By Dr Nicole Canham
One of the noticeable disconnects between creative arts higher education and industry is that we train many more artists than our sector can support (Gross & Musgrave, 2020). For our graduates, this situation is often experienced as a personal failure, which comes at a formative developmental stage. Recent research on musicians’ mental health and well-being tells us that training and industry cultures can be detrimental to musicians’ health both during their studies (Demirbatir, 2015) and after graduation (Gross & Musgrave, 2020). We might have continued to gloss over these limitations were it not for COVID, which has highlighted how unworkable many people’s creatives lives became without the option to work as normal (eg. Qian, 2020). Our heightened awareness of our vulnerability, however, provides an opportunity to reflect on the consequences of the competitive learning environments we perpetuate, and to acknowledge the limitations of employability and entrepreneurship as the answer to avoiding precarity (Canham, 2021). Both ideas are hopelessly inadequate foundational assumptions for navigating the complex and dynamic conditions we are experiencing now (Canham, 2021) and many creative people are struggling to cope, let alone to make their work. It is time for new approaches.
We have a unique opportunity for renewal in creative arts higher education, particularly with regard to our understanding of our duty of care to each other. Duty of care is defined as “the obligation to avoid negligence, particularly to take reasonable care not to cause physical, economic, or emotional loss or harm to others” (Oxford Reference, 2021). The pandemic has highlighted the many ways in which creative people have been marginalised on practical and policy levels and the significant limitations of precarious work (UNESCO, 2020). These external failures of duty of care and gross policy double standards (eg.Cansdale & Webber, 2021) highlight just how vulnerable creative arts workers are and raise uncomfortable questions. Who will take the professional capital of our field seriously – not just their technical skills, but also the development of the capabilities needed for meaningful working lives? Education providers and future graduates must drive a much-needed shift in public perception of the potential role of creative people in our communities as citizens who can powerfully contribute to our collective well-being. To achieve this aim, we need to strengthen the capacities of creative people in new directions. We can no longer justify a practice of prioritising the development of individual talent without also teaching artists how to skilfully engage with a wide range of people with a depth of awareness that is currently lacking.
Creative arts education providers can meet these challenges by seeing their roles and responsibilities differently: replace learning environments built on competition, pressure, success and failure with those that are shaped by compassion, understanding and adaptability, and adopt a sophisticated and nuanced approach to teaching students how to live with complexity and precarity. It is only through shifting our collective vision in different directions that new possibilities will emerge. I have argued elsewhere that educators and researchers in the creative arts might take lessons from the career development field, and vocational psychology in particular, by viewing our students with unconditional positive regard (Canham, 2021). A compassionate creative arts higher education is also characterised by different types of listening – not just listening for who is the fastest or the best, but listening for all our students’ strengths, and listening to our community at large for what is needed. If our creative arts education spaces neglect the centrality of community and connection then our students stand to inherit at best a very empty form of virtuosity, with limited vision of how it might be harnessed or shared. Finally, we need different types of conversations about the nature of the work – not via self-exploitation and the fast track to burnout, but nuanced coursework that addresses complexity and the nature of complex systems as a way of helping students to recognise that many of the challenges they face – including precarity – are not of their own making. These approaches frame training within a much more inclusive and holistic vision of creative people’s lives and their place in the world, in which their ways of working will be just as important as the work itself.
Canham, N. (2021). Preparing musicians for precarious work: Transformational approaches to music careers education. Routledge.
Cansdale, D. & Webber, M. (2021, July 17). Anger at restrictions that ‘cripple’ live music but allow 26,000 at State of Origin. ABC News. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-07-17/double-standards-in-restrictions-says-live-music/100298668
Demirbatir, R. E. (2015). Relationships between psychological well-being, happiness, and educational satisfaction in a group of university music students. Educational Research and Reviews 10(15), 2198–2206. doi.10.5897/ERR2015.2375
Gross, S. A., & Musgrave, G. (2020). Can music make you sick?: Measuring the price of musical ambition. University of Westminster Press.
Oxford Reference. (2021). Duty of care. In Oxford Reference. Retrieved 30 September, 2021, from https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803095736968
Qian, J. (2020, November). I can’t apply for another grant. Un Magazine 14.2. http://unprojects.org.au/magazine/issues/issue-14-2/jinghua-qian/
UNESCO. (2020). Culture in crisis: Policy guide for a resilient creative sector. UNESCO.
Churchill Fellow, Dr Nicole Canham (clarinet and tarogato), is an award-winning and versatile musician who is committed to creating transformative arts and educational experiences, and to building new audiences for art music. In 2020, Nicole joined the faculty of the Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music, Monash University, as Wind Program Coordinator. In this role, she focuses on performance, teaching and scholarship. Nicole completed a PhD on the career pathways of independent, classically trained musicians in 2016, and is a qualified career development practitioner. Her new book, Preparing musicians for precarious work, has just been published by Routledge.