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Better Living Through Artistry

Better Living Through Artistry


Better Living Through Artistry

SFU Education's Susan O'Neill believes the arts hold rich opportunities for expression, communication and intergenerational relationship building.

Inspired by her grandfather, SFU education professor Susan O’Neill is dedicated to helping people experience how music and the arts can help them build connections and enrich their lives. “The community band was like a second family and many owed their participation in music to my grandfather’s dedication and encouragement,” she says. For decades in their small Ontario town, he taught music on a volunteer basis and it was a common sight to see seniors and teenagers sharing music stands in his classes, a setting that also created opportunities for intergenerational relationships.

Music and the arts have remained the focus of O’Neill’s life ever since. After earning a graduate degree and performing as a flautist for several years, she returned to university to study music psychology and education. During her doctoral studies in England, she co-directed an internationally recognized research centre that focused on musical skill and development where she was exposed to cutting-edge research in the field. Her early research investigated why some young people succeed at learning to play an instrument, while others with seemingly equal abilities and opportunities struggle or give up playing altogether. She wanted to solve this puzzle and find ways to improve music education practices.

While at Ontario’s Western University in 2008, she established the Research for Youth, Music and Education (RYME) group to explore characteristics of artistic and musical engagement, artistic representations of music in young people’s everyday lives, and what youth value most about their involvement in the arts. By 2010, she had joined SFU’s Faculty of Education where she established the MODAL (Multimodal/Music Opportunities, Diversity and Learning) research group which has received several grants from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). An expansion of RYME, while MODAL still focuses on youth and music, it does so through the lens of multimodal learning. Says O’Neill, “Young people were describing their engagement with music as involving different modes of expression, including elements from the visual arts, language arts, dance, drama, and digital media technologies.” Her group aims to advance understanding of artistic learning and the multiple pathways in which youth are engaged in and through the arts.

In 2014, she was involved in Reclaiming the New Westminster Waterfront, another SSHRC-funded research partnership led by Dr. Peter Hall from SFU’s Urban Studies to both engage and inform public discourse about urban waterfront transformation and labour. O’Neill and the MODAL group designed an intergenerational, community-engaged program in which elementary and high school students learned directly from retired longshoremen who had worked on the New Westminster waterfront. From walks along the waterfront, taking photos which were then compared with historical counterparts, working on joint art projects, and even participating in the making of a documentary film, the program broke down stereotypes and promoted the belief that everyone, regardless of age, has something meaningful to contribute. The BC Retired Teachers’ Association awareded O’Neill a 2015 Gold Star award for the project.


Her current research projects include working on her theory of transformative music engagement (TME). TME explores what young musicians need to initiate and remain purposefully engaged in the process of music learning, and seeks to provide educators with new approaches and more expansive learning opportunities that deepen and enhance young people’s music engagement, empowerment, and wellbeing.

In 2016, O’Neill received a grant from SFU International Engagement Fund to develop a partnership with Brazil’s Universidade Federal do Ceará. Her goal is to implement an undergraduate pilot program in 2017 that will facilitate intercultural learning via the making and sharing of creative arts and media projects that are focused on indigenous and other historical and cultural musical practices. She says, “There’s still a lot to learn about the processes involved in effective intercultural communication. Finding ways to assist students in navigating and communicating within these collaborative spaces is at the core of this project.”

O’Neill’s work demonstrates the importance of integrating arts education into a variety of contexts to spark transformative journeys toward learning, meaning making, and relationship building, to strengthen communities and transmit an appreciation for the arts to future generations to come.


Dr. Susan O’Neill is a full professor in SFU’s Faculty of Education and Director of MODAL (Multimodal/Music Opportunities, Diversity and Learning) Research in Education. She has been awarded visiting research fellowships at Trinity College Dublin (2015), University of Melbourne, Australia (2012) and University of Michigan (2001). In 2015, she received the BC Retired Teachers’ Association Golden Star Award for her research and community partnership work in the development of an intergenerational arts program that “impressed and heartened” the BCRTA Excellence in Public Education Committee. In 2016, O’Neill was named the new President-Elect for the UNESCO and International Music Council affiliated International Society for Music Education. She is Senior Editor of the book series for the Canadian Music Educators’ Association and has been awarded major grants for international collaborative research including Multimodal Learning in Action and Unity Through Music advocacy and intercultural programs in Brazil and Canada.

Q & A with Susan O'Neill

If you could sum up the value of university research in one word, what would it be?

I value the generation of knowledge and ideas that inspire people to want to do something or that give people an idea about what to do or create. When research inspires people they become actively involved in putting evidence to work for people. 

How is your research making an impact on lives?

My research brings different groups of learners together, such as skipped generations through intergenerational programs or students from different parts of the world through intercultural programs. Their engagement in these creative and collaborative practices affords learning opportunities for developing communication skills, identities and relationships that contributes to their overall sense of wellbeing.

How important is collaboration in advancing research?

For me, collaboration is the most important component of advancing community-based research. You need to trust the process that unfolds over time. Even if it might appear at times as if the research has diverted from its original course, there is much to be learned if you are open, flexible and responsive to the needs of those whose lives are impacted by the research.