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Staff Profile

Dr Sarah-Jane Gibson

Music Lecturer

Staff profile image of Sarah-Jane Gibson

I have been engaged with music research and teaching across multiple levels of education for almost 20 years working with students from a range of cultural, class and ethnic backgrounds.

My vocational experience spans South Africa, the United States, England and Northern Ireland, in addition to field work conducted in various other parts of the world. My training undertaken in South Africa, emphasised music provision that was inclusive of a multitude of musical practices and people, including diverse South African folk music traditions. As a result, I approach music with a focus on developing skills that are transferable across a wide range of music disciplines and offer course content that draws on a broad spectrum of music-making activities, welcoming culture bearers into lectures to share their expertise.

I am a pianist and a singer, performing as an accompanist for student performances and school musicals. As a professional soprano section leader at the Episcopal Dallas Church of the Incarnation I performed choral repertoire drawn from the English choral tradition ranging from Renaissance motets to 20th Century Mass settings. I have sung popular and classical repertoire as a soprano soloist in both solo recitals and as part of choral concerts, notably Mozart’s Laudate Dominum with the Philharmonia choir of Cape Town whilst they were on tour in England. I have experience conducting various choirs and ensembles, such as South African folk song ensembles, chamber choirs and cabaret. As part of recent field work research into folk singing I have performed in the Ethno ensemble in Sweden and New Zealand, including leading the vocals for a Mandarin folk song at the Auckland Folk Festival.


My teaching at York St John centres on the relationship between research and musical practice with the aim of supporting students as they explore how their development as musicians can be informed by academic discourse and vice-versa. I support students in this capacity in Perspectives on Music 2 and the final year Dissertation module where I am the module leader.

In the first year VOX and Drumming courses, I focus on culturally responsive approaches to performing world and folk music traditions, as well as the role of collective singing in the construction of community identities, particularly as an act of protest or in response to conflict.


My post-doctoral research is part of the 3-year Ethno Research project. It is interdisciplinary, drawing from community music, music education and ethnomusicology. My methods have included fieldwork at Ethno Sweden, Ethno on the Road and Ethno New Zealand. With the restrictions on travel due to the COVID-19, my focus turned to online ethnography and data collection. I regularly conduct and transcribe online interviews and focus groups. I lead 2 independent projects, ‘Sustainability’ and ‘Ethno on the road’ and I am the co-lead for the History project where we are exploring the development of Ethno over the last 30 years. We support and coordinate a group of research associates in this area.

My experiences teaching in London were what informed my PhD research into community choir singing and its role in identity construction. I undertook research in a musical practice which I had years of practical knowledge in as a conductor and singer, however, I chose to conduct academic research as an ethnomusicologist. Ethnomusicology acknowledges the human experience of music making, blending anthropological ethnographic approaches with analysis of music making. My completed PhD was therefore a written theoretical piece of work that enhanced my understandings of my musical practice.

The arguments within the thesis centred around how the choir can be used as a form of collective identity formation and the role this may have in re-imagining identities in areas of conflict. My emphasis was on how wider contexts (such as sectarian division) can impact musical practice, but also conversely, how local musical practice could impact wider contexts. I also drew attention to the role of the choir singer in constructing collective identity within choral practice, rather than focusing purely on the choral conductor or facilitator, emphasizing the individual within a community of practice.

My research used the framework 'communities of practice' (Wenger, 1998). This is a theory of learning that focuses on how people learn through engaging with one another through practice. This approach is central to my teaching. When I teach, I consider how students can work collaboratively towards a final aim, be it a musical performance or an academic goal, reflecting the community of practice terms of 'mutual engagement' and 'joint enterprise'.


Book authored (manuscript submission due September 2021):

Community Choirs in Northern Ireland: Re-imagining identity through singing. Intellect: Bristol&

Published conference contributions

(2014) ‘Becoming Part of a Musical Landscape’ in Maria de Rosario Pestana and Helena Marinho (eds), Music and shared imaginaries: nationalisms, communities, and choral singing: Proceedings. Sitio do livro: Lisbon pp. 375-381 Available at:úsica-no-meio

Edited works: contributions

(2019) ‘Isitibili: Singing and Learning South African folk song,’ in Hoch, M. (Ed.) So you want to Sing World Music. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers: Lanham pp. 314-332

with Higgins, L. (in press) 'Intersections between Grassroots Choral Music Practice and Community Music Principles in Northern Irish Community Choirs' in the Routledge Companion to Applied Musicology, ed. Chris Dromey

Journal papers – academic journals

(2021) ‘Shifting from Offline to Online Collaborative Music-Making, Teaching and Learning: Perceptions of Ethno-World Music Mentors’. Music Education Research.

(2019) ‘From Participation to Performance: The Impact Arts Management can have on an inclusive community choir’s identity,’ Irish Journal of Arts Management and Cultural Policy. Issue 5.

(2016) ‘Locality, Identity and Practice in Choral Singing: The Queen’s Island Victoria Male Voice Choir of Belfast,’ Ethnomusicology Ireland, Vol. 4. Available at:

Journal papers – professional journals

(2019) ‘Critique not Criticism: Why we ask the Questions we Ask’ Sounding Board. 2019 Issue 2, pp. 6-7

Official reports: whole report

(2020) ‘Ethno on the Road: Ethno on the Road and Världens band: Beyond the Ethno Gatherings’. York: York St John University. Available at:

Official reports: part of report

(2020) ‘Case Study: Ethno Sweden: A Catalyst for Change’ in Higgins, L. (Ed.) Pilot Reports. York: York St John University. Available at:

Professional activities

Invited speaker / public appearances

  • Ethno's Response to COVID-19. Ethno Digital OAT conference, December, 2020
  • With Higgins, L. Where Ethnography and Community Music Connect: The Importance of Relationships. Eichstatt Community Music Winter School Programme, 2-4 November 2020, online. Available at:
  • Taking a learning environment on-line: Ethno-World and their transition to on-line music sessions. ICCM Presents Webinar Series, June 2020
  • 'Isitibili': A South African Choral singing style. Guest lecturer and workshop presenter: Unicamp, Campinas, Brazil. August 2016
  • The Nada Choir: Creating a Multicultural Community through Music - The Belonging Project, QUB 5 November, 2014

Select conference presentations

  • Balancing global music networks with environmental awareness: the Ethno-World programme. BFE Annual Conference, online, 8-11 April 2021.
  • Covid-19 and research practice: From “face-to-face” encounters to online interactions. BFE One Day conference, online event, 7 November, 2020.
  • Building Cross-community choirs in Northern Ireland. Community Music Activity on-line assemblies, July 2020 available at:
  • 'Wearing both caps: Being researcher and musician in choral practice'. British Forum for Ethnomusicology Annual Conference, University of Aberdeen, 11-14 April 2019
  • 'Elitism and Egalitarianism in Western choral singing'. 22nd Annual Symposium for Music Scholars in Finland, University of Helsinki, 7-9 March 2018
  • ' 'And Now the Choir Will Murder the Anthem': The Decline of the Traditional Church Choir in Northern Ireland'. 44th ICTM World Conference, Irish World Academy of Music and Dance, University of Limerick, 13-19 July 2017
  • Ethnographic Research and Cross-community choirs in Belfast, Northern Ireland. 5th Symposium of the Study Group on Applied Ethnomusicology, ICTM. 5-9th October 2016, Nova Scotia, Canada
  • Re-imagining identity through singing: Community Choirs in Northern Ireland. Eighth International Doctoral Workshop in Ethnomusicology. 21-25th June 2016 University of Hildesheim, Germany.
  • And then there were two: Participant Observation and Motherhood. B.F.E. Researching Music: Interviewing, Ethnography and Oral History. 6th June 2016. Senate House, London.
  • The Choral Genre in Northern Ireland: Crossing boundaries, Re-imagining Identities – BFE / SFE: Border Crossings / Boundary Maintenance: 2-5 July 2015. Musèe du quai Branly, Paris France
  • Keeping a Tradition Alive: The Queen’s Island Victoria Male Voice Choir of Belfast, Northern Ireland ICTM Ireland: 'Tracks Less Travelled' Dundalk Institute of Technology, Ireland, 27 February - 1 March 2015
  • Singing your song my way: The Appropriation of World Music in Community Choirs in Northern Ireland – Local Musicking Roundtable, QUB, 24 Nov. 2014
  • Becoming Part of a Musical Landscape: The Donaghadee Community Choir – Music and Shared Imaginaries, Nationalisms, communities and choral singing. University of Aveiro, Portugal, 30 October - 1 November 2014
  • The Donaghadee Community Choir: (Re) Presenting the Community – Performing Identities, embodying knowledge, Mary Immaculate College, Galway, 19-20 June 2014