The “Practice-Inquiry” in the Cefedem Auvergne Rhône-Alpes: playing music, teaching people to play music, leading an inquiry

By Sandrine Desmurs and Nicolas Sidoroff.

This paper is written after two presentations in march 2018, one in the Cefedem research laboratory and one in the 6th AEC-EPARM Conference (Association Européenne des Conservatoires, Académies de Musique et Musikhochschulen, European Platform for Artistic Research in Music) in Porto: Play! A Common Ground for Artistic Research and Teaching the Arts. 
Thanks to all the participants for their questions and feed-back, a lot of precisions and footnotes came form our conversations 😉

Quick overview of the Cefedem

The DNA of Cefedem’s educational philosophy is “training by searching”. The Higher education training practices developed in our center is indeed based on John Dewey’s ideas: the theory of inquiry (1938) and the principle of “learning by doing”. For us, research includes several aspects : conducted in both artistic practices and social sciences fields, and led by trainers (to improve the curriculum) along with students (to learn by research).
Another strong point of the center is to fight against any dissociation between pedagogical training and artistic training. At the Cefedem, every musical practice has a pedagogical dimension, every question about making music is also a question about teaching/learning music.

Context of life-long learning program

At the Cefedem in general and in the life-long learning program in particular, the teaching methods lean on project-based learning: the study time is organized at the start of actions that the students have to carry out themselves, in a framework that allows it. The project-based learning involves that different works are contractualized with the students. The contractualisation of studies, as part of projects, allows both the development and the formalization of specific issues to each student, while providing a referenced frame for evaluation. This framework allows learning .
In addition, this professional development program, leading to a teaching diploma, is aimed at professionals in activity, often full-time, with an average age of 40 years.
In the beginning of the training, they write a summary of their experiences[1]; it shed light on the practices and problems that have been identified. Many elements will feed the training works and among others, the “practice-inquiry”.

“Practice-Inquiry” presentation

First of all, we have to explain our french expression “pratique-enquête”. We put two words together which both describe action. We don’t want an assymmetry between them and there is no first and second. Those two words are linked by a hyphen. For the translation, we hesitate with practising-inquiring to emphasize the journey and the processes, but we finally chose Practice-Inquiry.
With the word “practice”, we don’t mean only the instrumental homework or the rehearsal. Practice refers to “every kind of making music”.
For each student, Pratice-Inquiry consists in 3 activities : “to Play music”, “to Teach people to play music” and “to Lead an Inquiry.
This setting[2] is based on the assumption that any musical practice is undissolubly bound to the context of its development, transmission, learning and engaging in research. A musical practice necessarily mixes two dimensions – play and teach people to play – which involve specific processes within specific contexts (Becker, 1982).

The “play” dimension requires the student’s involvement in a musical practice. He or she plays music.

Figure1 - Practice inquiry

Figure1 – Practice inquiry : to play music

The “teach people to play” dimension requires involving others in a musical practice. Here again, for us : teaching doesn’t mean only someone giving lectures in a amphitheatre. This verb means all kind of activities where the student have people play in order to develop knowledge.

Practice-inquiry Figure2

Figure2 – Practice inquiry : to teach people to play music

This practice, to be completed, requires an inquiry to study its contexts and processes, history, constitution and interactions. It enables collecting and analyzing informations that the practice, alone, does not reveal.

Figure3 - Practice inquiry

Figure3 – Practice inquiry To lead an inquiry

The issue of the “Practice-Inquiry” is finally located at the intersection of the three activities (click on the image to see the animation) :

Figure4 - Practice inquiry

Figure4 – Practice inquiry : intersection

The “Practice-Inquiry” is spread over 3 semesters during the “life long-learning program”, accompanied by teacher-researcher advisor. It’s based on four major tasks:

  • contractualization : each student have to write a contract to explain how he or she plan to do his or her Practice-Inquiry with its 3 dimensions. This paper evolves as the project progresses, always in negotiation with the teacher-research advisor and his/her help.
  • action : the student is in charge of leading his/her Pratice-Inquiry. He/she schedule his/her activities, according to the program, the dead line and the appointment with the teacher-researcher.
  • publication : At the end, students are in charge of organising a public presentation to show an aspect of their practice-inquiry[3].
  • reflexive attention: each student has to submit a report retracing his/her path and research, and analyzing how the three dimensions articulate.

Students are thus a researcher (to lead an inquiry), educator (to have people play) and performer (to play). These three dimensions are interlocked and interlinked: their articulation determines the “Practice-Inquiry” concept.
In addition, the proposed framework invites each student to solicit resources to feed their work. These resources are to be understood in its broad sense, the resource can be:

  • traditional materials in academic research such as books, articles, or interviews and classic observations in the social sciences.
  • expert person: Here, expert people are not heard like the one who know at the expense of others who would not know. The student is not here in a master-student relationship. He’s talking to a professional as a professional, on specific objects and with precise questions the student has defined.
  • exchanges within the peer group (a lot of skills is available in a group of 30 professionnals!)

An example

To embody this concept, let’s talk about a practice-inquiry lead by a Cefedem student in 2014-2016 program.
Stephen is an electric guitarist playing and teaching popular music. He works in a music school located in a rural suburb of a little town. Most of his pupills are young beginners.
He enters in his practice-inquiry with a spark that mixes three questions.

  1. He has been playing gigs using jazz standards since fifteen years but feels limited because he’s always repeating himself with the same musical ideas. He feels that he’s not coming up with new ideas. He said: “I did the job and I developed skills that allowed me to do it well, despite the gaps”.
  2. He has the feeling of greater creativity in the solos of some so-called “jazz” musician.
  3. In addition, he runs a jazz workshop where he finds that his students are stuck to improvise.

Therefore, his first Practice-Inquiry contract is entitled: “Jazz Improvisation”. At the beginning, he focuses on how to make his students improvise. For him, it’s a start to “Teach people to play”[4].

Then we question him about the process: how does he do? which ways does he use? Which settings (task, instructions, constraints, resources, his positions) did he use to make his student entering into a so-called jazz-improvisation? which ways does he use, him, to improvise? which ways does other musicians use, the ones he knows, the ones with whom he has talked about that? how can other people improvise? Does he have documentations, facts, observations and/or accounts about these ways to improvise?[5] He realizes that the subject of “Jazz Improvisation” with no more details, is too big. To sharpen it, he chooses a repertoire (processes in contexts) : the music of New Orleans. This choice begins to focus a little, even if there’re some differences between the Louis Amstrong in the beginning of last century in clubs or riverboats, and the interpretation of Wynton Marsalis on big european festival stages, or today’s second-line who have joyfully taken in funk and hip-hop.

This is by his involvement in a musical practice that he defines more precisely the processes and context. To get out of the lack of new ideas, Stephen decides to start a new instrument, more melodic and with a another way of constructing the sound. He chooses the cornet, among other things because it is one of the “king” of jazzes instruments and many of his students are trumpeters. He plays and improvises with cornet, even with his students in the workshop, as a “beginner”.
And he focuses on the creation of simple melodies on the current New Orleans brass band repertoire (with first references: Rebirth Brass Band and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band).

In terms of resources, to help him in this process :

  • He meets a specialist in New Orleans music, especially the story of the blues in this town, with questions about early jazz improvisation and current brass band practices.
  • He also questions 4 trumpet players on their trumpet debut and the melodic improvisation by blowing. He also meets 2 music school teachers in other contexts of “having students to improvise” (the so-called non-idiomatic free).
  • He watchs the TV serie Treme [Simon & Overmyer, 2010-2013] and analyses the musical and social elements represented
  • He reads a few books and articles as for example Do you know…? The jazz repertoire in action by Howard S. Becker and Robert R. Faulkner (2009).

He becomes aware of the articulation of the 3 dimensions (to play, to teach people to play, and to lead inquiry) when he realizes that what he says and asks to his students could totally be said or asked to himself. During his journey, he writes that he wants to evaluate his students with questions and finally, he writes: «I could ask myself all this questions!». Since then, the virtuous circle works at full capacity.
It is therefore that he works the same musical question, since two different entries, the intelligence that he has built on one entry is transferred to another, and the inquiry comes to feed the reflection.
For the public presentation, Stephane presents a concert brass band in the street at noon, with a thoughtful process “New-Orleans in France today”. He proposes 4 pieces which are well-known for two musicians who will be there to play with him and also proposed its the very morning to who want to play. The composed team discuss the repertoire, make little rehearsal and let’s go! (and it works). He plays the cornet and makes semi-written half-improvised solos. At the end, he gives a report retracing his path and research process entitled “Improvisation through the construction of melodies (including the cornet solo) in the today’s New Orleans bands”.

During his Practice-Inquiry, Stephen developed his skills :

a better teaching ability

His initial problem was how to make his students improvising. Because his work was based on an existing musical reality, the New Orleans funk brass band, with specific and documented ways of doing things, due to his investigation (as an inquyring musician ), he implements instructions and constraints allowing his students to enter and develop a type of improvisation (as musician teaching). This experience also makes him work on the beginning in music playing and the use of improvisation in it (as a musician playing and teaching). For example, in this experience, he has learned by immersion, by playing directly, mainly in collective time and he overcame his difficulties (as breathing, tension and relaxation). So, he breaks a lot of the preconceptions of prerequisite needed before playing music.
This ability is not only the consequence of the “to teach” activity of his practice-inquiry. It is also due to his activities as musician performer and researcher and to the articulation between them.

a better artistic performance

During this Pratice-Inquiry, he was able to try and work in depth in two ways, both for himself at the cornet (musician playing), and for his students during the workshop (teachnig musician). For example, they (he and his students) have to work with sets of constraints (to use only two notes, that supports on the 2nd time, only one rhythm 332, etc.). This constraints came from his investigations (inquyring musician), encounters and musicology studies on this specific way of playing. They allow them (he and his students), to seek and to find musical ideas that they would not have otherwise. During his assessment, he explains clearly that playing cornet revisit his conception and practice of the guitar. It’s another instrument, windy, with a different need to sing and different fingerings, and so on. This highlights the limits he could have as a guitarist on the guitar. And reciprocally, it opens up possibilities to work and play differently. He also realized that he had centered his approach to the guitar on the rhythmic aspects, and that this predisposed (unconsciously until now) his way of playing and teaching.
Nowadays, he says he can develop multiple solos.
Here again, this ability is not only the consequence of the “to play” activity of his practice-inquiry. It is also due to his activities as musician teacher and researcher and to the articulation between them.

a better awareness of the world

Today’s New Orleans funk brass bands are understandable with their history in this city (in the United States) and with the social practices that are attached to it, and their evolution over time. Any action is part of a context which analysis is at the crossroads of history and sociology. At the end of his work, Stephen has pointed out the importance of the “culture” of what we do to develop an activity.
The understanding and knowledge of the culture enable to discuss about the controls and standards at work in this community, which are important elements for a person in a teaching situation (as for anyone in everyday life).
To play nowadays this kind of music in France needs a re-invention and translation. They demand knowledges that’s are not only academic or in documentations, they call also for actions of playing and teaching in his context (musician as practitioner-researcher).
This awareness is developed because of the articulation between the three activities: to play, to teach and to inquire.

Practice and theory are not separate. The musical, pedagogical and research inputs are not addressed in separate classes but in a single training, the Practice-Inquiry, that crosses them.

What kind of musician do we want to develop?

With already 2 generations of 30 students, we have 60 practices-inquiries already carried out and documented. We can now see that the articulation of this triple activities (performer, educator and researcher) builds well rounded, and open minded musicians.

Behind this settings we display one strong idea : How to build a “Practitioner-Researcher”.
Teaching doesn’t mean to deliver knowledges from someone who knows to someone who doesn’t know. Teaching means to implement and develop a number of activities that make the practitioners co-producer and co-authors of knowledge (practice in itself is a carrier of knowledges). Our student are allowed to produce research : they have the capacity to develop knowledge[6] in theirs practices.

And this is heavily political! «Indeed, the questions, both ethical and political, of any research is who will see its power enhanced by the knowledge that has been produced» (Berger, 2003, p. 21). It can be the students themselves and their pupils. We tend to the “Professionalization of students”, in the sense of a capacity of a social body determined not to be simply the performer of a knowledge, but to be, in a way, constructor of the autonomy of their action.

The artistic research we talk about in all this paper is the research we develop in the Cefedem, both for the trainers and the students : about social AND artistic practices. Our key reflexion and action is : in each situation where people makes music, there are questions about transmission and knowledges. Perhaps not only in music…

[1] To make an inventory of their (each student) previous history and to allow everyone to engage in the training, the program starts with a work of reasoned autobiography (Desroche, 1990) giving rise to a record of experience. This allows everyone to draw threads, desires, gaps with regard to a life course (both professional, personal, social, engaged,…).

[2] For us, setting is the translation of the french “dispositif”, let’s say we understand behind this word a system of tasks, instructions, constraints and ressources.

[3] All students, the class, have to organise a festival during 4 days which mixes workshops, expositions, performances, concerts, conferences, debats, etc. This different ways of presenting musical works is a big issue for us: the concert is not the only manners of showing music. It also points out some other ways to think the audience not only listening seated wordlessly in the dark.

[4] The Practice-Inquiry combines three dimensions. We describe here two other examples to avoid any modelisation: Alfred aimed to play the fender-rhodes. In his research to write his first contract, he discovers that the invention of this keyboards is linked to teaching (as a therapy to soldiers in hospital during World War II), so he moves in with a documented research on the invention of this keyboards and the teaching development along it. For him, it’s a start to “To inquire”. And Lisa wants to question the differents ways orchestrators use to arrange for a big musical ensemble. She moves in her practice-inquiry by arranging a song for a wind orchestra, after having solicited near her village such an orchestra and his conductor to play her arrangement at the end of the year. For her, it’s a start to “To play”.

[5] This questions are typical of the way we (the trainers) work with our students on their subject, whatever our specialisation about it. We could say we are « ignorant masters », supported by Jospeh Jacotot and Jacques Rancière (1991). As musician, we all can ask this questions and debate about the answers. We’re specialist of the process of learning, to go with the student on the way to produce knowledge. We’re not there to answer their questions, but to make sure they precise them all along and find some answer temporarily, for example by meeting a specialist (as a resource). Far from letting everyone “get by”, we are somehow the first partner of the student in the construction and the journey of his projects. The students regularly talk to us about it to verify the relevance and realism, but also the ambition and means to give themselves to achieve its ends.

[6] In this sentence, the preposition is also: (develop knowledge) from, with, through, by, about, in, on, of and for (theirs practices).


Becker, Howard S. (1982). Art Worlds. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Becker, Howard S. & Faulkner, Robert R. (2009). “Do you know…?” The Jazz Repertoire in Action. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Berger, Guy. (2003). “La recherche-action: épistémologie historique”. In La recherche-action – Une autre manière de chercher, se former, transformer under the dir. of Pierre-Marie Mesnier & Philippe Missotte. Paris: L’Harmattan, coll. Recherche-action en pratiques. pp. 13-26.

Desroche, Henri. (1990). Entreprendre d’apprendre. D’une autobiographie raisonnée aux projets d’une recherche-action. Apprentissages 3. Paris: les éditions ouvrières.

Dewey, John. (1938). Logic: the Theory of Inquiry. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

François, Jean-Charles, Schepens, Eddy, Hahn, Karine & Clément, Dominique. (2006). ABC, presented 2006, feb 16th at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, (published in french, “Processus contractuels dans les projets de réalisation musicale des étudiants au Cefedem Rhône-Alpes”, in Enseigner la musique n°9 et 10, Lyon: Cefedem Rhône-Alpes, 2007, pp. 173-194).

Simon, David & Overmyer, Eric E. (2010-2013). Treme [TV serie, 4 seasons]. Blown Deadline Productions, HBO Entertainment:

Rancière, Jacques. (1991). The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation. Stanford: Stanford University Press (Le maître ignorant, cinq leçons sur l’émancipation intellectuelle in 1987, Paris: Fayard, translated by Kristin Ross).

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