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Art comes first

by Amanda Kauranne

The Sibelius Academy, Finland’s only music university, has for the past two years been part of the University of the Arts trio, together with the Theatre Academy and the Academy of Fine Arts. What does the future sound like for the Sibelius Academy?

The University of the Arts Helsinki joined together three academies under the same name just over two years ago. Instead of having faced radical changes, everyday life at the academies has remained more or less unchanged, at least for now. I spoke with the Dean of the Sibelius Academy Tuomas Auvinen, Professor of Folk Music Kristiina Ilmonen and Head of the Centre for Music Technology Marianne Decoster-Taivalkoski about the present situation and future prospects for the Sibelius Academy.

Three leading ideas

“How to nurture the Sibelius Academy as a strong and international brand while actively looking to the future and contributing to our common University of the Arts at the same time? This is a challenge that we need to resolve,” Dean Tuomas Auvinen reflects, adding that the Academy’s vision for the future involves several other opposing pairs, which are not “either-or”, but rather more like “both-and”.

“We have a wish to preserve and partially strengthen our in-depth elite instrumental tuition, which has traditionally been our strong suit. On the other side of the coin is our diversity. Traditional music academies seldom offer courses on folk music or music technology, not to mention arts administration or jazz, whereas our versatility is one of our absolute strengths.  In the future, we will have to enable our students, both at the Sibelius Academy and within the entire University of the Arts, to be able to specialise in a narrowly defined area of expertise or to build a broader professional identity outside of the traditional definitions. Some may view these as two opposing approaches, whereas I consider them to complement and support each other,” Auvinen explains.

“Our third important vision for the future is internationality. I have begun to think that internationality is a quality indicator, not a goal. If we do our job well, it automatically leads to us being internationally competitive and attracting the best students and teachers from outside of Finland as well. Our duty is also to maintain various continuums across Finnish music culture, and fulfil those responsibilities that allow Finnish musical life to keep developing, flourishing and renewing itself.”

United by technology

Internationality already has a firm foothold at the Academy. One representative of the trend is the Head of the Centre for Music Technology (CM&T) Marianne Decoster-Taivalkoski, who migrated to Finland from France and and uses fluent Finnish and English as her teaching languages. The Music Technology Department’s teaching staff includes many others who have moved to Finland to work, bringing along their own contact networks. “Contacts are an important part of teaching. Music technology as a subject is a fairly small area in any individual country, yet it is international. This has been the case ever since the beginning. The same phenomenon can be seen across media art and all new media,” Decoster-Taivalkoski says. “Earlier, technology was perhaps only available to certain elite groups, whereas now it is more widely accessible all around the world. This is one factor behind the increasing internationality.”

The Centre for Music Technology has also been actively involved with planning and executing a new study module titled Sound Art & Sonic Arts Education (SAMA), which serves as a meeting place for the three academies at the University of the Arts. A specific lecturer is yet to be appointed to this module, which means that some of the CM&T general resources are directed towards the development of SAMA.

Music technology seems to be at the very centre of collaborative practice: in addition to lectures and coursework, the study programme includes several independent projects in collaboration with different organisations, ranging from responding to recording requests from fellow students or working as sound engineers in concert halls to getting involved in CD projects or creating sound installations. All of these projects are selected by the students themselves to fit into their personal curriculum as an artistic or a pedagogical challenge, or in order to create networks for their future professional life. Collaboration reaches outside of the University of the Arts as well: for example, the multifaceted sound installation inside the Finnish ‘Kirnu’ Pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo was designed and executed by the Centre for Music Technology.

Getting your hands dirty

Artistry comes first, and the university’s mission is to support the student’s artistry in many different ways. Tuomas Auvinen mentions that one of strengths of the Sibelius Academy is building its systems with students in mind: its different facilities and its music library, and the quantity, quality and academic freedom of the studies.

“We grey-haired practitioners have no idea what the music scene and artist profiles of the future will be. We have to trust our students’ visions of what they want to do and how the scene is changing.” It is also essential to learn practical skills to do with professional life: education should respond to the challenge of how to produce and organise one’s future work projects, even through starting a personal business.

Decoster-Taivalkoski also describes how students sometimes get so carried away with their own projects that they can be too busy to participate in their intricately detailed and planned pedagogical programme. “Future generations will want to influence the content of their studies, but the problem is that they are yet to acquire the skills to assess how much time each project will take. We need to offer this kind of practical, concrete, ‘getting your hands dirty’ tuition. It should also cover learning to estimate the amount of work involved,” she says.

A good vision for the future also includes risk-taking: “The Sibelius Academy is first and foremost a school: a safe environment which allows experimentation without the pressure to succeed. It is great to be able to learn through trial and error.” Another key point Decoster-Taivalkoski lists is making contact with music-makers in the real workforce, and with society in general. “Instead of keeping the knowhow acquired at university level inside the Academy, everything should be firmly anchored to the society and the arts. We have to be in a constant dialogue with the world!”

Away from Helsinki!

Kristiina Ilmonen, the newly appointed Professor of Folk Music, has a similar vision. The folk music degree programme was established in 1983, and its pedagogy guidelines reflected a counter-reaction to the music institute education of that time.

“The developing folk music pedagogy expressed – and still does – very radical ideas: expanding one’s own artistry, tearing down hierarchies and combining musicianship with research,” says Ilmonen, describing the degree programme, which is unique even from an international perspective. “But this has led to a slightly introspective quality which we now are very committed to undo. The time has come to break all these inner circles and come to understand that we are a part of the surrounding society. The same goes for the entire Sibelius Academy. In order to achieve this, we need to build projects and systems at a practical level, and do it together. This requires a closer communication between amateur and professional fields and an effort to close the gap between different provinces and Helsinki – Finland does not equal Helsinki!” laughs Ilmonen, who herself has kept her Southern Ostrobothnian dialect.

To improve the situation, Ilmonen would like to introduce her students to music contacts across Finland on a practical level and as part of the study programme. “When a student then graduates, their mental map of Finland is not blank but full of towns with people they have played, sung and danced with. These kinds of networks are a tool for facing the challenges of future professional life.”

Global contact

The Nordic Master of Global Music Master’s programme (GLOMAS – see also FMQ 4/2011) is one of the most recent study programmes to have emerged to meet demand from society. Applicant numbers are growing and applicants are strong. There is already talk of starting a Bachelor’s programme as well.

“The degree programme is very modern in that instead of dividing music into separate genres, the thinking is that any musical background can lead to the ability to have a musical conversation with other music cultures. The general philosophy at the Folk Music Department considers folk music to be more than just a collection of tunes. The way these tunes are played or sung is more important. GLOMAS offers education in musical facility, communication skills and analysing skills, regardless of the genre. I consider this to be the future,” says Ilmonen.

“Despite its short existence, the GLOMAS Master’s programme has already proved its worth.  Extending the programme to include a Bachelor’s degree would also enable talented immigrant musicians to get academic qualifications. It would introduce fresh viewpoints into our society. Obviously, GLOMAS is not the solution to all of the problems of the world, but developing countries are now experiencing such large structural changes that folk music is disappearing from its original context and being replaced by popular music. Not only are certain species becoming extinct, but certain types of music are facing the same fate. It would be great to be able to offer education to musicians coming from these musical cultures. This might build a road to recovery for local music traditions.”

Tradition must not become fossilised

Professor of Jazz Music, Jukkis Uotila, has recently expressed his concern about preserving the traditions of jazz music. However, his folk music professor colleague does not share this concern entirely. “Researching, understanding and preserving historical playing styles is one important goal in our education, and the other one is to keep creating new things. These two objectives always go hand in hand in music and art. Traditions keep renewing themselves and absorbing influences from the surrounding environment. What we now perceive as tradition has once been an absolute novelty.”

Ilmonen refers to folk music, but could easily talk about the entire Sibelius Academy in general: “The goal of our degree programme is to offer insights into what tradition is, to maintain these fine historical styles, instruments and playing practices. Some students get inspired, start researching a certain tradition and take on the process of renewing it through authenticity and firm commitment. Other students take a more drastic approach through fusion. Both ways result in interesting art.

“In my view, tradition is not holy, but creating art is. Without any kind of artistic background, the starting point for making art is pretty weak when there are no tools for analysing or comparison when it comes to new or different material. Having an understanding of a tradition – any tradition – is really helpful in the process of becoming an artist. This is our mission: to enable art to emerge, to give our students the chance of becoming artists.”

What about the University of the Arts?

The power to change can only grow from a personal experience, whether it is through global issues or collaboration inside an arts university.

“All three academies at the University of the Arts have a need to maintain their own disciplines, tried and tested through research and tradition. There has obviously been some pressure to go the extra mile because of this new emphasis on teamwork. But instead of having to reinvent everything, we can create common ground slowly and naturally. This is another example of getting people to really learn to know each other and get inspired by the way others are operating. This approach leads to collaboration that is relevant and has real substance, instead of choosing a quick band-aid solution,” reflects Ilmonen.

Decoster-Taivalkoski feels that collaboration can reveal new ways of doing things. “It is time to combine our strengths and reflect on where that interaction leads. There is no need to limit or isolate different ways of thinking. Instead, when we discover our similarities and differences, we can learn much more. This means that everyone should pay more attention to what their neighbours are up to!”


Amanda Kauranne is a folk musician and music journalist who is also one of the students at the University of the Arts.


Translation: Hanna-Mari Latham