With a little help from my friends

“So, how’s your PhD going?” has to be the question I get asked the most frequently – but perhaps more importantly it’s the question I ask myself fairly regularly. Being a Phd student requires many skills, some of which I had already but many of which I’m working hard to develop as I go. Almost two years in, and I feel that I should maybe have developed most of them by now.. and therein one of the biggest issues I’ve encountered with my PhD studies (and let’s face it, life in general!). Things I should have done. Skills I should have developed. Papers I should have written. Conferences I should have attended. People I should have met. Books I should have read. Etc.

In order not to feel completely overwhelmed with all these shoulds, everybody needs a bit of help. In life that usually comes from our friends and families; and here’s another big problem with my PhD. Much as I love the Institute of Education where I’m lucky enough to be a student, the one thing it really lacks for me personally is any sense of a department. I have a fantastic working relationship with my supervisor and have attended some great training courses with other members of staff, and I’ve met many lovely people also studying at the IOE, but I don’t belong to a department full of people researching similar areas. The most significant way in which this affects my actual output is in terms of motivation. It’s hard to keep on studying when you feel like you’re the only person in the world doing what you’re doing – but this is something that I’m sure every PhD student can identify with, because pretty much by definition, you are!

So I’ve been looking for help recently and am happy to report that having study days with friends who are also studying or writing is proving extremely effective. Happy days in the British Library with Corrina Connor and an extremely productive writing day with Nicola Doherty have given me a sense of purpose and enjoyment which I find hard to muster sometimes when sitting alone at my desk (even though my desk is my favourite place in the house, since I am and always will be a true nerd). What worked with these days is:

  • Finding a good working environment, with plentiful access to coffee and maybe even the odd piece of cake
  • Setting clear goals for what you want to achieve that day – and checking in regularly with each other to see how it’s going
  • Discussing what you’re doing at breaks – even if the subject matter is unrelated, you can always learn something about yourself and your work by talking about it.

This is all incredibly obvious but I think worth saying anyway – because often it’s the most obvious strategies that we forget to use.

Happy working everyone!

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The history of an experiment: Dartington’s historical roots

Recently I have been delving into the history of Dartington, as background to the presentation I will be giving at a conference in Portugal in a couple of weeks. I started getting really interested when I discovered a book about Dartington written by a distant relative of mine – a slightly spooky coincidence… Dartington is a complicated place  which is constantly seeking to reinvent itself, as evidenced by a recent blog post from Vaughan Lindsey, chair of the Dartington Hall Trust. Exploring the history of Dartington – and by that I mean the Hall, the School, the College of Arts and the Summer School – has shed some light on its search for an identity.

One of the first issues I have come up against in attempting to make sense of Dartington’s past is the intensely personal nature of the accounts documenting it. The two main books available – ‘The Elmhirsts of Dartington’ by Michael Young, and ‘The Arts at Dartington’ by Peter Cox are written by people extremely closely connected to Dartington, as a pupil of the school and protégé of the Elmhirsts in the former case, and the first principal of Dartington College of Arts in the latter. This inevitably impacts on the objective value of their texts. There are also some interesting accounts of the summer school in the autobiographies of William Glock (the first Musical Director) and John Amis (the first Administrator, who sadly died this summer); but again, these are highly personal, laced with anecdote and in the case of Amis considerable underlying conflict. However, by comparing all these sources – my GCSE history teacher would be proud of me! – I’ve been starting to make some sense of the story.

Three main themes emerge; the first is a financial one. According to John Amis, the supposed financial backer of the first summer school at Bryanston in 1948, a man called Gwynn Jones, claimed to have the necessary funds to support it – and in actual fact turned out not to have enough money. This financial insecurity has been a constant feature of the summer school’s past, present and future; the current uncertainty  surrounding its survival seems somehow less dramatic in the context of this long-running state of affairs.

A second interesting theme is the extent to which the history of the summer school and of Dartington as a whole has been dominated by individuals. The whole Dartington project was the brainchild of Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst, two immensely creative and innovative individuals, whose vision and perhaps more importantly funds purchased a crumbling fourteenth century estate in 1925 to begin their ‘English Experiment’. The exact purpose of this experiment, beyond a commitment to the Arts, to education, to social justice and to agricultural reform, still remains somewhat opaque – as Michael Young states in his book, anyone who tries to define it has missed the point of it entirely. One thing is clear though: that the Elmhirsts had some very strong ideas about how they wanted things to be done, and even after establishing a board of Trustees continued to make decisions based on personal conviction. The Summer School too is a story of individuals: it  had only four Artistic Directors  between 1948 and 2012 (William Glock, Peter Maxwell Davies, Gavin Henderson, and John Woolrich), two of whom served for considerable periods of time. Their personal networks and connections attracted the most eminent musicians of their age to the summer school; Glock in particular through his post as the Controller of Radio Three.  Other key posts, the Administrator and the Registrar, were also held for many years by the same people.This personal touch has made the Summer School what it is, in both positive and negative ways, and presents a significant challenge to its sustainability.

The third theme which has emerged and is obviously of particular interest to me is that of the conflicting status of the amateur and the professional at Dartington. In the earliest days of the project, the arts were envisaged as a means of enriching the lives of all those on the estate; but in a strictly hierarchical sense, where the ‘amateurish’ participation of estate workers was seen as a barrier to performance standards. Later on, following a report published in 1941 by the Arts Department, there was a volte-face in the perception of amateur artistic participation. The focus changed the training of teachers specifically to work with amateurs, under the influence of Imogen Holst, who can be seen conducting in this wonderful film from the school’s Foundation Day in 1948.  This was the origin of Dartington College of Arts, but again, suggests a relationship of inequality. A similar situation occurred in the early Summer Schools, which John Amis described as catering to all levels of ‘musical competence and incompetence’ – but catering in very different ways, with activities strictly segregated on the basis of ability and with the amateur musicians frequently providing an audience, rather than participating themselves. As Amis states, the promising young conservatoire students who gave the summer school energy needed financial support to attend, which was provided by the music-loving amateur participants.

This process of historical enquiry has been revealing both in terms of Dartington’s past and its future search for an identity – I will soon be making a trip to Devon to view the summer school archives, so no doubt I will be posting more on this subject before too long.

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Masterclasses for all? 60 Years of Learning and Teaching at a Music Summer School

This is the abstract for a presentation I’m due to give at the beginning of next month – my first international conference, so quite a milestone in my academic career!


This paper presents some findings of a qualitative case study of a music summer school taking place in the UK, which celebrated its sixtieth anniversary this year. Its original intention was to be a summer school for every type of musician, encompassing professional performing artists and tutors, conservatoire students, and amateurs. Sixty years on it still aspires to include this diverse range of musicians, despite being situated in a radically different pedagogical, social and musical environment.  The summer school is attempting to reconcile this changed universe of the twenty-first century with its historical roots, a situation exacerbated by the continued attendance of individuals whose participation dates in some cases from the genesis of the summer school. A lineage of distinguished artists, tutors and artistic directors provides a historical standard with which the modern-day festival constantly finds itself compared.

The masterclass is considered as a focus of these pedagogical challenges and as a representation of the master/apprentice relationship characterised by the traditional conservatoire model of music education. Through data from interviews and field notes, the changing participant and tutor experience of masterclasses at the summer school is used as a means of analysing the past, present and future of the institution. It questions whether the aesthetic values which informed its foundation are relevant to today’s amateur musicians, many of whom prioritise active participation over passive audience membership, and aspiring professionals, whose career trajectories will be radically different to those of their predecessors at the summer school.

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Welcome to my blog

Welcome to my new blog, which I’m hoping to use to help me along the process of completing my PhD – and in the mean time, to share some of my thoughts about sociology, music and education. You can find out more about me and my research in the ‘About’ section.

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