Driving Myself Crazy, or How I Got Into Autoethnography

If, years ago, anybody had mentioned the word autoethnography (a qualitative research method which seeks to describe and analyze personal experience), I would have laughed out loud. Ethnography was already bad enough for me by then. My realistic quantitative mindset was not ready to understand that there are certain things one can only study by studying oneself. And that those things might actually be useful for others (!)

Any research paper in which the author was writing about themselves always made me rise my eyebrows and mumble “Oh, really?” I was extremely critical and always found a reason to put such writing down. Mainly because how on earth can you carry out non-biased research if your personal experience and subjectivity are 100% represented in your work? (By the way, do not we realist researchers do the same?) Who are you to talk about yourself as an expert of anything – and even worse, as an example for anybody? Besides, isn’t it so that we should be humble and let others do their job? Isn’t it true that an autoethnographer could be understood as self-promoting? My typical working days are spent doing the following things:

  • practicing baroque and classical cellos and recording my own practice, preparation, and evaluation by following a constructivist model I developed in cooperation with other researchers;
  • journaling about my daily thoughts and experiences;
  • reading scientific and popularized articles or books connected to disciplines such as psychology of learning, systematic and traditional musicology, historically-informed performance practice, organology and history of musical instruments, music education, or autoethnography;
  • contrasting original manuscripts with modern and old editions;
  • watching documentaries, films, and interviews related to all of that;
  • listening to old and new recordings in connection to the music I practice as well as to other music related to it;
  • attending concerts and meeting researchers and artists in Finland and elsewhere;
  • preparing for demanding recitals, conferences, and other events;
  • writing about all the above mentioned topics.

That is what normally happens when you do multidisciplinary research. I would not say it is difficult, but it requires a good focus and great support from people around you. But even under the best conditions, combining my beloved scientific research with my frequently punished artistic research (art is art, or inspired practice, after all…) is definitely the hardest thing I have ever faced. I enjoy challenges; however even now, I have to breathe deeply and accept that I, myself, am doing exactly what I have been cursing about for the last ten years: qualitative interpretative research for which I am the subject of analysis. I literally came full circle.

But as one of my project partners recently said to me: “Pull yourself together and remember that ‘auto’ means much more than ‘self’.”  Thus, this is all I have to hold on for now. Well, this, my intuition, my ability to multitask, and the trust of my project partners. Or as they say: When the path reveals itself, follow it. My current research, indeed, revealed itself in mysterious ways, but that is another story… So I am afraid I have to go through this for three years.

Undertaking my PhD in Psychology was a process of understanding the real origin of my negative experiences as a talented musician, and how I lost my intrinsic motivation to play years ago. I wanted to help others in similar situations or even prevent music students from suffering as much as I did, because music was still important for me. I explain myself in this way: we live in a world where super-fast, early success and the raising of young geniuses is promoted, no matter how much pressure is needed or how much intrinsic motivation or other important experiences in life are sacrificed along the way.

The many things I learned while conducting my previous research helped revive my motivation, and such change had started well before I read what Guy Claxton writes:

“To motivate is to change the priorities of a person.”

So, that I did. I started from zero, I changed my way of doing things, I readjusted my priorities in life, I stopped expecting external rewards and progressing quickly simply to please society.

And it happened; I found what I really wanted to do – perform music taking a historically informed approach – and discovered my personal voice – combining art and science –, which was important because I did not want to adopt the standards of someone else, feel dependent on anyone, or surrender to what everybody else was doing by trend or unconscious imitation. I had a fierce desire to know myself and understand the world. And I had to work through this metacognitive process alone, because with such an introspective process, there are no helpers. You can only have ears and eyes open, and when you are ready – if ever –, you are ready. As I said, the path reveals itself.

So I started to focus on the journey, trying all learning possibilities slowly, regardless of the destination. I had to read many resources that left me wondering, “What the hell am I reading?” But when I decided to play the cello again, and was musically and technically ready to take off and fly, I noticed that my efforts were not in vain, but that I had fallen too deep in love with research to be “just” a musician.

Since then, I can no longer separate these two sides of me. In fact, I do not want to anymore. And I do not have to, because regardless of the effort I put into both careers while being a mother and a foreigner, it is still a huge pleasure and a privilege. I cannot just stay behind my desk writing about music as a total outsider about what really is going on, nor can I play in front of an audience without knowing who I am and having a deep and personal understanding of what I am doing, how I am doing it, and why.

For me art is more than pure entertainment, it must transform people. So, I thought and read for a long time, I wrote different research proposals, I played bad and great concerts, and in the frenetic spiral of turning myself upside down several times, I saw the light.

It is the interweaving of art and science that elevates the world to a place we can believe in. There is no way back. And autoethnography is the key I have chosen to combine both disciplines.

In her methodological novel on autoethnography, The Ethnographic I, Carolyn Ellis writes that the autoethnographic process “…will not be pain free; usually some degree of emotional turmoil accompanies the vulnerability required to scrutinize yourself and reveal to others what you find. Almost always, the insights you gain about yourself and the world around you make the pain bearable, even welcome at times.” This blog post is my first attempt to do so, and I will not yet discover what Beethoven and Mendelssohn have to do with it.

I will only leave a small hint: Beethoven and Mendelssohn will help me share my findings through the different types of output stated in the bulleted list above in a unique and creative way—as will my inspiring project partners all around the world. These two wonderful composers will keep me away from the self (-ness) and move from the auto (from Ancient Greek αὐτός, “self”) towards the hetero (from Ancient Greek ἕτερος, “other, another, second”), so that this research truly becomes useful for others. Because autoethnography in its deeper sense aims to do exactly what I always wished for: help others through personal enlightening experience. I hope I can transfer all this into my writing and playing.

When one is allowed to do what one really loves, there are no limits. For now, I leave you with this wonderful text and with the inspiring triptych by Maija Savolainen, which in many ways summarize what I am going through.

Somewhere between what she survived, and who she was becoming, was exactly where she was meant to be. She was starting to love the journey. And find the comfort in the quiet corners of her wildest dreams. They say people don’t change… Well, she wasn’t always this way. Even if she didn’t change the entire world, she would change her part of it. And she would affect the people she shared it with. A butterfly whose wings have been touched, can indeed still fly. Whether something was meant to be, or meant to leave, didn’t matter as much anymore. She would soak up the sun, kiss the breeze, and she would fly regardless.

 Let Her Run, J. Raymond


Guadalupe López-Íñiguez

Guadalupe is a Spanish academic-performer who lives in Helsinki. She is currently studying the performance psychology and technical aesthetics in the variation works for fortepiano and violoncello by Beethoven and Mendelssohn by following a constructivist system for learning instrumental music, an empirical musicology approach linked to historically informed performance practice, and an autoethnographic perspective. Her postdoctoral artistic and scientific research is funded by the Kone Foundation and carried out at the Sibelius Academy of Helsinki.