The transfer exam: another milestone

Last Wednesday, I finally sat the RCM transfer exam. Called an ‘upgrade’ in other institutions, it is a means of ratifying your progress and your suitability for PhD study. It consisted of a 30-minute public presentation, 10 minutes of audience questions, and a 30-minute viva with an internal and external examiner, and an internal chair. The exam was based on the submission of a 10,000 word sample chapter and 5,000 word research proposal. There were essentially three possible outcomes:

  1. Approved for full registration to the PhD;
  2. Work not satisfactory for PhD level study, and approved for submission of an MPhil;
  3. Work not satisfactory for either MPhil or PhD submission, and registration terminated.

For various reasons, I should have upgraded at the Institute of Education in the summer of 2015, but this coincided with my supervisor’s move to the RCM. The RCM transfer exam should really have taken place in the summer of 2016, but again, for various reasons, it wasn’t possible to arrange it. As you might imagine, now in my fourth year, I’m therefore very late making this transition.

There was a lot riding on this exam, and I guess, I didn’t really realise this until it finally came around: it’s been a long time coming! When you’re in your fourth year of your PhD, you really don’t want to be told that your work isn’t good enough, and be either demoted to MPhil or chucked out.

In the week leading up to the exam, I really couldn’t decide how I felt. I went from feeling fairly confident, to feeling I had no idea what I was doing. By the day before, I’d got to the stage of thinking I’d done all I could, and whatever happened, would happen.

The presentation was to take place at 1:30pm. I had time to meet with my supervisor before the exam, and also to set up the room for the presentation. It was good to meet the examiners and chair too in advance. At 1pm, the examiners had a pre-meet, having already completed their preliminary reports. At 1:30pm, the presentation started. About seven people came to listen; a handful of students and a couple of members of staff. The presentation seemed to go well and, much to my amazement given there was no clock in the room, was exactly to time. Afterwards, there were no audience questions (a mixture of relief and disappointment…I should have planted some!).

Following the presentation, the panel met briefly before I was invited back in for the viva. The viva is fairly hard to prepare for, as there are so many potential things which could be asked. As it happened, the primary focus was on the methodology and my use of Grounded Theory (which was predictable). I personally didn’t think I did very well, and didn’t seem to be able to put across what I wanted to with any confidence. I guess, like most people, I came out feeling disappointed. After a brief break, I was invited back in to be told the outcome of the exam.

I’m pleased to say, I passed, and am now a fully-fledged PhD student. It’s a big milestone and it’s ratification that I’m at least going in the right direction. I think that post-exam, I felt a little shell-shocked. There’s a lot to take in. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t that I wasn’t happy, but I think it’s such a build-up, then over so quickly! There were a lot of comments made and it’s only since I’ve had the marked-up work and report back, that I’ve really been able to digest them all. On balance, I think a lot of useful comments have been made, and over time I’ll need to work through them all. Much centres about being clearer in my definitionsscreen-shot-2017-01-29-at-10-59-34, and fleshing out the mthodology. I also need to be more critical of sources and data used (I was described as being ‘too nice’!)

All in all, a positive experience with a lot to take away. A well-organised exam with friendly and constructive examiners. Much to be taken away now and considered further.


York conference: I did it!

scan-6Huge apologies that this blog post is long overdue. I wrote it in my head months ago, but somehow, it never made it onto ‘paper’!

Back in June, I presented at the Music Education and Music Psychology Conference at the University of York. I have never presented at a conference before, and I have fiercely avoided doing any kind of public speaking over the years. My reaction when I received an email saying my submission had been accepted was to quickly find an excuse not to go. But, thanks to some very encouraging friends (thank you friends), I agreed to go.

To say I was terrified is putting it mildly. I’ve never done anything like this before, and had no idea what to expect. But, saying this, there was a tiny bit of me which was excited, and, dare I say it, a bit of me which thought I might even enjoy it!

So, with some trepidation, I prepared my Powerpoint presentation (you can see this on both and ResearchGate where you can also follow me). A friend very kindly let me Skype them to run through it (thank you friend) and my timings seemed fairly good. When you’re new to this, it’s really hard. I’ve never produced a Powerpoint presentation before; I’ve never written an abstract before; I’ve never attended a conference with spoken presentations; I’ve never spoken like that in public; and I’ve never fielded questions and defended my research in front of an audience either. The more time I spend in the world of academia, the more I realise that there’s a widespread expectation that everyone knows how to do all these things and we’ve all been doing them for years. I know that many of us suffer from the ever-present imposter syndrome, and in circumstances like this, I can see why. None of the so-called compulsory research training I’ve done has helped with any of these things.

One of my first tasks was to decide what to present. I’m a fair way into my research and have finished, but not analysed the main data collected. Thus, I decided to present an overview of my research, a taster of some of my initial thoughts following my pilot survey, and a summary of what I was going to do next.

The day arrived, and I made the long journey by train up to York. I couldn’t physically get there for the start of the day, so arrived just as participants were breaking from the first session. Once I’d found my way into the building (why can’t these things be signposted?!) I hid in the corner. Curiously, I don’t particularly mind talking to anyone and I quite like it, but it’s hard finding a ‘way in’ at these events. By lunchtime though, people were beginning to relax a little. The organisers introduced themselves, and I also met someone who’d studied on one of the IOE‘s online training courses which I’d completed. An excellent lunch was provided I should add! There was also an opportunity to view the posters that were being presented, and chat to the students who’d brought them.

After lunch, I could put it off no longer. My time had come. The auditorium in which the conference took place was very good. A large screen at the front, and tiered seating. As it had been properly lit, I couldn’t really see the audience when I was presenting (possibly an advantage?). I was very glad to have been able to email my Powerpoint presentation in advance, so it was all set up. I’d taken a printed copy with a few extra notes (though I’d no desire to ‘script’ it, as some people had). The presentation also appeared on a computer screen in front of me with a timer which was very useful. I have to say, I really enjoyed the experience. It felt very natural, and actually, when it came to it, I didn’t feel particularly nervous. The timing was just about spot-on too which I was glad about. After I’d finished presenting, there were quite a few questions, both from students attending, and from staff of the University and others. I think I fielded these all very well I have to say. I certainly felt confident in answering them.

In the next break, and once everyone had heard what I’d got to say, people were very friendly. Lots of people commented how interesting it was, and there were some interesting further discussions. Several people also asked to be kept in touch with how my research was progressing (and I also acquired some new Facebook friends!)

It was a very long and tiring day, not helped by train delays meaning I was over an hour and a half late home. Overall, it was enjoyable. I learnt a lot. I was very grateful that the organises at the University had been so encouraging and accommodating, especially as it was my first time. That really did make a big difference. Huge thanks to Dr Liz Haddon for organising it and putting up with my many and various questions, and Nicola Pennill for being so encouraging.

Sadly, there are relatively few conferences available in my subject area so I’m not sure when I might present again. Having presented last year, my goal for 2016/17 is to try and write something and get it published in a journal!

PhD: Beyond the actual research

pabloOnce again, far too long has passed since my last PhD blog post. As ever, much continues to happen behind the scenes.

I’m currently at the stage where I need to begin analysing my data; this is, technically one of the final stages before considering beginning to write-up. But, of course, a PhD isn’t just about collecting and analysing data, and writing it up!

Recently, my time has been taken up with other PhD-related ‘business’ which has meant that the research itself has taken rather a back seat. I find this frustrating, but there’s a limit to what I can manage alongside day-to-day work and life.

Firstly, I submitted abstracts for two forthcoming conferences: one was accepted, the other wasn’t (we won’t say too much about the goalposts being moved after I’d submitted for that one…!) That’s meant preparing a presentation and organising attendance. I also applied for some financial help towards attendance at the conference (yes, attendance at a day’s conference can easily end up at around £150). This required forms filling in and then further forms filling in, invoices and receipts being provided etc.

Also required this month was an end of year report on research progress…you’ve guessed it, more forms to be completed! I’m also in the throes of preparing materials to be submitted as part of the transfer exam which I’m hoping to sit in September. This requires a good amount of rewriting and reorganising of existing material in addition to adding further materials. The transfer exam is an important step and I want to get this completed as soon as possible.

I’ve also registered to attend a conference later in the summer, but as yet, no programme has been finalised and no further information made available. I’m unable to attend for the whole week, but without a programme of some kind, it’s proving hard to move forward with this (I may end up not going at all!) Again, trying to organise this is another thing to do! In terms of this particular conference, it’s been highlighted once again that there’s a real lack of understanding from many in academia about those who study part-time.

So, whilst everything continues to tick over, I’m a little frustrated about not being able to do more…but as ever, no point beating oneself up about it!

Disseminating your research

DSC_0001Last Thursday, I went to a two-hour research training session at the RCM led by Dr Natasha Loges, focusing on impact and the need to disseminate research. The need to share the outcomes of our research needs to be effective. When thinking about this, we might consider three things:

  1. Who can benefit from our research?
  2. How can they benefit from our research?
  3. How can we make this happen?

We highlighted four reasons for effective sharing our our research outcomes:

  1. So that it can have a positive impact on a wider ‘audience’;
  2. For knowledge exchange;
  3. To influence and underpin policy;
  4. For the potential effects it might have on enhancing health and quality of life.

Clearly, different research areas will impact in differing ways, so the four points above are not exhaustive.

The main focus was on the two, what we might call ‘traditional’ ways of disseminating research: writing for print journals and presenting at conferences. These two are still the predominant ways in which research is shared, mainly, but not exclusively with the wider academic community. We talked about the need to select both journals and conferences carefully . We all agreed that finding out about conferences can be quite hard. There is no central listing of conferences (though Golden Pages can be a good place to start for musicological research) and it was often a case of ‘coming across’ things via other means.

We talked briefly about publishing research in traditional book format, and although this is perhaps not as popular as it once was, there was still a sense that publishing a book was a big achievement, even, dare I say, the pinnacle of the research process?

There was some agreement that in the next few years, there is likely to be a big shift in the way we publish and disseminate our research. The internet has provided many opportunities beyond the traditional print formats, and in many cases, the academic world lags behind. More online journals are likely to appear such as the Journal of Artistic Research, and these may offer the opportunity for researchers to present material in non-traditional formats, such as video clips.

Blogging and social media were another means of disseminating research, though I appeared to be the only one in the room prepared to say that I was on Twitter and that I blogged! There was certainly some scepticism about the role social media might play, and students didn’t necessarily consider it a worthwhile use of time. On the other hand, when done well, it has huge potential. I doubt I’d have acquired anywhere near the 500 survey responses I’ve got without it.

Amidst all this, there are outstanding issues surrounding open access. In the future, all research which has received funding in some form, will need to be made available to the public for free. The details are yet to be confirmed fully and understood, but this is likely to impact heavily on traditional print journals.

So, indeed, much to consider, but certainly a sense (which I’d fully endorse) that the academic community needs to look beyond print journals and conferences to disseminate research. How the community meets the challenges that brings (which are both scary and exciting), is another debate entirely…

Meeting others

Well, despite the silence, I have been busy with PhD work. Now the main survey has gone ‘live’, thoughts are turning towards the analysis stage, and as mentioned in the previous post, the transfer exam.

Last week, I had the opportunity to meet with a couple of other PhD students at the RCM, both researching areas related to music education. This meeting was facilitated by my supervisor and it’s hoped that it might become something a little more regular, with possibly an opportunity to meet ‘online’ in between.

It made me think that there are relatively few opportunities for PhD students to meet together to discuss their research. I think this is possibly different for full-time students, and perhaps less of an issue for those working on science-related PhDs and similar, where there are opportunities to meet with others in the ‘lab’ more regularly. If however, you’re a part-time student, and especially so if you’re either not located near to your institution or are an international student, the opportunities do seem limited.

Of course, there are opportunities out there, perhaps in the main, those we create for ourselves. For example, it’s quite easy to meet other researchers and students through social media these days. While promoting my survey on platforms like Twitter and Facebook, I’ve come across quite a few others researching similar subjects. There are of course conferences too, but I think the availability of these depends on your subject area. There are a handful of music education related conferences and events each year, but again, as a part-time student, having the time (and as a self-funded student, the money) to attend all of these is often unrealistic.

It seems to me, perhaps wrongly, that the full potential of the internet hasn’t yet been harnessed in terms of collaboration and connection between research students. Yes, we meet people online, and we may exchange messages every now and again, but developing these connections further in environments like Twitter is not so straightforward. Similarly, there are Facebook groups, but these often seem to be platforms for promoting events and publications than for discussion. I’m guessing that some institutions may provide online learning environments too which might help facilitate discussion and collaboration.

It will be interesting to see whether, in the future, we’re able to better harness technology and the internet. The advent of online learning platforms and MOOCs seems to be gathering momentum. People can learn about almost anything they want at the click of a button, often for free too. I wonder how this will influence the nature of research and research degrees in the future? It’s certainly an area worth keeping an eye on.

Survey goes live!

So, after months (and months) of preparation, the large-scale survey which will form the next stage of my PhD research is going ‘live’! This is hugely exciting, and decidedly scary all at the same time!

The aim is to collate responses from as many instrumental teachers as possible who are engaged in private teaching.

If you can spare 15-25 minutes to complete the survey, that would be much-appreciated. Equally, if you are in contact with any other instrumental teachers and could forward the survey to them, that would be great!

The survey can be found here:

Work unseen

When I started this blog, I didn’t really have any clear ideas about what it was to contain or how often it was to be updated. Over the first few weeks, I wrote quite a few blog posts, but these have tapered off a bit since term started again here. As ever, life gets in the way sometimes.

It made me think though, that a lot of the work we do as PhD students is unseen. Just because we’re not talking about it, blogging about it or writing about it, it doesn’t mean that work isn’t ongoing. Perhaps the biggest part of a PhD is thinking time. I’m sure we all spend a lot of time thinking about our research, even if we’ve resolved to take some time out from actually doing it.

Perhaps as an arts/education PhD student, the work is possibly less visible. I don’t pitch up to lab each day to work, and indeed, as going into uni requires a 250-mile round-trip, I don’t exactly go there very often either! This means that a lot of my PhD work is unseen. It is happening, even if you might not visibly notice it.

Over Christmas I managed to pilot and evaluate my survey, so hopefully, the final version can be agreed soon, and then that can go live. Much work goes on behind the scenes, and when I eventually press the button for that survey to go live, it will be the culmination of many months’ work.

2016 PhD plans

It’s January 2016, and it’s now two years since I embarked on my PhD journey. Sometimes I think that in those two years, I’ve really achieved very little, but there are other times when I look back over what I’ve done with a certain amount of satisfaction.

So, what have I done in my first two years? Well, a lot of my time during the first year was taken up with ‘compulsory’ research training modules. I found that a particularly frustrating time because really, I wanted to get on with my project. I have mixed feelings about the research training, and I know others have written elsewhere about its relevance and effectiveness. Probably, the least said about that, the better!

During my first year, I conducted three semi-structured interviews with private instrumental teachers. Because of the lack of literature relevant to my topic, and as a result of that, my use of an approach rooted in grounded theory, the interviews were kept relatively broad. We discussed a lot of topics, and then through coding and analysis of the data gathered (transcribing the interviews was a HUGE task!), I was able to decide where to take the research next (in other words, the theory is rooted in the data). This analysis and subsequent writing-up ran in to 2015 too.

2015 was a slightly odd year. A good amount of time was taken up changing institution in September, and many things had to be necessarily put ‘on-hold’ while the move took place. Again, a frustrating time, but nevertheless, we got there in the end. The latter part of 2015 was taken up with planning a survey, which I have just finished piloting.

So, what does 2016 hold? Having piloted my survey, I’m now in the midst of evaluating it and making any necessary adjustments before it goes live, hopefully later this month. Decisions, in time, will also need to be made about how long the survey remains live for, and at what point, that data analysis should begin.

A big feature of my use of grounded theory has been ongoing literature review. As data is gathered, this influences the next stage of data collection, and literature review. All these elements continue to feed into one another on an ongoing basis. Certainly, in the second half of this year, I’d hope to be beginning the main analysis of the survey data.

The other, shall we say, ‘obstacle’ this year, is what’s called the ‘transfer exam’. In my case, it requires a written submission, presentation, and what is, I guess, a ‘mini viva’. In other institutions, it’s called an ‘upgrade’ and effectively establishes that your research is going in the right direction for PhD standard. In my case, successful completion of the transfer exam, would transfer me from an MPhil/PhD registration, to a pure PhD one. In some ways, I’m excited by this. Successful completion of this would, I think, give me a big confidence boost moving forward. It is, on the other hand, hugely terrifying!

So, that’s how my year is looking at the moment! As ever, much subject to change, and not everything about my PhD is in my hands.

The solo performer?

I talked briefly in my last blog post about the value of music and the need for us all to extol the benefits of music and music education. Learning an instrument is, for many, a leisure activity. The vast majority of pupils I teach will not go on to study music and even fewer will make a career out of their music. Indeed, just 2.1% of the pupils I’ve taught over the past 14 years have gone on to study music; and so far, just 0.5% have made a career out of their music (in this case, teaching). My figures are probably skewed a little as I’ve always taught a lot of adults, but even so, I suspect other instrumental teachers would report similar statistics.

The traditional focus of learning an instrument (and just for the record, I always including learning to sing with that) has been the solo performance. When I was learning, I progressed through learning a series of solo pieces of repertoire which increased in difficulty as I went on. The graded exams played their part along the way, again, the primary assessment in these being that of solo performance.

There is research which suggests we need to reconsider this; to move away from the huge emphasis placed on solo performance for instrumentalists. Burwell (2012, p. 207), through her research at Canterbury Christ Church University highlighted the desire to move away from the ‘concert soloist’ as the end result of undergraduate study, arguing that students needed to possess a much wider skill-set when the reality is that few will end up with solo performing careers. The statistics outlined above based on my own experience seem to reinforce this need.

My experience of learning very much echoes that described by Lehmann, Sloboda and Woody (2007, p. 189) whereby a student prepares pieces for a performance (in my case, usually an exam) on an ongoing basis. The problem with this approach is that it ‘develops a limited set of musical skills and strategies’ with evidence suggesting there is ‘little transfer of learning’ between pieces.

The challenge this poses us in our teaching is how do we develop a curriculum which offers pupils the opportunity to gain as wide a skill set as possible, especially skills which can be transferred to life outside the instrumental music lesson. Equally, how can we develop a curriculum which also serves those pupils who may, at a later stage, decide that further musical study, and indeed, a music career may be for them. As private teachers, we are, in theory, in a good place to do this.

These are questions I’m wrestling with in my own teaching at the moment: how do I offer instrumental tuition which is fit for purpose in the 21st century, where our lives are very different to how they were, even 10 years ago. The traditional model of children learning an instrument and coming for a weekly one-to-one lesson during school term times does not reflect the majority of pupils I teach. These are challenges which I think more and more private teachers are beginning to face, and I remain convinced that we need to develop new ways of delivering instrumental tuition.



Burwell, K. (2012). Studio-Based Instrumental Learning. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Limited.

Lehmann, A. C., Sloboda, J. A., & Woody, R. H. (2007). Psychology for Musicians: Understanding and Acquiring the Skills. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc.

Swimming upstream

In a previous post, I talked a little about doubts I’d had recently about the value of my research versus, for example, a science or medicine-based PhD. Thinking about this a bit more, I realised that it wasn’t just a feeling about my research itself, but a feeling about music education in a much more general sense.

I’ve been involved in music education, first as a learner, and then as an educator, for about 25 years. The instrumental skills and the musical experiences I’ve had, have played a huge hand in shaping who I am today. I’m not just thinking about the musical skills I now posses, but many of the life skills to. There is no doubt in my mind as to the value of music and music education. It is life-enhancing, possibly even on some occasions, life-changing, and maybe even life-saving.

There is a huge body of research to back up the value of music in our lives (far too numerous to list it all here); such articles appear on an almost daily basis. There have been numerous articles recently about, for example, the value of singing in a choir. These articles don’t just appear in academic journals, but in the general press and online too.

As an instrumental teacher, I am very aware of the power that music has to change lives because I’ve seen it firsthand. Pupils tell me regularly how much their lessons mean to them, and I am very aware of the positive effects music and learning an instrument has on their lives. I’m also aware of the emotional benefits gained just by coming to the lessons themselves (this, in particular, is an area which I think warrants further research).

That said, many working in music education will feel, as I often do, that we are swimming upstream. We constantly find ourselves as advocates for what we do, as we seek to extol the value of music and music education. Thinking about this, it’s not always easy. I’ve taught adult pupils in particular who were set on keeping their lessons and their music secret. Even with the pupils I teach who clearly love what they do and who get a lot from it, I suspect that although they might tell me that, they might not tell others so freely.

In some ways, this blog post isn’t related to my research; in fact, it’s a whole other PhD in itself! The value and benefits of music are perhaps not so easily measured as those of a new drug or medical cure. Whilst as educators we can be advocates for the value and benefits of music education, we also need the voices of the wider community too, especially the learners themselves. I wonder whether harnessing that is possibly harder than we might think?