in Articles

Broader perspectives in teaching music

by Elina Roms

The International Minifiddlers distance-learning project is testing a new kind of learning environment for studying the violin. At the same time the East Helsinki Music Institute is searching for ways to bring high-quality music education within reach of even more people.

It’s a windy morning in Helsinki’s Laajasalo neighbourhood. The sea is grey, the world black and white, and the house looks like an ordinary suburban house. Instead of a home, it houses a high-quality studio, with a warm and inviting atmosphere. Parents are leafing through sheet music, small violins are being tuned and the music stands are being arranged to make sure every musician is visible.

“OK children, now we’re ready.” Professor Géza Szilvay starts the 76th group violin lesson to be documented. He tells the camera about the week’s theme, in English. It’s G major, which requires being conscious of the high and low second finger.

Szilvay teaches a group of five children in the International Minifiddlers project run by Maarit Rajamäki’s company Caprice Oy. He follows the colourstrings method, which he devised. Each group lesson is filmed and watched over the net by teachers supervising similar groups all over the world.

Caprice Oy had worked extensively using new technology in distance-teaching and when Rajamäki was observing a summer course taught by Szilvay, the idea to teach the colourstrings method using a distance-learning technique was born. Video material covering the first four years of learning the violin is being created at the same time.

“I had my doubts about having everything I say in a group teaching situation documented,” Géza Szilvay admits. “From the point of view of future teachers, this is a priceless resource. Never in the history of teaching violin has there been a document of how a child progresses from week to week, starting from scratch.”

Now there are groups around the world, including Alaska, Faroe Islands, South Korea and Greenland. Distance-teaching tries to make quality education accessible to people who live in peripheral places. When in many places the lesson is followed not only by the teaching professor but also groups of students and parents, the effect is considerable. The progress the children are making in the project is also being followed by a research group studying music and the brain at the University of Helsinki. Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen has given his support to the project.


The meaning of a smile

The five children chosen for the pilot are from the East Helsinki Music Institute and they started playing at around the age of six. It’s a common age to start at a music school. The number of lessons being filmed corresponds with a typical annual run at a music school: 30. This means that integrating the teaching into the normal activities of a music school anywhere is easy. Many of the children have a background of attending music playschool, which is fairly common in Finland. The children sought out for the project were regular kids interested in music, not exceptionally talented ones.

“All the children in the group have progressed and I’m proud of it. It’s important that the atmosphere is warm and happy, even though playing the violin is very demanding. If you forget about the smile, the child may turn into a victim. I want to prove that you can train good players without extreme methods,” says Szilvay.

Seven-year old Senny Herler’s face lights up when it’s her turn to perform J.S. Bach’s Menuet. It’s currently her favourite piece. “Senny is very particular about which songs she likes and doesn’t,” Senny’s mother Anne Panigrahi-Herler says. The project has been very rewarding for them. “Senny clearly enjoys music. And it’s wonderful that the child herself is so happy to play.”

Violin pedagogues around the world can thank not only Géza Szilvay but also the participating children and their parents for this project. The families sometimes need to bend over backwards to fit all the different kids’ hobbies into their schedules.

“Even though it gives a lot, it’s still quite demanding,” says Minnamari Helaseppä, mother of Sanni. In addition to the weekly filmed session, the children have two half-hour private lessons each week. The children naturally rehearse at home, too. In the beginning they practiced for a mere five minutes daily, but now, with the project in its third year, practice time is up to half an hour.

Every parent is forced to consider what kinds of demands they can make of their children. Finding a balance between how much a hobby takes and how much it gives is a constant challenge. “I want every child to have a positive feeling, like they succeeded at something, after every Saturday group lesson,” Szilvay explains. He says all children have their motivational ups and downs, but if a child is reluctant to play year after year, a new musical hobby needs to be found. Quitting music altogether is not a good idea. “There’s clear evidence that classical music develops the brain and supports emotional development. I think every child has the right to classical music.”


Pro group teaching

It’s hard to believe the children are only in their third year of playing. Their technical level and clarity is astounding, but even more incredible is the way in which they live the music. Every sound is played with a clear resonant voice, be it a piece or a scale.

On the day of the filming the only thing the children complain about is the hot lighting. The small violins react to the heat and they have to be tuned constantly. The tuning breaks will be edited out of the final material, but otherwise the documentation is very honest and true to life. “This is a workshop. We don’t want to show just the polished end result – we want to show how we got there,” Szilvay states.

Group teaching has been a rising trend at music schools in recent years, partly for financial reasons. Still most teachers’ methods are geared towards private lessons. There’s a demand for quality teaching materials. According to Szilvay, soloist and orchestral education should also include methodology, pedagogy and even psychology. “These peripheral subjects will take nothing away from training to be a soloist. Every musician will teach at some point in his or her life. And even a top musician will learn from teaching, even teaching beginners.”


Challenges in teaching music

Sanni’s living with her demanding hobby is made easier by the fact that she attends East Helsinki Music Institute at Porolahti elementary school. Playing is integrated into the school day. In this unique model, not found anywhere else in Europe, everyone wins: music brings variety to the school day, young elementary school students have something fun to do in the early afternoon when most parents are still at work, and the families’ life gets a little less complicated when children don’t have to be carted to hobbies in the evening. This should be the standard model.

Principal Minna-Maria Pesonen at the East Helsinki Music Institute agrees: “When the prospect of a more flexible school day and what the school of the future should be is being debated on an national level, I think our model should be considered. Three hours of group playing have been integrated into the school day.”

The East Helsinki Music Institute was founded in 1965, so we’re in an anniversary year. Pesonen is only the third principal in the institute’s history, which speaks of a very dedicated working community. Géza Szilvay was principal for three decades and during that time the school became a reliable training ground for professional musicians. Now the institute has to find new ways to meet the challenges of the day.

“Quality has been and always will be central to our values. What we teach children and the young has to meet strict quality criteria and help them build a healthy relationship with music. We also have to stay abreast of what happens in the world of the children and youth so we can compete with all the other stuff in this world,” Pesonen says.

Classical music as a hobby requires persistence, and reaching goals a lot of work. Music schools have come a long way in dividing the long-term goal into smaller stretches, so that it’s easier for the children to stay motivated.


Wider paths

More and more children don’t get the opportunity to interact with music even though they wish to. “This is our greatest challenge at the moment. We spend a lot of time thinking of ways to reach those kids who might be interested in learning music but who don’t end up coming here for a variety of reasons, such as parents who are not interested in music. We work with daycares and schools as closely as possible. We’ve been devising ways to offer quality music education to anyone who’s interested in it, even if we can only take in 40% of our applicants at the moment.”

This imbalance is eased by community projects supported by the city, such as Roihuvuoren näppärit, a group started last autumn in cooperation with the East Helsinki Music Institute.

The Näppäri Method is based on folk music and the basic idea is that anyone, regardless of skill level, can participate in ensemble playing. The model was developed in Kaustinen, a town in the Bothnia region of Finland, by Mauno Järvelä, who comes from a long line of fiddlers. The model has spread rapidly in Finland and the other Nordic countries. Järvelä constantly collects new repertoire and writes songs with catchy melodies and clever lyrics that captivate musicians of various ages. The Roihuvuori group is taught by Järvelä’s daughter Alina.

Another new area the Institute is venturing into is improvisation. Early this year British improvisation guru Matthew Barley came to Helsinki to visit the Institute. There are plans for a horn orchestra, too. This widens the path to achieving instrumental proficiency, so it should be possible for every child to find his or her style and way of playing music.

“The central thing in all group teaching is that learning takes place under the supervision of a professional teacher from the very basics, so that the rest of the child’s learning is built on a solid foundation. But those who have the wherewithal and the need for long-term and tailored lessons, perhaps aimed at making music a profession, need to be considered, too. In this egalitarian age, this is sometimes forgotten,” Pesonen reminds us.


Translation: Arttu Tolonen
Main photo by Monika Hytti: Géza Szilvay with his students.