The Learning Orchestra

In the Artful Participation project, researchers observed and intervened in the orchestra philharmonie zuidnederland. The Learning Orchestra was one of four experiments that the researchers designed and developed together with musicians and staff of philharmonie zuidnederland.

A key insight of the Artful Participation project is that if you start experimenting in the practice of the orchestra, the whole machinery starts to squeak and grind. Audience participation is not limited to marketing departments or concert formats, it involves the ways concerts are organised, how they are performed by musicians, and how they are evaluated within the orchestra. It requires a reflexivity of everyone involved in the orchestral practice: to look with fresh eyes to existing routines and ways of working. Only then you can start doing things differently.

Developing experimental or participatory concerts implies that musicians and staff of the orchestra are able to learn. How to learn in practice from the experiments that you engage in? In the experiment The Learning Orchestra, researchers developed a way to learn from the insights of the Artful Participation project including the orchestra. In this collaborative project, musicians, and staff together with researchers shared their insights and findings of the past experiments, and together developed etudes (learning exercises) by which musicians and staff could develop a variety of skills. Some 75 musicians and staff of the orchestra participated in this unique collaborative learning project.

Key lessons

  • Doing an experiment can involve different types of learning, each with its own aims, roles, and outcomes
  • Innovation and experimentation are about learning in practice, which takes time (money), effort, courage, and care
  • A challenge for learning in the practice of the orchestra, is the required shift from product-orientation to process-orientation

Learning from experiments (what we can call innovation) in practice require specific kinds of efforts by all involved. It is through making this practical work explicit that all participants can learn.

Three Types of Learning

After three years of collaborating and developing experiments in the Artful Participation project, the researchers, musicians, and staff who were involved in these experiments had quite some insights and findings. But how to share these findings with the rest of the orchestra? How to make sure these findings can ‘land’ in the daily practice of musicians and staff? How can musicians and staff learn from these insights? And how to make these insights valuable for other orchestras as well?

Three forms of learning in practice

How can we learn from doing things differently? We can distinguish between three forms of learning. A first form of learning is therapeutic learning. Therapeutic learning takes place when you, probed by an external observer, become aware of the routines, skills and knowledges that normally remain implicit and tacit in your daily activities (e.g. regarding imagined audiences or implicit notions of quality or success). This form of learning can be called therapeutic because of the traditional questioning and facilitating role of the researcher as a critical friend, slowing the practice down to reflect on it. In the experiments Empty Minds and The Bucketlist, researchers took up this role for the musicians and staff to therapeutically learn from the observations.

A second form of learning is experimental learning. Experimental Learning is a collaborative learning by developing and practicing new knowledges, skills, and ways of working. This can be by developing experiments – such as Mahler am Tisch, The People’s Salon, and Online Musicking – where established routines, roles and ways of working become challenged. Doing things differently deliberately generates a heightened reflexivity in which risks and stakes are made explicit. This can be difficult for a symphony orchestra, where routines and ways of working have a long and highly valued tradition.

Finally, there is reflexive learning. Reflexive learning takes place when reflection has become an integral part of the practice or organisation of the practitioner, which allows for improved ability to cope with uncertainties and anticipate unexpected changes. This form of learning includes a willingness, openness and desire among staff and musicians of the orchestra to do things differently in order to learn. Experiments such as “Mahler am Tisch” and “The People’s Salon” – which both combined therapeutic learning with experimental learning – can be seen as stepping stones for this reflexive learning.

Empty Minds


Setting up a Collaborative and Reflexive Learning Environment

The project The Learning Orchestra was set up to facilitate the third type of learning: reflexive learning. When sharing the findings of the conducted experiments, the researchers didn’t want to take the position of the external expert (as in a therapeutic learning context), merely sharing the results of the research with musicians and staff, who would then have to figure out what that would mean for their own practice. The expertise of both researchers and musicians and staff are needed to learn from the experiments. The researchers therefore aimed to create more equal or symmetrical playing field, just like the experiments.

A working group was formed, consisting of four researchers and ten musicians and staff-members (including the director and the artistic programmer), who were all involved in the experiments of Artful Participation. The working group worked around the central question: How can the entire orchestra learn from the shared findings and insights? The aim of this working group was to learn from the insights and experiences of all involved in the conducted experiments. In the working group, researchers as well as musicians and staff shared a responsibility for making the findings and insights relevant and valuable so that the entire orchestral practice could learn from it.

Developing Etudes Together

Between September 2020 and May 2021, five working group meetings took place, two meetings with the entire orchestra, and many smaller meetings with sub-groups. All the meetings took place online (due to the Covid-19 measures in the Netherlands at the time).

During the first meetings of the working group, participants identified four themes that emerged from the insights of the experiments: (1) mutual cooperation, (2) evaluation and artistic quality, (3) developing and executing special projects and (4) connecting with the public. These themes were all connected to experimenting with audience participation.

Based on these themes, the researchers proposed for the working group to develop learning exercises. To align to the existing forms of learning within the practice of a musician, these exercises were imagined to take the form of an etude. Etudes are learning exercises with a purpose and a form, and they are repeatable and transferable (for example, to other orchestra practices).

After having worked on these themes, a meeting with the entire orchestra was organised to present the themes and possible etudes. Other members of the orchestra (musicians and staff) were invited to sign up to work together with members of the working group on developing and executing these etudes in their daily practice. Ten study groups of about six people each emerged from the orchestral meeting. Over two months, about 75 members of the orchestra worked in little etude groups on developing a specific etude. Researchers provided the framework for this process and guided the etude groups when needed.

Eventually, based on the four themes, nine etudes were developed, including exercises to reflect on different topics and different skills: social and informal communication; critical (self) reflection; evaluation and reflection on artistic quality; decision-making in special projects; self-expression and stepping out of your comfort zone; and interact with the audience. While all etudes developed by the etude groups had learning potential, some took the form of a project proposal or an elaborate Excel-sheet, while others turned into little exercises that could be practice by musicians.

The Learning Orchestra online meeting

Lessons learnt about learning in practice

The project The Learning Orchestra had an ambitious aim: to include the entire orchestra in learning from the findings of the conducted experiments. What did we learn from this experiment in collaborative learning?

First, that there is quite some expertise present within the organisation of the orchestra – expertise, of both musicians and staff, that in normal workings of the orchestra often remains invisible. Musicians have valuable things to say about programming, evaluation, and finding new audiences, whereas staff from education have a good grasp of the skills and challenges for individual musicians when engaging in experiments. Production leaders know from experience where problems arise in the decision-making process of an experimental concert. During the sessions on the etudes, all this expertise became suddenly not only visible, but could also be mobilized when developing etudes as learning exercise.

Secondly, reflexive learning takes time, effort, courage, and care. For experiments to have an innovative and sustainable impact on the orchestra, various forms of learning are needed. It takes time and effort to learn: to become explicitly aware of implicit routines (therapeutic learning), or to learn from trying to do it differently (experimental learning). Reflexive learning – the ability of musicians and staff to cope with uncertain musical situations, and unexpected changes to their routines - also takes time and a committed combination of care and courage for all involved. What our experiments suggest, is that artistically meaningful innovation requires reflexive learning over time.

With the etudes, we aimed to integrate a form of reflexive learning in the everyday practices of both staff and musicians, in order for the entire orchestra to benefit from the insights of the experiments. This required strategic choices, such as allocating time and money in ways that might challenge the core business of the orchestra. The circumstances we found ourselves in, due to Covid-19, did help: the orchestra could not perform, so musicians and staff had more time in their schedules to work on this.

Lastly, one of the biggest challenges while developing the etudes, was to shift the mindset of musicians and staff. When working in an orchestra, with a tight planning and full schedule, musicians and staff tend to focus on the outcome: the concerts. However, learning (and especially reflexive learning) requires a focus on the process: the ways musicians and staff organise, perform, and evaluate concerts. This can be quite challenging, such a focus on process is the first thing that can be practiced by developing etudes.

Apart from the etudes that resulted from this collaborative learning project, the very process in which 75 musicians and staff of the orchestra were reflecting on their daily practice, was one of the biggest outcomes of this project. Working on the études itself is a form of collective reflexive learning, by which musicians and staff also practice the shift from a product-orientation to a process-orientation.


The project The Learning Orchestra was the final experiment of the Artful Participation project. Where earlier experiments focussed on therapeutic learning (Empty Minds, The Bucketlist) or experimental learning (Mahler am Tisch, The People’s Salon, Online Musicking), this project aimed to collaborative and reflexively learn from these conducted experiments.

Setting up a collaborative learning environment with the orchestra consisted of a lot of meetings: with a working group, the entire orchestra, and separate little task or etude groups. Developing etudes proved to be an inclusive strategy for learning: not only did it result in exercises that could be practiced by both musicians and staff (which you can find on this website as well), it also allowed musicians and staff to practice with a more process-focussed orientation. It made visible how much expertise and experience usually remains hidden within the orchestra. And through developing these etudes, key insights from the experiments of Artful Participation were made relevant for the different departments, people and place within the orchestra.

To read more about audience participation from the perspective of a researcher, read the Journey of the Innovator.


Do you want to read more about this experiment? It is described in more detail in the following academic article:

Peters, P., Van de Werff, T., Benschop, R., Eve, I. (forthcoming) Artful innovation: How to experiment in symphonic music practice. In Chaker, Sarah & Petri-Preis, Axel (eds), Tuning Up – Innovative Potentials of Musikvermittlung. Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag.



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