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Conductor Education in Finland

by Anu Konttinen

Between the mid 1970s and the early 1990s Professor Jorma Panula and his students made the Finnish training for conductors both widely known and highly acclaimed. But where did it all begin - and what has happened since?

The twenty years of Jorma Panula’s professorship from 1973 to 1993 – the years of ‘Panula’s class’ – constitute the first distinctive period in the educational history of Finnish conductors. Panula’s training system also marked the culmination of the development and systematisation of teaching practices, and the creation of standards for university-level education in conducting.

Academic training in conducting started at the Sibelius Academy in 1943. There are, however, many conductors in the history of Finnish music who have, throughout their own careers, made a notable pedagogical contribution to helping younger generations. The professional training in conducting has also seen changes since Panula’s retirement, and some of the features that made his class so well known have given way to entirely new practices.

Early history

Before the Sibelius Academy conducting class was founded, and the specialised education in conducting became available, young conductors had to acquire the necessary special skills by travelling from Finland to Central Europe to study.

Our first professional conductor, Robert Kajanus (1856-1933), studied in Leipzig. He sat in at rehearsals of the Gewandhaus Orchestra playing under the baton of the already legendary Hans von Bülow, and studied scores. This was a general practice at that time, together with going to concerts. Even the generations of conductors following Kajanus, who already had music schools providing a basic musical education, often travelled abroad to complete their studies and to concentrate on specific conducting skills.

Conductor Jussi Jalas (1908-1985), the first teacher of the Sibelius Academy conducting class, studied in Paris. He began his own pedagogical career in the Sibelius Academy conducting class in 1943. In comparison, the first conducting class or ‘programme in conducting’ had been launched at the Leipzig Conservatory in 1905 by conductor Arthur Nikisch. During the years 1950-1955, while Jalas toured the United States, the conducting class was taken by Leo Funtek (1885-1965). He was the first to introduce the idea of orchestral training in the class. Jorma Panula studied in Funtek’s class in 1951-1953.

Until autumn 1968 the class was taught by conductor Ulf Söderblom (b. 1930). The academic year from autumn 1968 to spring 1969 was unfortunate in that the class had no fewer than four teachers. The first was Tauno Hannikainen (1896-1968), who had made a major career in the United States conducting the Boston Symphony, the Chicago Symphony and other orchestras. Hannikainen managed to continue teaching for two months before passing away in October and leaving the students to his colleague, Simon Parmet (1897-1969). Parmet, who had been an assistant to Arturo Toscanini and had made a notable career in Finland, continued teaching only until the following spring.

Teaching philosophy

In 1969 Jorma Panula (b. 1930) was asked to teach the Sibelius Academy conducting class, first temporarily, then permanently. He was appointed Professor in 1973 and taught the class until his retirement in 1993. Following Leo Funtek’s idea of giving the conducting students a permanent rehearsal ensemble with which to practise, Panula changed the entire way of educating conductors at the Sibelius Academy over the next twenty years.

During this time the class was completely reorganised and new teaching practices were established. The Sibelius Academy conducting students began working with a permanent rehearsal orchestra of their own – the most important of the institutional reforms, with the most significant effects. Panula also introduced video-taping at the first possible opportunity.

Method is a word commonly used in talking about the education of musicians in general to describe the teaching practices. Panula is described by his former students as a “man without a method”. Lesson is another word Panula rarely uses, seeing teaching rather as an ongoing collegial dialogue between the teacher and his students. Instead, his way or philosophy of teaching could be summed up with his own term “speaking hands”. He emphasises the role of gesticulation and the importance of non-verbal communication, where everything that needs to be said is expressed through the hands.

One of the key points in Panula’s teaching philosophy has been the idea of versatile musicianship, of “everyone doing everything”, as his former student Esa-Pekka Salonen describes it. ‘The Panula years’ have had a direct impact on more than just conductors. Young composers have also benefited from joint teaching sessions, while instrumental students have had a chance to study repertoire while playing in the rehearsal orchestra.

Transitional phase

Jorma Panula’s retirement in 1993 led to a transitional phase in the Sibelius Academy conducting class. As his former students have remarked, putting an end to such an intensive, creative and inspiring era quite naturally took time.

In 1993, only a few months before the spring term ended, the class was academically top-ranked by the Finnish Higher Education Council, and as a result received extra funding. There was suddenly more money to spend, and the class began to travel abroad. It visited London to observe Sir Simon Rattle at work, and later, in 1998, a bigger-scale conducting course was arranged with Jorma Panula as a visiting teacher and the Sibelius Academy Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, New York. After his retirement Jorma Panula was followed by Professor Eri Klas, who taught the class from 1993 to 1997. Panula has continued to work with the class on a regular basis.

The transition from the close, intensive Panula class to a new educational profile also meant changes in the teaching practices. Some of Panula’s reforms of, for example, the structure of the entrance examination and the conducting diploma were abandoned, while such profound changes as working with an orchestra and video analysis remained and are still the cornerstones of conductor education in Finland.

When Panula took up the conducting class post in the early 1970s, the Finnish symphony orchestras began to take an interest in it. They did, and still do invite young conductors to work with them. On the other hand, the contacts with orchestras have also become more pedagogically-oriented. New forms of partnership – such as the recent conducting workshop with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra – are actively being sought by the teachers of the current Sibelius Academy conducting class.

Towards an international career

One of the first conductors to take a diploma in Panula’s class was Atso Almila. He is now sharing the teaching duties with Professor Leif Segerstam, who followed Eri Klas in 1997. Almila started to teach the class soon after obtaining his diploma, working alongside Panula.

Almila himself has continued to develop the idea of versatility in conducting on the educational level, and introduced new elements, the ‘playground’ being one example. This offers anyone interested in conducting an opportunity to try it in practice, with the class’s rehearsal orchestra. Almila has also sought to establish active cooperation between the different training programmes, and, for example, the conducting students and future choirmasters work together on a regular basis.

The practical and concrete approach to conducting that was encouraged in Panula’s class made the transitional period between study and work almost non-existent. His system produced conductors more ready to integrate with orchestras than before. Their practical experience, and their highly professional approach to work, also made it easier for conductors to embark on an international career. Panula always encouraged his students to attend international masterclasses and conducting courses.

During Atso Almila’s time as a student and teacher in the conducting class the student body has changed quite dramatically, the Finnish students now being in the minority. Almila even remembers a time when there were no Finnish students in the class at all. The livelier exchange between music academies and the resulting internationality have affected the profile of both the education and the profession. This trend was already visible in Panula’s day as Professor. There have always been conductors who travel, the very nature of the job taking them from one country to another almost on a weekly basis, but during the Panula era travelling abroad became more educationally oriented.

New professionalism

The situation has since changed somewhat; students are leaving the class to study abroad more and more often, and earlier than before. There are student exchange programmes, international masterclasses, workshops and conducting academies. Most of them offer a very high-profile learning framework and opportunities to work with well-known conductors and orchestras.

On the other hand, there has in recent years been a growing tendency for students to ignore the Sibelius Academy conducting class completely and go abroad. The exceptional, high-level education offered at the Sibelius Academy still attracts many foreigners who want to begin their studies there, but at the same time many Finnish conductors have found new opportunities elsewhere.

Many of the first major appointments with orchestras are nowadays sought actively in the international field, and one’s ‘own’ orchestra may well be anywhere in Europe, or even as far away as Australia. Among the contestants in the most recent Sibelius Conductors’ Competition in Helsinki, for example, there were more young conductors than before who already had a post in an orchestra. This makes one wonder whether the competitions are still about gaining experience and learning repertoire, as they used to be, or whether their main purpose is now to become known and seen and, as a result of a commitment to a certain orchestra, perhaps also to do promotional work.

While this ‘new professionalism’ has in a way made the youngest generation of conductors very independent, there are traces of the Finnish ‘Panula’s class’ phenomenon on the international scene. Since his retirement the Professor has continued to teach abroad, and the ‘suitcase class’, as the students call it, follows him from one country and conducting course to another.

Teachers of the Sibelius Academy conducting class:

  • Jussi Jalas (1943-1950, 1955-1965)
  • Leo Funtek (1950-1955)
  • Ulf Söderblom (1965-1968)
  • Tauno Hannikainen (1968)
  • Simon Parmet (1968-1969)
  • Jorma Panula (1969-1973, Professor 1973-1993)
  • Okko Kamu (1970-71)
  • Alois Klíma (1972)
  • Atso Almila (1978-)
  • Eri Klas (1993-1997)
  • Leif Segerstam (1997-)