RMA Study Day session 3: Mark Doffman, Mirjam James and Karen Wise


Session 3 (Chair: Jonna Vuoskoski)

Mark Doffman (University of Oxford), Mirjam James (University of Cambridge) and Karen Wise (University of Cambridge)

Panel discussion: What are the challenges in researching processes?

With reference to studies carried out by members of the panel, we explore some of the methodological issues that are relevant to musical processes and their exploration, focusing on the challenges posed by three main questions: Where is the process situated? How do you capture processes? How do you make sense of the collected data?

CMPCP logo

[JB notes]
Mirjam discussed some of the methodological challenges researchers face when undertaking fieldwork to investigate ‘creativity/originality’ in classical music performers (see project page and video). Should the process be short, medium or long? How long (musically) should the object under investigation be? The goal was to capture [instrumental] teachers’  and students’ working processes over time. Methodology challenges include – how to make the process visible, how to evaluate the respective perspectives of the researcher and performer (I infer, how to mitigate the observation effect and/or researcher bias). The solution chosen was participant-led video recall. These video recordings of participants were categorised as ‘inside the teaching studio’ and ‘inside the practice room’. The teaching studio sessions were 2-5 lessons; the practice room sessions were larger in scale, covering 9 sessions over 3 months and including public performance. This ‘participant led video recall’ approach handed over the responsibility for defining relative importance of particular processes/activities to the participants.

The footage was shot and participants were later asked to identify moments in the playback when they felt particularly ‘creative’. [JB note] – the criteria for participants self-defining this term were not specified, and I think this may be an issue for the research if it does not explicitly identify what is meant by ‘creative’. On its own, the word ‘creative’ is a difficult adjective to pin down. In this situation, it appears that ‘creative’ is being used as synonymous with ‘original’ but does this originality imply uniqueness, as most definitions of ‘creativity’ do? This was explored in the questioning session.

Ethical participation issues (data protection, anonymity confidentiality etc) were discussed. There were some consent issues (for example, willingness of teachers and students to allow cameras into their workspaces).  This is a challenge for qualitative research generally, and Karen explored this issue in some detail relating to the specific ethical issues that arise from observing musicians using video. The key principle was establishing participant control and ownership over the creative process.

Mark then provided an overview of the project entitled Creative practice in contemporary concert music. He identifies two ‘intrigues’ – the presence of researchers, and the (sometimes conflicting) relationship between words and practice. The observer paradox (Labov) was invoked, and several examples were provided of this being an issue (including moments when instrumentalists would knowingly glance at the camera during observations). Different research subjects/performers responded differently (i.e. more or less self-consciously) to each other depending on their media experience. As the researcher/subject relationship developed, observations got easier, but at times the researchers became participants (for example, being asked by the composer under observation how a particular piece should end!). Mark identifies researcher presence as a potential challenge.

The next section discussed the difficulty of identifying the relationship between words and practice – what people say they are doing, and what they are actually doing. He phrased the researcher relationship as being influenced by the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’. Some heavily naturalised behaviours can be so internalised that they cannot be observed by researchers. The approach was to triangulate methods – observation, audio recording of process, and post-event interviews.

During the questioning session;

  • The role of ‘creativity’ as a term was further defined
  • Participants’ responses and ethics/trust challenges were clarified
  • I learned a new word ‘methodolatry’ (meaning an inflexible adherence to a particular research methodology – see Braun and Clarke, 2006)

Mark Doffman is a Research Fellow in the Faculty of Music, University of Oxford. He is currently working with Eric Clarke on a three year project, Creative Practice in Contemporary Concert Music which investigates the distributed nature of creativity in contemporary music. From May 2014, Mark begins a 3 year Leverhulme Fellowship at Oxford on time and timing across a range of musical genres. Mark also works as a jazz drummer.

Mirjam James was Research Associate at the AHRC Research Centre for Musical Performance as Creative Practice (CMPCP) at the University of Cambridge. She holds a MA in Musicology, Psychology and Politics (TU Berlin) and a MSc in Music Psychology (Keele University). Her PhD, on audio-visual perception, was awarded by TU Berlin and her research interest includes group communication, practice, performance and audiences.

Karen Wise was Research Associate in the AHRC Centre for Music Performance as Creative Practice, Faculty of Music, University of Cambridge. Her PhD in Psychology (Keele) examined the musical skills, cognitive profiles and self-perceptions of adults self-identifying as ‘tone deaf’. She is also a classical mezzo-soprano and singing teacher.

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