institutions, leading to confusion as to the specifications of the different degrees.

(Posted on behalf of Mareli Stolp)


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