Being talented – becoming a musician

Project leader:
Ellen Mikalsen Stabell

Project period:
2012 –

Research centre:


Music pedagogy, Talent development

Fellowship project
Ph.D. in Music Education

A qualitative study of learning cultures in music specialist programmes

The study is exploring learning cultures in classical music specialist programmes (MSP) for gifted young people up to the age of 19 years.

The three main research questions are:

  1. What are the underlying cultural assumptions and values in the learning cultures?  
  2. What learning resources are made available for students through the learning cultures?
  3. In what ways are students given access to, and how do they engage with the learning resources available?

The study is drawing on qualitative data from three different MSPs, where two are located in Norway and one in England. All three are organized by institutions for higher music education, and thus function as ‘junior departments’ of the conservatoires. The MSP activities are arranged in weekends and afternoons, as students attend the MSP in addition to their regular school.

The programmes offer individual instrumental lessons, chamber music, chamber orchestra and/or symphony orchestra, musical awareness classes and concerts. Entrance to the programmes is upon competitive auditions, and many students continue into higher music education.  

The research design is a qualitative collective, instrumental case-study (Stake, 1995). Data has been gathered through extensive observation of various MSP activities, informal conversations during the observation period, semi-structured individual interviews with 6 teachers and 16 students whom I also observed in lessons, and document studies of available documents from the three programmes. All students and teachers participating as informants for the study play classical violin or cello, and students are between the age of 14 and 18 years old.

Key concepts addressed in the study are learning cultures, learning resources, positioning, access and agency (Bourdieu, 1977, 1990; Wertsch, 1998). The concept of Learning cultures is inspired by the work of James and Biesta (2007) and Perkins (2011). Similar to these studies, the present study combines sociocultural learning theory (Wenger, 1998; Wertsch, 1998) with Bourdieu’s thinking tools of habitus, capital and field (Bourdieu, 1977, 1990; Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992).

Learning cultures

I have searched for underlying assumptions and values that are taken-for-granted in the learning cultures, or that which characterises the doxa of the MSPs (Bourdieu, 1977). Addressed in the study are for example assumptions of talent, assumptions of beneficial activities and assumptions of success. Learning resources are understood as resources made available through the culture, that become tools for students’ musical development when they are being used (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Wertsch, 1998). These include resources found in a teacher’s teaching strategies, in the repertoire used, in the relationships formed among peers or resources found in playing together or listening to others on concerts.

Positioning, access and agency are concepts drawn from the work of Bourdieu, applied in this study to explore the relation between students’ positioning inside the learning culture, their access to resources, their future dreams and their room for agency.

Learning cultures are understood as both promoting certain kinds of learning, while ignoring or making other kinds of learning difficult. It furthermore problematises that various learners have various access to learning resources, depending on their position inside the hierarchy shaped in the learning culture (James & Biesta, 2007).

The strength of the present study hopefully lies in its ability to discuss that which is ignored and forbidden inside the learning cultures of MSPs, as well as that which is valued and aimed for.

Selected references

Bourdieu, P. (1977). Outline of a theory of practice (Vol. 16). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1990). The logic of practice (R. Nice, Trans.). Oxford: Polity Press.

Bourdieu, P., & Wacquant, L. J. D. (1992). An invitation to reflexive sociology. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Hodkinson, P., Biesta, G., & James, D. (2007). Understanding learning cultures. Educational Review, 59(4), 415-427.

James, D., & Biesta, G. J. J. (2007). Improving learning cultures in further education. London: Routledge.

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning : legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Perkins, R. L. (2011). The construction of 'learning cultures' : an ethnographically-informed case study of a UK conservatoire: University of Cambridge.

Stake, R. E. (1995). The art of case study research. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage.

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice : learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wertsch, J. V. (1998). Mind as action. New York: Oxford University Press.

Project leader


Ellen Mikalsen Stabell

Academic Affairs and Research

Last updated: 28. April 2014