Change the world


“Thank you, Nelson Mandela University, for this opportunity and changing my world’, said Robert Gillmer, who is the first in the country to have graduated with a music master’s degree in performance art specialising in contemporary commercial music during Nelson Mandela University’s Autumn Graduation.  

Robert (40), lectures at Mandela University and is a voice teacher at Woodridge College says “contemporary commercial music ranges from country, pop, rock, blues, and electro to RnB, basically music you hear more often on the radio. I felt that during school years, students often choose to sing contemporary music, but then they arrive at university and must resort to opera or jazz singing and basically have to start from scratch, not being familiar with the content at all”.

“Most of my students either sing in a “garage band” or church environment and universities don’t cater for that. Commercial music is often frowned upon in some ways and seen as simple, easy or not at the same standard as other European traditional music, and it was my aim to prove them wrong”.

The performance master’s degree is split into three equally weighted modules comprising two recitals and one treatise.

His master’s research for his treatise focused on exploring the practical singing syllabi of contemporary commercial music and to develop assessment criteria for the genre in a music department, where no degree specialisation for this kind of music existed, and to establish it as an “instrument”.

Such an assessment framework could be useful to practitioners and academics to introduce contemporary commercial music in classically-oriented music departments at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels in higher education.

North-West University also offers contemporary commercial music, but they have not had a master’s graduate to date. Music at universities is very much based on western European tradition - this will open the doors for many students who would prefer to sing in their own language instead of French, German or Italian, he says.

Robert did classical training in his diploma years and jazz during his degree. Voice is his first instrument and during his master’s degree studies, he chose to focus on contemporary voice, but made sure to try classical, musical theatre and jazz too. He also did piano as a second instrument and taught himself percussion.

Not an easy road

“Growing up, I never thought I would want to study further at a university, so I started as an older student and enrolled for the Diploma in Music Education. Despite having to work to pay for my studies and focus on both work and excelling in my academics, I was one of the first in my family to qualify with a university qualification, cum laude. It was a proud moment for me and my family”, he says. 

While studying, Robert worked at Planet Fitness as a personal trainer, but also did some voice tutoring and he sang at the Boardwalk Centre for an income. He also performed at the Splash Festival, the Klein Karoo Arts Festival and the Kirkwood Wildlife Festival.

“I then decided to enrol for a Bachelor’s degree in Music Performance, facing numerous challenges such as the #FeesMustFall movement and balancing my studies with work. With the unwavering support of my dedicated lecturers, I persevered and graduated, standing beside my parents, filled with pride and a sense of achievement”, he says.

He knew that he was capable of even greater accomplishments and set his sights on obtaining a Master's in Music Performance. However, the pandemic happened and he had to adapt to remote learning and working from home.

“Just when I thought that things could not get any worse, I lost my mother to cancer. Despite the personal and emotional challenges, I refused to give up and was determined to complete my academic journey, as that is what my mother would have wanted. With the support of my family, friends, and my supervisor, Professor Alethea de Villiers, the Music and Performance Arts Head of Department, I continued with my studies”, Robert says.

“I also decided to make a commitment and a promise to myself to not cut my hair until I had submitted my final documents for my masters”.

Published research

Robert has been very fortunate to travel and perform. In 2022, he presented a paper on contemporary music at tertiary institutions, along with his supervisor, Prof De Villiers, at the International Conference on Innovation in Basic-Higher Education in Istanbul. The paper on his research was also published in an international, accredited journal, The Journal of Applied Research in Higher Education.

“Robert’s research is innovative in the South African context where no dedicated qualification in contemporary commercial music exists, yet this genre is becoming increasingly popular among learners in schools and is transformative because it transcends culture, language, and context”, says Prof De Villiers.

He also went to the international choral festival in China with the Nelson Mandela University Choir.

The future

His dream is to continue with his studies, and this is just the tip of the iceberg. He would love to travel and experience what people are doing and learning in contemporary music around the world. “I am a performer and I wish I could travel and perform all over the world as well as to have an acapella group and train them”, he says.

Realistically, he wants to start with his PhD research in 2024, have an established music career and write a few scholarly articles.


Contact information
Ms Elma de Koker
Internal Communication Practitioner
Tel: 041-504 2160