The ‘Instrument as a Research Tool’: Spotlight on Practice-led Research

Australian-born pianist Olivia Sham is an active recitalist in the UK. She recently completed her doctorate at the Royal Academy of Music and is continuing to explore the performance of nineteenth-century music on historical keyboard instruments in relation to the modern piano. Olivia previously achieved a distinction for her MMus at the Academy, where she studied on full scholarship, and the University Medal for her BMus at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. In addition to her performing work, Olivia is currently on the academic staff at the Royal Academy of Music, and teaches piano to music students from King’s College, London. Forthcoming concerts include 1 October at Hatchlands Park, and 24 October at Fenton House – both on instrument collections.

In the second post of our Spotlight on Practice-led Research series, Olivia shares with us her experience of undertaking a practice-led doctorate focusing on Liszt performance practice.


What was your initial motivation for undertaking a practice-led research degree?

I was interested in continuing my work as a performer in a critical, practice-led research environment that would foster my desire to seek out new models in performance practice. Furthermore, having just completed my MMus, I wanted to be able to devote my attention to performing one composer—Liszt, about whose music I felt strongly. I had also begun to develop an interest in nineteenth-century historical instruments, in particular an 1840 Érard at the Royal Academy of Music, and wished to explore the use of such an instrument as a research tool.


What are your research outputs?

I produced a performance portfolio of Liszt’s music accompanied by a lengthy written commentary. The portfolio was comprised of a series of six concerts that I put on at the Academy—five solo recitals, and one a mix of solo piano and songs—that were filmed and submitted as DVDs alongside their programme notes, and also a studio-recorded disc that I edited myself.


What sort of understanding did this approach afford you that a purely written degree wouldn’t have done? How has this approach enriched your research?

This research project could not have been a purely written degree, as both the research questions and ‘answers’ emerged from my own experience of performing; the practice was situated not just as a source to be examined through writing. This approach allowed me to experiment and test ideas (e.g. those based in historical sources) in practice, and thus develop my own, modern performance approach.


What sort of assumptions are made about practice-led research?

I think there are assumptions that because practice-led research directs attention towards the processes involved in any musical practice, the quality of artistic output can end up being secondary. However, I think practice-led research can be viewed as leading towards immediate outputs that are artistically valid and make direct artistic contributions to the musical environment.


What is the relationship between your practice-based and written outputs?

In my case, the relationship was very close. The process of writing became a tool for producing the practice-based outputs; the material fed my concert programming and interpretations, and vice versa. In a sense, the commentary is like an enormous programme note for the portfolio that can offer interesting material for future performers.


What are the challenges of undertaking this kind of research?

Finding a scheduling balance was tricky, because I had to make enough time to spend at the instrument and perform, and to also read and write. It can also be difficult for this sort of research to be accepted—both by traditional ‘researchers’ and ‘performers’ (the former because the research output is in a different medium, and the latter because the combination of ‘academia’ with performance often arouses some degree of suspicion, especially if it challenges performance conventions and does not merely ‘inform’).


How do you go about sourcing literature for this kind of research?

For me, a lot of the relevant primary source material regarding Liszt (his performing style, his ideas and biography) was readily available in libraries, e.g. letters, anecdotes from students, critical press, which I sifted through to reach conclusions for my own performance use. The internet was vital in letting me see what others had already done regarding Liszt performance practice, for it allowed me to source concert programming and recordings in particular.


Did you have to undertake any specific training in preparation for your research (e.g. training in using certain methodologies)?

I’ve been training as a pianist since my childhood, and began working on Liszt’s music during my adolescence! My research training for this practice-led doctorate was also initiated during my MMus at the Academy; in particular, my postgraduate research project explored, through a concert output, a performance model that I expanded upon in much greater depth in my work on Liszt.


Was there anything you didn’t know at the beginning that you wish you knew now?

The time-scale—preparing such intensive and demanding concert programmes was all-consuming. Although I’m not sure if knowing beforehand would have changed anything.


As practice-led degrees are a relatively recent development, what sort of guidance have you needed/received from your supervisor/institution?

The research staff at the Academy encouraged and opened up ideas regarding experimentation in programming and performance interpretation, something that began in my postgraduate studies there, and which I was able to further and intensify during my doctorate. My academic supervisor, Dr Briony Williams, and the Head of Postgraduate Programmes, Professor Neil Heyde, were very helpful in organising my thoughts about the nature of my research, and how this could be structured. Of course, being placed in a conservatoire environment was a wonderful stimulus for my playing and ideas, while also enabling me to be fully aware of current performance traditions and conventions. I also received supervision from my Academy piano teacher, Professor Christopher Elton, which helped me to prepare and refine my performances.


What are your plans for life after the PhD?

I would like to take on recording projects, on both modern and nineteenth-century instruments, that continue to engage the research principles I’ve explored in my doctorate, and hopefully remain within an environment that will continue to stimulate this type of work.

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