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Help for Artistic Self-Help

Today’s music industry needs mindful, curious and independent musicians. CEMPE’s Core Portfolio project seeks to increase music students’ awareness of their own artistic development through digital portfolios and personal guidance.

Personal guidance

The main reason why Astrid Solberg decided to sign up for CEMPE’s Core Portfolio pilot project was the prospect of being assigned a personal tutor. Being a third-year composition student at the Norwegian Academy of Music (NMH), she wanted someone to act as a sounding board to help her progress – someone with a different perspective to her instructor.

– For a student, NMH is a very safe space, almost like a fictional world. You’re given

projects to do, and you write music which is then performed in a concert. Everything always works out fine. I’ve started to think about the fact that I’ll soon be graduating. What’s life as a composer really like? I wanted to seek advice, to have someone push me to reflect and be more focused on my projects, Solberg explains.

Awareness and critical thinking

The aim of CEMPE’s Core Portfolio project is to trial digital portfolios and one-to-one mentoring as tools for reflection and development for music students. A total of 40 students across year groups and genres have volunteered to take part in the project in the 2019/2020 academic year. Each student is given access to a digital platform through the Bulb app where they can upload text, audio files, videos and pictures to highlight their artistic development and profile.

The digital portfolio serves as a starting point for the students’ discussions with their personal mentor. A total of 11 mentors are participating in the project. They are a mix of performers, teachers, freelancers and artistic researchers across different genres, most of them affiliated to NMH. Each student meets their mentor five times during the year, and every mentor works with three to four students.

Composition student Astrid Solberg has completed two of her five sessions with her mentor, the accordionist and PhD in the artistic research programme, Andreas Borregaard.

– It’s exciting because he’s actively involved in contemporary music. My job as a composer is to convey things to the musicians in the best possible way. I need them to want to perform my work, to get the idea, to get my intention. Being able to discuss these things from a musician’s perspective, with someone familiar with the field of contemporary music, allows me to see things from a different angle, Solberg says.

Exchanges across genres

For percussionist and first-year student Jonas Evenstad, the Core Portfolio has turned out to be a useful tool for raising awareness of his own artistic processes. Having a mentor dedicating their time to talk only about him and his projects also makes him feel the pressure – in a good way.

– It’s a great thing which spurs me on. On my study programme, I spend a lot of time locked away with a group of percussionists, and I get a lot of my input from them. Yet much of what I do isn’t necessarily mainstream percussion stuff. The Core Portfolio has been a good way of getting feedback on the other things I’m involved in.

As well as studying classical percussion, Evenstad performs electronica and free improvisation, alone as well as in bands and duos. Jazz singer and improvisation artist Lisa Dillan was, therefore, the perfect mentor match, according to Evenstad.

– To give an example, I played her something I’d created where I’d recorded and edited the sound of a bowl. She had a lot to say about it, and it was great fun. I’d never worked at that level with those particular things.

How important is it that your mentor works in a different field to yours?

– She has more experience of promotion and exposure, more experience of how to get your name out there and how to deal with those who make it happen – concert organisers and so on. She had a lot to say about selling yourself. I knew very little about how to get exposure.

Evenstad uses his digital portfolio as a kind of multimedia diary to chronicle his various projects in both words and sound. The idea is to allow the students to share their portfolios with other participants on the project, but for the time being only he and his mentor have access to it. The percussionist explains that he and Dillan have talked at length about what is and isn’t on display: what others get to see and what only he needs to know. He has yet to step out in front of the curtain.

– The portfolio works well as a means of communication. You don't have to talk about absolutely everything; Lisa can read the things I write and discover along the way. But it’s also useful for me as I get to sum up exactly what I’m doing. The project has helped me get a better idea of what kind of musician I am.

Widening networks

The Italian student, Giuseppe Pisano, already had a master’s in composition from the conservatoire in Naples when he moved to Oslo to study music technology with Natasha Barrett.

When preparing for his master’s exam he established practice of reflecting on and keeping up to date with his own work processes. Yet he still jumped at the opportunity to take part in the Core Portfolio project.

– The opportunity arose at a time when I felt confused about how to communicate and talk about my work. I remember applying to join a theatre project as a musician, but I didn’t have much to show for myself. I only had things to listen to, but in theatre, they want to see things. It was interesting to be able to build a portfolio focused on different ways of conveying my work.

With only three students in his study programme, Pisano was also keen to meet other musicians and students from different disciplines through meetings with fellow students and by following those students who had chosen to share their digital portfolios. The master student has also benefited greatly from talking to his mentor, the cellist and contemporary composer Lene Grenager.

– I’m part of a small team in a small department. We don’t get many opportunities to meet other students and musicians at the academy except socially. I think my social skills are pretty good but not good enough to overcome the structure

of the student dynamics here, Pisano says.

I wanted to seek advice, to have someone push me to reflect and be more focused on my projects.

Giuseppe Pisano Student

He is curious to see the results of the Core Portfolio project and envisages that over time the different elements can increasingly be tailored to reflect the students’ respective backgrounds.

– I’m older than many of the students here; I’m 28 and doing my second master’s. I constantly reflect on my work. That process has been going on for a long time. At the Bachelor's level, you learn how to build your portfolio, while on a master’s programme you are already an artist with an ongoing practice. To me, it wasn’t so much about building something, but it has been useful to be able to refine and reflect on the things I do. Carving out your path and checking that you're moving in the right direction are two different things that can be tailored to different students according to their background and experience.

Room for change

Guro Utne Salvesen and Guoste Tamulynaiteare student partners at CEMPE. Together with Ingfrid Breie Nyhus and Tanja Orning they have designed and are running the Core Portfolio project and mentoring scheme. Utne Salvesen has a master’s degree in classical voice from NMH and knows both from experience and from feedback from her peers how welcome it can be to receive guidance from someone outside your own field of expertise when you are a student.

– In my case, I happened to come across a teacher at the academy who became a sort of mentor to me. That made me make some decisions I wouldn’t otherwise have made. At the same time as setting up the Core Portfolio project, we also launched STUDENT Talks, a conversation forum for students. The forum confirmed that many students wanted to be mentored.

The project has helped me get a better idea of what kind of musician I am.

Jonas Evenstad Student

The Core Portfolio first saw the light of day in the autumn of 2018, albeit in a slightly different format to that used now. Initially, three different platforms for the portfolio were tested. The student groups were also smaller and split between one-to-one mentoring and group mentoring.

– We chose to proceed with the one-to-one mentoring and Bulb as a new platform. However, finding a platform that meets everybody’s needs is not easy. Most people nowadays have their own online storage set-up, and many of the students have asked to use their own systems instead. The feedback is fully in alignment with the premise for the project, according to Utne Salvesen. This is because CEMPE wants the students to help shape the project and improve it.

– We want the students to let us know straight away if something isn’t working, if they want to do things differently or if they have a better solution. We want to create the Core Portfolio together. We have given them an outline of the portfolio and a few pointers as to what we want them to do along with suggestions for which pages and folders they could create. Other than that, it’s up to them.

The future of the project beyond the current academic year is still uncertain, but Utne
Salvesen believes the Core Portfolio could be a valuable asset as an integrated part of NMH’s study programmes.

– We want the students to feel they have a greater degree of ownership of their own
development and studies. Having talked to my fellow students and others in my role as a student partner, it is clear to me that many of them have ideas but don’t quite know what to do with them. Many people have longed for an artistic mentor who can ask them why they make the decisions they do, why they perform the music they do, and where they want to end up.