Interview – Stephanie Pitts

Dr Stephanie Pitts

Stephanie Pitts studied music at the University of York, before moving to Sheffield to undertake a PhD on the history of music education.  She also completed a PGCE with the Open University, and after a few years teaching music at a school in Derbyshire she began a lectureship at Sheffield, where she is now a Reader. 

Stephanie has research interests in music education and the social psychology of music, and was co-editor of the British Journal of Music Education from 2002-7.  Recent research recent projects include investigations of jazz, classical and first-time concert attenders, and a study of musical life histories which looked at the long-term impact of music education for adults in the UK and Italy.  She completed an MEd for university lecturers in 2003, and until recently held a teaching development role in the arts faculty at Sheffield, stepping down from this post to become acting head of the music department in 2011-12. In her ever-diminishing spare time, Stephanie remains active as a pianist and cellist, and enjoys hill walking, gardening and cooking for friends.

1) When and how did you first find out about music psychology?

I drifted into music psychology from music education, having been inspired in the latter discipline by Professor John Paynter while I was an undergraduate music student at York.  When I arrived at Sheffield as a PhD student, there was a lively music psychology research culture, and I began to see the connections between my work and the social and developmental aspects of music psychology.

2) What led you to want to study/work in music psychology?

Again, I’m not sure that was a definite plan and I still see myself as a lecturer and researcher who works in music, with strong interests in education and psychology.  I was inspired by colleagues including Eric Clarke and Nikki Dibben to explore the psychological aspects of music education, and this interest spread to include the exploration of musical participation beyond school, and of the social and personal engagement with music in everyday life.  Writing our jointly-authored book, Music and Mind in Everyday Life (Clarke, Dibben & Pitts, 2010), brought these shared interests together in a really stimulating way (even if it did take us about nine years to finish the book!).

3) What are your current areas of focus and how did you come to work in these areas?

I’m fascinated by how and why people engage with music as performers and listeners, and have generally found qualitative methods to be most illuminating for that kind of investigation.  I’ve particularly enjoyed using slightly quirky mixed methods: asking school students to keep audio diaries, for instance, can reveal much more than would be possible in an interview.  My work on musical participation (Valuing Musical Participation, 2005) was an attempt to move away from music education into wider musical contexts, but I soon found that the adult musicians I spoke to referred back to their teachers, to their own children’s instrumental learning and so on, which led me on to investigate musical life histories in more depth.  Someone commented recently that my research all looks very planned and connected, but it certainly hasn’t felt like that as it’s happened!

4) What is your proudest career moment?

Seeing my first publications in print was very exciting – that’s become more ‘normal’ as time’s gone on, and I have to remind myself to still feel proud of those achievements, instead of just relieved that I’ve got past another deadline!  I’ve felt enormously proud of all my completing PhD students too, and very privileged to have learnt so much from them as they developed their ideas and research skills.

5) What is your favourite music psychology text ?

With my current research interest in musical life histories, I’ve recently enjoyed reading ‘The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother’ by Amy Chua.  Her views on parental support for musical learning need taking with an enormous pinch of salt, but certainly made me think again about the costs and benefits of a musical childhood.  To balance that very parent-centred view of musical engagement, I’d then need to come back to Patricia Shehan Campbell’s lovely book ‘Songs in Their Heads’, which is a very sensitive, ethnographic study of the music that children encounter in their daily life – another book that makes you think again about the purpose and place of music in schools and beyond.

6) What do you think might be a future, exciting challenge for music psychology?

With all the current debate on the value of the arts, both in education and wider society, music psychology could have a central role to play in demonstrating why music matters and should be much better supported in schools and universities.

7) What music do you like to listen to in your spare time?

That depends so much on mood and context: I probably listen most while driving, and music for long journeys might be the Divine Comedy’s ‘Bang Goes the Knighthood’ album, or something by Pulp, Jarvis Cocker, Morrissey, The Holmes Brothers – anything with good words and an interesting musical texture that I can sing along to.  I’d rather hear classical music live and even better is to be playing it – I rehearse and perform regularly with a trumpeter, and intermittently play piano trios and string quartets with friends, which is always very absorbing and energising.

Comments Off on Interview – Stephanie Pitts