NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

Musicking Alone: Learnings from a tertiary music institution in lockdown

The lockdown that occurred as a result of COVID-19 from March 20, 2020 saw higher music education institutions grappling with how to adapt to teaching in an online context. From the perspective of a performance-based music institution, one year on, this article re-evaluates the challenges relating to embodied peer learning most evident in ensemble classes.

By Professor Vanessa Tomlinson, Associate Professor Donna Weston, Dr Leah Coutts and Dr Diana Tolmie 

The lockdown that occurred as a result of COVID-19 from March 20, 2020 saw higher music education institutions grappling with how to adapt to teaching in an online context. From the perspective of a performance-based music institution, one year on, this article re-evaluates the challenges relating to embodied peer learning most evident in ensemble classes. In the Australian Conservatoire which is the focus of this article, around 80% of student learning activity is embedded in ensemble playing, rehearsals and performances across the popular music, classical, musical theatre, and jazz realms. A survey of students and staff at this institution, titled Musicking Alone, was conducted after the first six weeks of online learning.

Conservatoires offer more than simply high-level teaching which can in many instances be moved to the online environment; they offer a purpose-built environment to enact musical learning inclusive of infrastructure, peers and mentors which is challenging to replicate in an online environment.

Through the survey most students articulated that in working from home, they had more time to practice and create within a more focused and flexible learning environment and developed a new appreciation for tools such as for critical reflection through video feedback. Second and third year students tended to view the increased reliance on self-motivation and independent learning as a positive outcome of the lockdown, while first year students found this challenging. This difference is likely due to first year students not yet having the training to develop into autonomous learners, which occurs both implicitly and explicitly through their music lessons (Carey et al. 2018). In contrast, those later in their programs will have received at least one year of face-to-face support and guidance in developing these skills.

All students cited the physical conservatorium facilities – concert halls, practice rooms, instruments, recording studios, rehearsal rooms – as being an important component of their decision to study at a university, and the loss of access negatively impacted their student learning experience. Conservatoires offer more than simply high-level teaching which can in many instances be moved to the online environment; they offer a purpose-built environment to enact musical learning inclusive of infrastructure, peers and mentors which is challenging to replicate in an online environment. This was reflected in the survey data, which highlighted the loss of ensembles and collaboration as the most significant impact on students’ learning.  For example, in response to the question “is there anything specific to your particular area of study that you feel has its own particular challenges?”, 82% of students highlighted difficulties associated with ensemble playing and lack of peer connection in practice. This loss of embodied synergistic learning could not adequately be replicated in the online environment and as such, at a time where the push for online learning is growing, builds a case for the importance of on-campus learning for musicians.

There are three pillars to students’ music-making learning: time with their teachers; interpersonal, collaborative experiences; and access to facilities and infrastructure. When faced with another lockdown, two of these pillars are removed.

The field of music, and in particular music performance, presents particular challenges when experienced as a practical pedagogical activity in the online environment. Ensemble playing is more than playing together “in real time”. As an embodied practice, so much of the interaction has to do with subtle cues and gestures which relate to elements such as micro-timings, breathing, the weight of the bow, the strike of the mallet or the inhale of the singer. These in-person relational interactions are also reflected in inter-personal energy, responding to the space between individual bodies, and the vibrations inside the space itself (see Schiavio and Høffding, 2015). A sense of gestural mirroring is also taking place, resulting in what we hear externally as “togetherness” or “groove”. When this layer is missing, the “magic” or collective collaborative sense-making of a musical experience can easily be lost (McGuiness and Overy, 2011).

For students who have developed a sophisticated and developed sense of self-awareness in their practice, it is possible to separate out the act of music-making – togetherness and communication through a unified energy, from the craft of instrumentalism – developing mechanics and technique on an individual instrument (Tomlinson & Wren, 2017). In the online learning environment these particular students can concentrate on elements of their practice that translate well in that medium and still feel a sense of forward momentum and accomplishment in their development. However, for those in their first year at the conservatorium, the data clearly demonstrated that they were struggling to find satisfaction in their music-making. This frustration appeared to be exacerbated by the lack of pre-existing friendships and peer support networks, as exemplified in this response: “it’s also really hard as a first year to even develop those connections. I knew no one going at the start of the year, and only just started to develop some friendships, but since being online, it’s been hard to continue with those connections as well.”  Without a developed awareness of self-directed music-making, they also grappled to develop personal practice habits that could lead to positive musical outcomes. Even in the 1-to-1 teaching and learning environment, goal setting, motivation and independent practice became a challenge for these students still developing a relationship to their instrument, their teacher and their cohort.

These difficulties were perhaps most acutely amplified in the ensemble setting where the malleability of organic musical time, tuning and pacing were extremely hard to attain online. One can conclude that live-ness in music and in the training of musicians is a unique experience. Music making is so often about the space between – between sounds, people, spaces and places – and these cues are the “in-flux” elements that keep musicians in the active state of negotiation while playing. Online, students and academics were required to reflect upon and find new ways to activate these in-between spaces to maintain a nimble, flexible, nuanced awareness of the self and the others.

Given that lockdowns can happen at any time, these insights provide a re-evaluation of what is embedded in the learning experience for students in ways that we had not clearly articulated pre-COVID. There are three pillars to students’ music-making learning: time with their teachers; interpersonal, collaborative experiences; and access to facilities and infrastructure. When faced with another lockdown, two of these pillars are removed. This creates the need to explicitly teach the non-verbal skills that would otherwise be learned implicitly through embodied experiences and to find new ways to support students’ development. This in turn might also compensate for the lack of access to facilities, motivating students to continue to engage with their music-making despite the change in environment.

It is clear that creating music and teaching creating requires a largely face-to-face culture for optimal outcomes. Tertiary music institutions, however, are not immune to the need to remain adaptable to circumstance. The COVID pandemic has demonstrated that educators need to look for creative opportunities to create – not replicate – an online ensemble learning environment which aligns with the required learning outcomes without the expectation of embodied musicking. This also provides an opportunity to re-evaluate the learning outcomes themselves, making explicit the skills associated with embodied learning. Further evaluation and evolution will be required to transform teaching practices and understand whether they adequately compensate for the deficits online teaching creates. 


Carey, G., L Coutts, C Grant, S Harrison, R Dwyer (2018). “Developing a shared understanding of optimal learning and teaching in the tertiary music studio”. Music Education Research 20(4), 399-411. 

McGuiness, A. & Overy, K. (2011). “Music, consciousness, and the brain: music as shared experience of an embodied present”. In D. Clarke & E. Clarke (Eds.), Music and consciousness: Philosophical, psychological, and cultural perspectives (p. 245–262). Oxford University Press. Oxford. 

Schiavio, A & Høffding, S. (2015). “Playing together without communicating? A pre-reflective and enactive account of joint musical performance”. Musicae Scientiae, 19(4), 366–388. 

Tomlinson, V., & Wren, T. (Eds.). (2017). Here and Now: Artistic Research in Music: An Australian Perspective. Intelligent Arts. New York. 

Professor Vanessa Tomlinson is the Deputy Director of Queensland Conservatorium Research Centre and is program director of the Doctor of Musical Arts. In addition she is Head of Percussion and contributes to many different areas of the curriculum. Vanessa is an active performer, composer, improviser, curator and artistic director primarily working on large scale, site specific sound-based work. 

Associate Professor Donna Weston is Deputy Director Learning and Teaching and Head of Popular Music at the Queensland Conservatorium, Griffith University. She is a board member of the International Society for Music Education and the Association for Popular Music Education, and a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. Donna’s research interests span popular music education, ecomusicology, and social justice in higher education. Most recently, she was sole editor of a special issue of the journal Music Education Research – An Ecology of Musical Livelihoods (2020) – and is currently editor of a special issue of the Journal of Popular Music Education – Popular Music Education and the Politics of the Natural World  (forthcoming).

Dr Diana Tolmie is Senior Lecturer of Professional Practice at the Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University passionately teaching performance, pedagogy, musicians’ health and vocational preparation. Her teaching excellence and curricular design with her My Life as a Musician courses has been recognised and awarded an AEL Group Learning & Teaching Citation (2014), a Highly Commended in the “Employability within the Curriculum” category of the Griffith University Awards for Excellence in Teaching (2016) and a University Australia Citation for Outstanding Contribution to Student Learning (2018). Currently endorsed by D’Addario Woodwind, Diana is looking forward to her continued freelance performance career and research publications. 

Dr Leah Coutts is the Program Director for the Bachelor of Music and Lecturer in Music Learning and Teaching at the Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University. Her research focuses on innovative pedagogies to enhance student engagement and learning outcomes within Higher Music Education, including Students as Partners. Most recently Leah has turned her attention to exploring music’s role in communicating messages of social change, with a focus on the activist-musician. She strongly believes such insights can not only inform curriculum decisions within HME but also align with the increasing need for tertiary music institutions to critique their own roles within society and the values inherent within their programs.

More from this issue

More from this issue

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In 2019, nearly 500 women over fifty participated in a photography event called 500 Strong. Photographer Ponch Hawkes photographed these women posing nude in studio spaces in Melbourne and in Victorian regional towns … to fashion a dialogue about women’s bodies that avoided the clichés of decline and loss, but as an artistic challenge to reimagine ageing representation.

It is well-known musicians enjoy their art form because it blends challenge and satisfaction: playing with a high-level of motor and musical refinement, while facilitating important self-to-other transactions linked to social cohesion, and implicit and explicit wellbeing outcomes. In the early months of 2020, the world went into a self-imposed lock down in response to Coronavirus, and many musicians watched as their whole performance calendars disappear overnight.