III Coaching Research

What is research coaching within the NAIP-programme about?

1. Introduction

A coach’s role spans from grasping ideas, listening, discussing possible developments, being available and close to the student’s research – to taking a step back letting the student lead when needed. When coaching a master thesis or a final research project, which might consist of several steps of different sizes, the coach’s role has to be flexible, adjusting both to how the student’s research develops as well as the size of the different steps and the tempo of their development.

This document addresses the role of the research coach, primarily within the NAIP programme, but will also be relevant for coaches who are connected to other master programmes within the musical field, either of performing or theoretical character. Since the NAIP programme works in different countries and institutions this following text gives some general perspectives on research coaching within NAIP rather than meeting concrete needs of specific institutions.

Coaching innovative practice

The aim of the Music Master for New Audiences and Innovative Practice is to provide "future professional musicians with the knowledge and skills to become artistically flexible practitioners able to adjust to a wide range of societal contexts" (www.musicmaster.eu). 

At a time when conditions for job prospects are changing, it is necessary to underline the need for future musicians to be adaptable to various contexts. This process toward a professional life within a manifold musical field needs proper coaching from a competent coach, which leads to the core question of this text: What is research coaching within the NAIP programme about?

The following text aims to draw some guidelines for how it might be possible to empower the research coach within the NAIP programme as well as within other musical masters programmes. We use the following sources: relevant literature, our own experience with coaching research, a questionnaire we distributed amongst selected research coaches from three of the institutions offering NAIP (Prins Claus Conservatorium in Groningen, Royal Conservatoire in The Hague and Iceland Academy of the Arts in Reykjavík), and a group discussion carried out with three NAIP students from the same institutions. In this group discussion the students talked about their expectations and experiences of their research within the NAIP programme.

2. Exploring terms and roles

Different European languages make use of different terms; supervisor, coach, mentor, betreuer, conseiller, handledare, leiðbeinandi or veileder, just to mention a few. Some terms indicate that one part is superior, others indicate leading by hand or taking care. A research coach has manifold roles: She/he has to be knowledgable about the research field in order to support the student`s research project; the coach also enables the student to closely connect his/her research with her artistic practice; and she/he facilitates a fruitful coaching environment in which the student gains confidence.  As we can see, the coaching process often has aspects and qualities of mentoring. In some NAIP-institutions the research coach indeed figures as a mentor, in others those different roles are separated. Nevertheless, research within NAIP in general will never be “just” about research – it is always connected to the student as a young artist and the development of his/her artistic practice.

In this text, we have decided to use the term coach, but we encourage the reader to have in mind other terms, which might give a fruitful starting point of different ways of looking at coaching and the coach’s role.

Peter Renshaw’s spectrum

As already stated, the role of a coach might take several forms – due to individual processes, relationships with single students and/or groups, different steps in the coaching process and concrete purposes and goals of the process. Peter Renshaw (2009) presents ten different roles a mentor can take on. Although Renshaw elaborates on mentoring, we find it useful to reflect on his thoughts in our exploration of the research coach’s role within a NAIP-programme. Below is an extract of Renshaw’s descriptions:

  • Buddying – an informal, friendly process of sharing experiences and insights.
  • Shadowing – a way of learning about a role with the purpose of gaining experience through shadowing and observation. This might take the form of peer-to-peer conversation.
  • Counselling – involves “conversation about personal development issues that might arise from professional practice”.
  • Advising – implies more concrete conversations and advices about professional issues that arise from practice.
  • Tutoring – is also based on dialogue, described as “a goal-orientated activity aimed at fostering the understanding and learning of knowledge through the process of questioning, critical dialogue”.
  • Instructing – “comprises a didactic form of imparting and passing on specialist knowledge and skills with little scope for dialogue”.
  • Facilitating – is “a dynamic, non-directive way of generating a conversation aimed at enabling or empowering a person(s) to take responsibility for their own learning and practice”.
  • Coaching – an enabling process aimed at “enhancing learning and development with the intention of improving performance in a specific aspect of practice”.
  • Mentoring – “a more developmental process, including elements of coaching, facilitating and counselling, aimed at sharing knowledge and encouraging individual development. It has a longer-term focus designed to foster personal growth (...)”.
  • Co-Mentoring – “a collaborative learning process in which both partners engage in an equal exchange of knowledge, skills and experience in relation to a clearly defined shared focus”. (Renshaw 2009, p. 2-3).

As the description above demonstrates, Renshaw’s ten terms are to a certain extent linked. They also indicate various attitudes and approaches from the coach’s side. Some of the terms are based on conversation, some are closer to practice, some are short-term and some usually take place over a longer time period – especially when it comes to mentoring.

In his elaborations Renshaw illuminates the special case for mentoring in the creative field. We see it as equally important to consider it in a coaching process with or amongst creative persons:

When mentoring creative practitioners it might be more appropriate to include non-verbal dialogue or exchange. Most artists have chosen their art form as their primary means of communication. In general, they connect with each other through engaging in individual or shared creative practice and less through verbal, analytical, reflective processes. This could affect the dynamics of the mentoring relationship. Their inner creative voice can sometimes best be illuminated by observing or listening to how they engage in creative practice, rather than just talking about it (ibid. p. 4).

Other perspectives on the coach-student relationship

Olga Dysthe (2006) presents another approach to the role of a coach in her exploration of the supervisor as a teacher, partner or master. She addresses the teaching model, the partnership model and the apprentice model as three different models for coaching (Dysthe 2006). The first, the teaching model, can be viewed as a relationship where the teacher beholds certain knowledge that the pupil is exposed to. The second, the partnership model, implies a more balanced relationship, which is based on a common responsibility for the research results, even though the knowledge and experience of the two individuals are uneven. The third approach, the apprentice model, origins from practice based professions, where the apprentice learns by observation and participation. This position embraces to a certain extent that the knowledge is not necessarily articulated in words, and the apprentice is an active participant in a community of practice.

Although Dysthe’s approach is based on supervision of rather traditional research, we find this trichotomy relevant also for research within the NAIP programme, as the three models might shed light on different roles and attitudes. This position embraces to a certain extent knowledge that not necessarily is articulated in words, and the apprentice take part in a community of practice.

Different descriptions of the coach’s roles and attitudes has to indicate different roles and attitudes for the student. In Effective teaching in higher education Brown and Atkins(1988) present the 11 roles of the supervisor:

• Director • Facilitator • Adviser • Teacher • Guide • Critic • Freedom giver
• Supporter  • Friend • Manager • Examiner (Brown and Atkins, 1988, p. 120).

Brown and Atkins underline that the role one takes on as a supervisor has implications for the research student. They give several examples of different complementary roles. Below is an extract of those relevant for our text here:

  • Teacher – Pupil
  • Expert – Novice
  • Guide – Explorer
  • Colleague – Colleague
  • Friend – Friend (ibid. p. 121).

These examples suggest that the coach’s different attitudes might impact on the student’s interpretations of his/her role, which might influence how the coaching process is carried out.

Considering this way of thinking, the coach’s role and attitude will reflect the student’s role and attitude – and the other way round. And due to the features of a coaching process and individual differences, the roles will change over time.

Content coach and method coach

Within the NAIP programme some of the institutions have chosen to distinguish between content coach and method coach. The first one will supervise the content of the student’s research and works together with other involved teachers, while the method coach supervises the methodological aspects of the research (Bisschop Boele, 2015). One of our informants, a coach, gives this description of the difference between the two: “Very briefly: The method coach focuses on the how, and the content coach on the what, why, when of the research.” The content coach brings in his/her competences of the actual field, while the method coach helps in mapping out the research. In this process the collaboration between the two coaches and the student is a crucial issue. Another one of our informants, also a coach, states that a content coach and a method coach “are always parallel and need to be addressed simultaneously. In practice based research there needs to be a constant awareness about the direction and how it relates to the practice" (...) The individually based nature of the NAIP programme demands that there is a seamless consensus between practical and theoretical sides of the work, as neither can be without the other.” And even though the collaboration between “the two sides” sometimes might cause complex and difficult situations for the student, one of our coaches still underlines that he has “not come across a way of coaching that would be worse than none.”

One of the students talks about his experience with his method and content coaches: “We need to have focused questions, so now my question is open and very focused. We have very clear goals, very supported by a lot of coaches, they are very good in that.”

Several coaches might also gather in a cluster – for instance to establish a team which commonly can support their student(s), or to share coaching experiences with the aim of empowering their coaching skills.

The perspectives presented above might be carried out through individual and/or group coaching.

Individual and group coaching

Individual coaching implies a relationship between a coach and a student, while group coaching involves a group of students facilitated by one (or sometimes a team of) coach(es). The latter setting opens for peer-coaching and peer-learning amongst the students, for instance regular “master circles”. In addition to pure research matters, the master circles also might facilitate a discussion about issues and challenges besides the research which can also appear during a master’s study. One our interviewees gives the following description of participating in master circles – interestingly, here the student talks about mentoring, which again shows us the close connection between those roles of a coach and a mentor to which we referred earlier in the text.

In the master’s circles, that is not that you have to talk about research and PIP – our mentor talks about whatever there is with us. It is actually a mentoring – so I know some of my colleagues are completely down and talk about life in general (...) sometimes it feels like group therapy (laughing).

This quote also shows, that the quality of mentoring in coaching processes often involves a broader and more general approach to aspects appearing in a student’s learning process and the students lives.

During the two-year study programme it might be fruitful for both the coach and the student to participate in different coaching situations - and explore different roles as described above. To give – and to get – feedback, is at the heart of teaching and coaching processes and it is generally a challenging and sensitive process. To give and to get feedback in front of a group of peers can very easily become an awkward, or even hurtful experience. Here the coach has the responsibility for creating and laying the ground for respectful and trusting communication, where feedback becomes constructive “food” in the research process of the student. But how can a coach lay such trustful ground? We will now give a presentation of one concrete group coaching technique, developed by the American dancer Liz Lerman.

Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process

Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process is a method for creating a fruitful environment for useful and constructive feedback. The method is based on group discussions with the aim of letting the artist hold artistic ownership of his/her material during a feedback process. Lerman calls this “critical sessions in the control of the artist” (Lerman, 2003). Those sessions are led by a facilitator and consists of four steps. They will be addressed in part IV, practical approaches. The method is based on collaborative learning and is rooted in open and neutral questioning, rather than concrete instructions. The aim is to encourage the students/artists to have the steering wheel for their artistic development in “in a way that pushes the artist’s thinking forward” (ibid. p. 11).

The background which this method grew from, is Lerman’s own experience with instructive feedback as insufficient for development of creative processes within the field of art. She states that “fixits” might be unfruitful in a creative process: “When asked to respond to work in progress, it is remarkable how quickly we slide from observation, into opinion, and then to a ‘fixit’ that is, a directive for a change”, and continues “(…) fixits often channel a very positive intent on the part of the responder. But they can be problematic for the artist” (ibid. p. 42). Lerman wanted to create an environment where artists’ “creative muscles” develop.

Lerman underlines that it takes time for the participants to be familiar with the method, but when the participants are confident with the roles and steps, the method can make a basis for artistic growth. Within the NAIP programme, this method can be a useful tool in group coaching in which the participants train and experience their ability to respond, rather than to criticise.

Coaching as a creative learning process

In Towards a Shared Image Karin Johansson writes that supervision in artistic research “cannot be limited to hierarchical one-to-one relationships, where senior professors provide novices with necessary tools for mastering a given task” (Johansson 2015, p. 74). She states that “[r]elationships in artistic research supervision are bound to be complex and untraditional” (ibid.) and underlines that the process should be focused on collaboration and mutual learning. Although her paper is addressing PhD supervision, we find her thoughts relevant because her exploration of relations and creative processes has transferable value to the NAIP programme. Johansson describes supervision as a combination of four aspects: making the candidate pass, conducting artistic collaborations, evaluating artistic development and quality and creating a safety zone. This leads back to our core question: What is coaching within NAIP programme about?

3. What is research coaching about?

In the following part we introduce some aspects research coaches might meet in their work with NAIP students. The information given here is based mainly on the questionnaire we distributed amongst research coaches already taking part in the NAIP programme as well as on literature. We also include the results from the group discussion we carried out with three NAIP students.

Goals of research coaching

Within the NAIP programme it is difficult to coach just the research of the student, without seeing the research in close connection to the students artistic development. Even more than in traditional research coaching, the coach needs to follow the genuine interests, processes and questions of the student. The projects NAIP students choose for their PIP – their final presentation – are usually a very personal expression of their creativity and personality.

During the interview, one of the NAIP student presented her inner motivation as fundamental for her choice to attend the NAIP course and choosing being a musician as her profession:

I don’t want to be stuck in this "I am a musician and that is it". It will be really nice to share as much as possible with other different ways to communicate, because all the arts are just ways of communication. If I draw something, it is like if I play something. Of course, the people react in different ways, but it is the same – you are sending a message to someone! I don’t think, we have to be stuck to our own world! But the more we can get information, we can enrich ourselves by also other disciplines – and this is my aim for now.

We can recognize some common issues in coaching research, beyond the personal or artistic matters. Coaching research is about:

  • Taking the students perspective as a starting point – trying to understand the student and the topic that the student is interested in – what fascinates him/her?
  • Helping the students to find and focus on one research question within his or her NAIP research project (bringing the student’s “general interest” for one topic down to a concrete research question, open but focused).
  • Helping to limit the student`s research interests to do-able bits.
  • Supporting and following the student in the process of answering his or her main question (the question might change within the process).
  • Bringing focus to the project.
  • Supporting the student by finding “the right way of arguing” in his or her research context.
  • Supporting the student by connecting his or her project to the society around him and to the research already existing.
  • Helping the student to document and disseminate the process and the results – being knowledgeable about documentation and dissemination of research.

Positive learning environment(s)  

To reach the goals mentioned above, it is essential that the research coach establish a positive learning environment: An environment which both the student and the coach find fruitful.

Renshaw (2009) spells out the general conditions of a positive learning environment. Those conditions we see as well as basics in effective and fruitful coaching relationships. Renshaw gives here the following list:

  • Developing a non-judgemental, non-threatening working relationship based on empathy, trust and mutual respect.
  • Establishing a safe, supportive learning environment.
  • Creating conditions that encourage openness, honesty, informality and risk-taking.
  • Defining boundaries and ground rules before commencing the process, by drawing up a mentoring or learning agreement.
  • Building rapport and a clear understanding of who does what and why.
  • Allowing the person being mentored (the mentee) to determine their own agenda, to select their shared focus and shape their process of learning. (Renshaw, 2009, p. 3).

In our group interview with the students, all these conditions were indeed mentioned. Especially the point of determining “their own agenda” seems to be the core motivation for the students to choose NAIP as their way to develop toward an open and nurturing understanding of a musical profession, as one can see in the following two quotes:

I think nowadays, when there is this kind of crises finding a real job, we have basically to create our own job. I try to create my own personality with music, so I am not finding any jobs around, but I start creating my own path and the NAIP is just right for how to focus on your own interests.

(...) so it was kind of natural to go into NAIP – I wanna do all this different projects, I don’t wanna be just a classic school musician, I wanna do everything! That was how I came to NAIP and it has been really nice, having this freedom to explore different music, and not feeling judged.

Trust – the key to beneficial coaching

In our talks with coaches and students, trust seems to be a crucial issue. Hence we address it here without the intention to have the perfect recipe how to build trust. Still, we wish to introduce the thoughts given to us by our informants, and we start again with an original voice: ”We have our mentoring with XY, who is just checking up – do you need support? do you need any help? do we have to solve any problems?”

Being available, paying attention and listening to the student very carefully seem to be the core ingredients of beneficial and satisfying coaching. The safer the student feels, the more he or she will be ready to encounter challenges. But how to create an atmosphere of trust? Here are some ideas:

  • Let the students talk – listen to him/her carefully.
  • Take responsibility for building a trustful relationship.
  • Show interest for the students future plans and visions.
  • Be friendly and kind.
  • Be available and reliable.
  • (Really) listen to the student (e.g. active listening: “I’ve heard that you wish to do that and that... did I understand you/it right?”)
  • Show genuine interested in the development of the research project and the student’s work processes.
  • Let the student feel competent, safe and good (positive feedback, appreciation, respect, authenticity).
  • Be generous – focus on the resources of the student, while not losing the bigger perspective – name the resources we see in the student and his/her project.
  • Do not disturb the student’s enthusiasm, but still take the responsibility of taking the project “down to earth” when necessary.
  • Be aware of the context in which the coaching takes place, especially if the coach is member of the jury – like it is the case in some NAIP institutions.

Of course, the relationship between the coach and the student is reciprocal – the student has to participate in building a trustful relationship and being pro-active in working on the agreements made together with his/her coach.

Reflections on the coach’s attitudes

Each student is an individual – and so is his/her project, process and way of working – hence it is crucial to be aware that different students need different coaching. Since we as coaches have our own preferences of how to coach, it is highly recommendable to reflect on our own styles. To speak and reflect together with the student about the expectations from each other can be a constructive way to deal with differences: Telling the student how we work and how we see our role as a research coach – and where we see its boundaries – nurtures a healthy coaching relationship. The coach might be interested in getting feedback on his/her role and coaching from the student – transparency is again a basic component of respectful relationships.

The starting point is our own reflection as coaches. The following questions might support this:

  • How is the “tempo” of the research process? Who is defining it?
  • What is your preferable (personal) “style” of coaching? How do you meet different needs from different students?
  • How would you describe your role?
  • What kind of leadership can you recognize in your coaching?
  • How do you “know” what the student needs?

For most of the NAIP-students, research will not be part of their future life as musicians and artists. So already the term research might be unfamiliar for the students and can cause stress and fear – or in any case many question marks. One of the students puts it this way:

I don’t really like the word research... I am sorry, because it is something really scientific... Because for me, I sit down and I look for something, in my personal point of view... The research in this case is something that comes really natural.

As we can recognize in the quote above, some students start their research projects with limited knowledge about, and/or stereotypical attitude towards what research might be.

The role of the research coach is crucial in leading and guiding the student through this experience, and in helping him/her to engage with this new field in a “natural way”. It is about enabling the student to see and experience research as a manifold journey. As stated in part I.a Rationale: “Fundamentally research is about enquiry. It is about curiosity, sparking curiosity and following it. It is driven by asking questions, by being open to being puzzled, by wanting to develop and move beyond where we are right now and seeking ways to do this.”

To enable this, as coaches we can:

  • Ask the student to explain why his/her research is relevant – for him/her, for the music world, for the society, for his future professional plans and life.
  • Help the student to set milestones: from big(ger) goals to small concrete steps: Following question might be useful as structures in the process: What would you like to have done at the end of the semester (month, week...) and how can I support you in reaching your goals?
  • Establish rituals for each meeting can help to structure the meetings and the process.
  • Facilitate a dialogue about the project with the student, on the base of trust and interest, to train the argumentation and to sharpen the language in a safe environment.

A helpful tool to get a meta perspective and to improve and ensure the quality of our work as research coaches is discussing with a group of colleagues and peers our attitude and experience in coaching. Some institutions already work with formats of peer-to-peer group supervision for teachers/coaches/mentors.

4. Becoming a Supportive Research Coach

This chapter explores a manifold answer to our core question: What is research coaching within the NAIP-programme about? One of our answers is that a research coach has to be willing to learn. Coaching is about learning – both for the coach and the student, as Johansson (2015) emphasizes. Another core aspect is that a coach has to reflect on his/her own role and attitudes – and how this might affect the student or student group.

The aspects our informants Groningen, The Hague and Reykjavík emphasized as most important for fruitful coaching processes are:

  • Student-centred attitude.
  • Tailor-made support (individually suited).
  • Regular contact face-to-face and in writing (be available).
  • Structure, regularity (be aware of process, not fixed but flexible).
  • Open attitude and genuine interest in the students and their research.
  • Understanding for the situation and the point of view of the student.
  • Being curious.
  • Support the student by delivering his/her possible best (facilitation).
  • Detailed feedback and feed-forward.
  • Co-operative attitude amongst teachers and mentors connected to the student (co-mentoring rather than master-student-model).
  • Collaboration between content and method coach (in schools which have this system).

The way a coach is interpreting one’s own role, will influence both the relationship with the student(s) and the coaching process. If the coach foresees things, he/she might be ahead the student, if he/she takes a step back – the student might take charge over the steering wheel. A coach who defines his/her role as superior will have a different attitude compared to a coach that defines his/her role as a facilitator or a friend. The terms outlined by Renshaw, Brown & Atkins or Dysthe are relevant tools for a coach in the process of understanding one’s own role – a role that by no means is static or totally predictable, but dynamic due to the different stages in the coaching process and the students aims and attitudes.

The heart of research coaching is listening. Like in all kinds of musical practice, the ability to listen has to be fundamental in coaching research within the musical field. An ability worth training – lifelong.

Literature on Research Coaching