Arts-Based Research—or at Least Our Version of It

The Ensemble seeks to connect and inform all people who are committed to ensemble music education for youth empowerment and social change.

Arts-Based Research—or at Least Our Version of It

Samantha Winterton, Orchestra Director, Sistema Whangarei – Toi Akorangi


In January 2020, Sistema Whangarei–Toi Akorangi, in New Zealand, found itself in a quandary. Like many programs around the globe, Sistema Whangarei has limited access to local professional orchestras or universities; instead of relying on their expertise, we rely on the support of our young people to create a sustainable program. It is paramount, then, that we attract and retain teenagers in our organization. But we had noticed a concerning phenomenon: students who seemed invested in our program and who were making great progress would suddenly, unexplainably, leave.

We had to uncover a way to keep our students—particularly our rangatahi (teenagers)—engaged and interested in making music in our program. What did our students really need from us? In fact, we had many questions: How do we learn how young people experience the program? Are they in the right orchestra fit? Do they need more support? More challenges? Are there things we do or ways we act that impede development and independence? And how do we know if students are socially or emotionally ready for those sorts of changes?

Questionnaires and interviews seemed too dry—and usually lead to answers aiming to please, rather than to the truth. Eventually, I stumbled across the concept of arts-based research through an inspiring arts therapy lecturer for Whitecliff College, Deborah Green. When she introduced me to the concept, I was smitten with idea. Creating and discovering, all in the same package—a win-win. So we set out to design an arts-based research project that could guide our programming moving forward.

The Research

Teaching artists Christoph Maubach and Maria Croucher worked collaboratively to plan and implement a three-day workshop. We chose improvisation as our primary arts focus and included the research process in a project called “All in Good Time.” Our goal was simple: to engage Sistema Whangarei’s rangatahi, and then to maintain their engagement.

The project involved three separate composition elements. First, Christoph and Maria created scaffolding for the learning process of improvisation and inquiry. Using the Maori story of Whaitere, the enchanted stingray, they explored story structure and the titular stingray’s personal qualities. Students made a list of the stingray’s traits and divided it into qualities they felt they already had and those they aspired to have. Groups were then guided to create an improvised representation of a story section that included any one of those personal traits.

Students then looked at images of different trees and analyzed the qualities of each tree. In small groups, the young people selected a tree and then created a short piece of music, using tuned and untuned percussion, to represent their chosen tree. Maria and Christoph introduced terminology useful for creating soundscapes (sound spots curve, sprinkles stream) and emphasized the importance of texture and form in a piece of music.

The final task was for the young people to consider their past, present, and future values and create a piece of music that represented who they wanted to be. Students were allowed to choose who they worked with and what instrumentation they wanted to use.

The result was some stunning and poignant music. It was so engaging that nobody thought to turn a camera on!

What We Found

Many organizations use arts-based research to quantify elements of their programming, but we didn’t have that expertise. Instead, we marked progress anecdotally. And even then, we were amazed.

Three days of empowering our students’ creativity resulted in an explosion of activity and boldness and surety that I had never seen before.

Throughout the workshop, it became clear that our young people have an endless pool of creativity, deep and wide and often unexpected. We learned that structure and freedom are both vital for a healthy program. When students are given the skills and information they need and then given freedom to explore and collaborate, they inspire each other and get hungry more.

This research project took place in January 2020.  Of course, a global lockdown took place soon thereafter. I barely had time to consider the effects of the research when suddenly I had to envision our program as an online platform.

Our biggest fear was that students would lose interest and leave. And while that was true for some younger students, what happened with the teenagers was quite the opposite. Students who had previously seemed uncommitted started asking for music and guidance, and sharing their performances over video. One student became a composer at the age of 14. Our composer has since written a symphony, an octet with seven movements, a piano piece, a piece for our string chamber group, and a full orchestra piece, called Bolero. The octet has been performed by professional players and composers are offering support and guidance.

This was wonderful, of course, but it’s also where things got tricky for us. Why did it happen? One could argue that the pandemic—and resulting lack of stimuli for young people—served as the basis of this student’s renewed musical commitment. But I believe it started with our arts-based research. In those three days, we learned to offer support and then get out of the way. That doesn’t mean leave well alone. It means leave space—and offer encouragement.

Our students’ aspirations and creativity have only continued to grow. Many more students are composing now. Young people are creating their own chamber groups, including a jazz group. Best of all, they are willing to ask for help—sometimes even from professional players as they now have increased access via Zoom.

We’re still struggling to keep up with the needs of our students. But our young people have inspired us so much that our teaching artists want in on the action. Thanks to arts-based research, we are deepening the flow of Ako—a Maori concept meaning “learner as teacher and teacher as learner.” We can’t wait to see where it takes us.