The Innovator as Observer and Experimenter

There are many ideas and concepts of innovation. In the Artful Participation project, we defined innovation not as clever inventiveness or as technological newness. Rather, we treated innovation as resulting from the capability to learn. To innovate the symphony practice, then, means to cultivate, strengthen and deepen the capability for learning of both musicians and staff. How can you as innovator facilitate and stimulate this learning?

Three forms of learning in practice

There are many ways to learn, but in our project we identified three forms. A first form is called therapeutic learning. Therapeutic learning requires an external observer, a ‘therapeut’. The therapeut asks musicians and staff about the routines, skills and knowledge that normally remain implicit and tacit in their daily activities. For example, this can be about routines of organising or evaluating a concert, or expectations and ideals about what makes a good concert. This form of learning can be called therapeutic because the involved observer (or researcher) takes the role of a critical friend, whose questions invite to reflect on the practice.

A second form of learning is experimental. Experimental learning results from designing and practicing new knowledges, skills and ways of working. This learning can take place when developing new and experimental concerts where established routines, roles and ways of working are challenged. Examples in the Artful Participation project are Mahler am Tisch, The People’s Salon, and Online Musicking. Doing things differently deliberately, generates a heightened awareness of risks and. This can be difficult in a symphony orchestra, where routines and ways of working have a long and highly valued tradition.

Rehearsals for Mahler am Tisch

Finally, there is reflexive learning. Reflexive learning takes place when the capacity to reflect has become an integral part of the organisation of the orchestra. Reflection that is embedded in the organisation allows it 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. This third type of learning is discussed in Theme 2: Cultivating Reflexivity within the Orchestra. Here, we address possible roles of the innovator as a facilitator of both therapeutic and experimental learning.

Learning by Observing

Therapeutic learning requires the ability to closely observe mundane situations. This ability is key to the social science method of ethnography. Ethnographers learn to observe a situation without assuming that they already know what is going on – as if it were a culture foreign to them. This involves training, because we depend on routines in our daily activities. Our daily life goes smooth, precisely because most of our behaviour, norms, expectations and ideals remain unquestioned. As observer in the orchestra, you critically question these implicit knowledges and routines of musicians and staff, in order to make them explicit – also for others. Only after becoming aware of such implicit knowledges and routines can you imagine them differently – and experiment with them.

For example, in the experiments Empty Minds, The Bucketlist and La Grande Bouffe, researchers closely followed the organisation, performance and evaluation of these concerts. They did this by attending meetings, and asking critical and open questions to musicians, staff, the programmer, artistic partners, production leaders, and others involved. Questions such as: Why is this important? What do you mean with ‘quality’? What idea of the audience do you have now? Why? What are possible risks here? How do you know this? When is this concert successful? When not?

Artful Participation researchers at Empty Minds concert

The aim of taking the role of observer as ‘therapeut’ is not just to problematize ongoing projects. It is to make musicians and staff aware of what in their daily practice remains unarticulated. You can do that as an innovator by focussing on uncertainties and risks, by imagining forms of resistance, by critically monitoring what counts as successful and how that might shift, and by tracing how musicians and staff adapt to changes throughout the process. The goal is to stimulate reflection on existing ways of organising a concert. Asking questions about audiences can result in different kinds of reflections about regular ways of organising, performing, and evaluating concerts.

Learning by Experimenting

After acknowledging how audiences are already present in the organisation, production, rehearsals, performance, and evaluation of classical music concerts, you can imagine and experiment with different ways to address audiences in the orchestral practice. Your role as innovator shifts: you become an experimenter who actively designs and performs an experimental or participatory project.

Experimental projects are not only ways to develop new concert formats, but they are designed learning moments: you experiment in order to learn from it. This means that you should monitor the process while executing the experiment. This makes your role as experimenter especially challenging. It involves a mindset that differs from the ways musicians and staff develop regular concerts. When working in an orchestra, with a tight schedule, musicians and staff tend to focus on the outcome: the concerts. But learning also requires a focus on the process: the ways you, together with musicians and staff, organise, perform, and evaluate concerts.

An example is the Mahler am Tisch experiment. This experiment challenged routine ways of working in the orchestral music context that are geared towards creating a predictable and relatively risk-free performance environment. For many musicians in the project, diverting from this endangered the musical quality of the final performance. Trying to play safe hampered musical experimentation. Similarly, in the experiment The Learning Orchestra, researchers found that musicians and staff focussed on finding solutions for problems, which got in the the way of reflecting on what the problem is actually about.

Experiments can cause friction and frustration. This is not necessarily undesirable: friction, frustration and problems are indicators that something is at stake, and thus that there is potential for learning. Expectations, concerns, and ideals (between musicians, staff and you as experimenter) may differ, divert, or converge in the process. Often, you have to find a balance between the musical quality of the performance and the openness and other qualities of the experiment. As experimenter, it is your task to shift the focus from frustration towards learning from the emerging situation.

Finally, monitoring how the audience is made artistically relevant in the process requires special attention. What comes to count as desirable audience participation in your experimental project – where, when, under what conditions, and for what ends and for whom – is not given. Especially in collaborative experimental or participatory projects, what a desirable form of audience participation is, is bound to change due to adaptations of the project. How the audience becomes artistically (ir)relevant in the project, should therefore be continuously questioned and made explicit.


What can musicians and staff learn about their own practice when involving audiences in the organisation, performance, and assessment of symphony music? As innovator, you can take different roles to facilitate different types of learning. The roles of observer and experimenter involve facilitating ways that involved musicians and staff can learn from both regular and experimental or participatory projects. Invoking the audience, either in imagined form or through participatory projects, can help as propeller for learning, as it has consequences for the ways concerts are organised, performed, and evaluated.

Musicians and researchers during Online Musicking.

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. (2022) 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.



Benschop, R. & Peters, P. (2009). Samen Innoveren. naar een Europees niveau in de podiumkunsten, Maastricht: Zuyd Hogeschool.

Hommels, A., Peters, P. & Bijker, W.E. (2007). Techno therapy or nurtured niches? Technology studies and the evaluation of radical innovations. Research policy, 36(7), 1088-1099.

Iedema, R. Mesman, J. & Carroll, K. (2013). Visualising health care practice improvement: innovation from within. London: Radcliffe Publishing.

Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development (Vol. 1), Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Schön, D.A. (1984). The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action (Vol. 5126). New York: Basic books.

Continue your journey

Cultivating Reflexivity within the Orchestra

Artistically meaningful innovation requires reflexive learning over time. Reflexive learning is the capability of musicians and staff to anticipate uncertain musical situations and unexpected changes to their routines. How to stimulate and embed this reflexive learning in the everyday practices of both musicians and staff of the orchestra? What does it take to reflexively learn over time?

Explore theme 2
Explore Etudes

Practice exercises to learn skills needed for audience participation!

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