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Composing is for everyone

by Anu Ahola

Composing is acquiring an important role at Finland’s music institutes and schools. In the revised curricula, composing is identified as an activity that is – or at least should be – accessible to everyone and whose positive impacts extend far beyond the realm of music itself.

Although creative music-making has been included in the Finnish school curriculum since the 1970s, it has been in a very small role until recently. Some teachers have of course been very active in having their students compose music, and during the 2010s, children and adolescents in Finland have been encouraged to compose music in a variety of projects. So far, however, very few schools or music institutes have provided actual composition teaching.

This is about to change. In the revised National Core Curriculum for Basic Education, adopted in 2016, composing is highlighted as an essential part of music teaching at schools, and composing and improvisation are expected to join singing, playing instruments and listening to music as everyday activities in music lessons.

Composing is also about to be given official status in the curricula of music institutes, as the National Core Curriculum for Basic Education in the Arts will enter into force in August 2018. In the drafts for this document, composing and improvisation are entered as a target area in its own right for the first time.


Why is it important to compose music?

Composing as part of music education has become a topic of broader discussion in books as well as in the press in Finland. This discussion has highlighted the multiple opportunities that composing music offers not only for self-expression but also for interaction. Academic studies have criticised the conventions of music education where children are seen only as performers and listeners, never as creators.

Indeed, composing is increasingly viewed as an activity that is or at least should be accessible to anyone and whose positive impacts extend far beyond the composer and music itself, to society at large.

Petri Aarnio, headmaster of the Central Helsinki Music Institute, is a member of the working group revising basic education in the arts. His institution introduced composition as a workshop subject in 2000. Subsequently, composers such as Jovanka Trbojevic, Lotta Wennäkoski and Minna Leinonen have taught composition there, and composing has established itself as one of the main elements of basic music theory teaching. Aarnio considers it very good that in the future students will be required to create music of their own.

“The tradition of teaching Western music is very heavily based on printed music. Not that there is anything wrong with playing music from a score, but as learning to perform music has been rendered into an academic pursuit, we seem to have forgotten that reproducing a score is not the only way to make music. Improvisation and learning by ear are also important skills,” says Aarnio.

“Improvisation and composition are about personal creativity, and the more personal a child or adolescent feels music to be, the easier it is for him or her to relate it to other experiences heard and seen.”

So, do music institute teachers in Finland today have the capacity and the tools for coaching students in composition? Aarnio has no doubt:

“I believe that the groundwork for teaching composition is already in place, and many institutes consider this reform to be implementing something blindingly obvious. Some teachers with no experience at all in teaching composition may feel that this is an alien area requiring further training. The teaching we provide to teachers will be crucial in the future.”

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Composer guides

With this new approach, composition pedagogy has become a key development point in music teacher training and in continuing education for teachers.

Also responding to these new needs is the Ääneni äärelle [Finding my voice] project of the Society of Finnish Composers, which focuses on teacher training for composers and the development of introductory composition teaching. The project is also intended to coach music institute teachers in how to instruct and assist students in the early steps of composition. Composer Minna Leinonen, who has extensive experience in teaching composition to children and adolescents, is the primus motor of the project.

The project is being launched with pedagogical training for composers in spring 2017. The plan is that in the autumn 20 composers will be posted to music institutes for the academic year. The project will also involve compiling an open materials database on composition teaching as the project progresses. Such a systematic documentation of introductory composition teaching is of international significance.

“Our aim is to establish permanent composition teaching at music institutes and to provide the tools needed for doing so,” says Leinonen.

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Composer Minna Leinonen guiding Dante Thelestam.
Photo: Veikko Somerpuro.

High hopes and ambitions

So what is the ultimate goal of teaching composition to children and adolescents?

Composition studies enhance students’ musical knowledge and skills in a variety of ways, and – most importantly – provide an excellent channel for self-expression. Composition teaching is considered also to promote gender equality in the long run, since introducing students to composition at music institutes at an early age is hoped to attract more girls to composing and thereby gradually to even out the gender distribution in the profession.

Teachers are in a key role in this reform, as they are in a position to guide the orientation of composition in any number of ways. Minna Leinonen says of the duty of a composition teacher:

“[…] in teaching composition to children and adolescents, the teacher’s primary task is not to offer alternatives, because that in itself would restrict the student’s thinking. The teacher’s job is to assist and to pose questions, not to make aesthetic value judgements or guide the student in a particular direction or pursue his or her own artistic ambitions. […]”

Erno Aalto, who teaches basic music theory at the Central Helsinki Music Institute, discussed composition as a working method in teaching basic music theory in his master’s thesis in 2015. He encourages composers and teachers in the field to engage in a serious discussion of values amongst themselves and with their composition students.

“Although composition is now being introduced as part of basic education in the arts, we must remember that composing is very much an individual pursuit, different for each student. Some may find it feasible to write an etude for their own instrument, while others may want to explore the potential of a virtual instrument on their smartphone. It is important that all kinds of making music are acknowledged and facilitated in composition teaching at music institutes – even those that some may not consider to be music at all, or those that have not been invented yet,” says Aalto.

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi

This article was jointly commissioned by Rondo magazine and the FMQ.

Main photo: Veikko Somerpuro.