Spotlight on Graeme Smillie

Musician and educator Graeme started his PhD in 2013, researching the impact of the widening access, pre-Higher Education programme Transitions.

Tell us about your PhD project and what motivated you to apply to be a research student?

My research look at the participation of learners from SIMD 20/40 areas in the Royal Conservatoire’s pre-tertiary learning environments through the Transitions programme – mainly within the Junior Conservatoire and Lifelong Learning departments.

My fieldwork began in 2013 when I designed a mixed-methods study that used semi-structured interviews to collect data from a randomly selected, anonymous but representative cohort of 47 very generous Transitions students over a four-year period. My fieldwork concluded in 2017 so my task now is to write it all up.

I decided to apply for this PhD because, in my role as a music teacher, I realised how limited the options were for young people who wanted to pursue careers in the performing arts, and how big the gap between what was consistently available locally and what was expected of students to realistically thrive at undergraduate level.

The pupils I taught only learned in school and were generally competing with others who had benefited from private tuition and other music making.  While they may have had success locally, they were now competing in a much broader field that may not have been entirely level.

So, the Royal Conservatoire’s Transitions widening access programme really excited me from the start as a practitioner, but from an academic standpoint, researching it also seemed important because very little, if any, previous research exists on pre-tertiary conservatoire learning environments.

I conducted almost 100 interviews over a four-year period to build a realistic picture of the students’ experiences of their transition into a conservatoire culture. I’m hoping it will help us to consider the tensions conservatoire structures and practices have with some student’s backgrounds, preferences and expectations of what their education should be, and how these can exclude some people, regardless of their potential.

What’s been the most surprising/unexpected thing you’ve encountered about Transitions since you started your research?

How broad the spectrum of students is in terms of their experiences and prior tuition, and how flexible Transitions has been to create such a diverse range of supports, learning styles and pathways.  This is an extremely labour intensive programme and I’m in awe of the care and attention that the staff put into it. It’s heroic.

What’s it like being a research student at the conservatoire?

I’m in my sixth year now, and the department has grown so much since 2013. There are now around 30 research students and it’s an extremely vibrant community that offers a valuable peer support network, and, impressively, its own means of publication through the Scottish Journal of Performance.

Coming into RCS from a more traditional university, I had a pretty narrow view of what doing a PhD would entail, but here the cohort is so varied in approach and subject matter. You have composers, historians, performance-makers, dancers, jazz musicians, choral musicians, traditional musicians, a lighting designer… all putting so much of themselves into their research and that has been really inspiring.

With the help of my peers, I have realised that I am an inseparable part of my research and it’s fine to put my own identity in the work. They’ve helped me to explore the human aspects of my research rather than adopting a detached scientific view.


There are now around 30 research students and it’s an extremely vibrant community that offers a valuable peer support network.

You have many other roles other than ‘research student’ – what else do you do?

My PhD is part-time and I combine this with teaching, designing courses and being a practicing musician. Within RCS I have designed and delivered the first Popular Music summer schools for young people, as well as conducted various freelance bits of research including a project on the hugely important ‘What’s Going On Now?’ review of Scottish music education.

I’m also a local authority instrumental instructor and a freelance practitioner working on varied projects with Articulate Cultural Trust, Vox Liminis and the Princes Trust.

As a musician, I was kept busy last year touring with Arab Strap and the Marc Brew Company and this year I’m mainly recording and playing with Malcolm Middleton, The Vaselines, Karine Polwart, Emma Pollock, A Mote of Dust and a few more.

Favourite moment of 2017/18?

This interview.


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