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Equity or equality?

by Amanda Kauranne

What concrete actions have been taken to advance equality in the Finnish music industry? How can diversity be promoted? Researcher Heidi Partti, musician-pedagogue Puro Paju, festival director Linda Suolahti and communications head Sanni Kahilainen talk about programming, the possibilities of pedagogy and questioning the prevailing models.

The Finnish music industry must do better on equality, diversity and inclusion – that was a clear statement approved by the Finnish Musicians’ Union conference in May. A survey conducted earlier this year revealed that 76 percent of respondents have experienced inappropriate behaviour within the past five years. In particular, women, non-binary individuals, young people, freelancers and non-Finnish speakers had experienced discrimination, according a survey carried out as part of the Vastuullinen musiikkiala (Responsible Music Industry) project. Just over 1,000 people working in the Finnish music sector responded to the survey.

What kinds of projects have been carried out to advance equality in the music sector? What kind of future is the industry building? We’ll hear about the Responsible Music Industry and Esiinnyn edukseni (Safe at Every Stage) projects from Sanni Kahilainen, head of communications at the Musicians’ Union; the Yhdenvertaisesti säveltäen (Equity in Composing) project from researcher Heidi Partti, the Musequal festival from violinist and festival director Linda Suolahti and the Global Music educational programme’s pedagogy and values from musician and teacher Puro Paju.

Youthful first impressions are key

“When the Equity in Composing project began in 2019, there was momentum toward equality in the music field. Issues of equality and diversity were popping up in discussion and research,” says Heidi Partti, Professor of Music Education at University of the Arts Helsinki’s Sibelius Academy.

For a year and a half, the pilot project provided composition studies, mentoring, and opportunities for peer learning for a group of young people. Because the starting point was to identify gender-related segregation, opportunities were offered especially for girls and non-binary youngsters.

“We experimented with various pedagogical development activities in an effort to find new or alternative ways to teach composition,” says Partti. The project culminated with a composition concert in late 2020, which can still be viewed on YouTube. After the project, some of the young people applied for vocational studies in composition or music.

“We began the study with the question of why the professional composing field is gendered. Through the project, we gained a deeper understanding of how important composition pedagogy and the choices associated with it – and the values behind these choices – are in realising equality. In addition to focusing on the professional field, dismantling the situation must be done at all levels of music education. We need to look at what beliefs, traditions, and narratives guide practical behaviour in pedagogical situations,” she says.

An article by Partti and composer Riikka Talvitie on the canon of art music is now in peer review. In another article-in-progress, Partti examines how personal and culturally shared narratives affect career choices.

“The typical image of an art-music composer is a white, heterosexual cis man from a privileged background, a lonely genius. Our project dissembled these stereotypes as various professional composers talked about their wide range of career paths,” she says.

“While the project was excellent, I hope there is no need to do this again in the future! I return constantly to the importance of music education at comprehensive schools. It reaches all pupils in each age group and lays the foundation for the future of music in Finland. That’s why it’s crucial that every single child and young person receives quality music education in which everyone has an equal opportunity to find their own voice through diverse ways of making music,” says Partti.

“Every time a child or young person, regardless of gender, ethnic background or the socio-economic status of their parents, gets the opportunity to create their own music, equality progresses, as generations gradually grow up seeing musical creativity as accessible to all. The role of teachers is crucial here. What kind of critical reflections do they make on the canon of art music and the history of music, for instance? Can they help students understand what’s behind these phenomena? I hope the project helps arouse both individual music educators and the industry as a whole in terms of keeping these issues at the forefront.”

Heidi Partti By Joonas Kurppa Pieni Riikka Talvitie Maarit Kytoharju
Left: Heidi Partti (photo: Joonas Kurppa)
Right: Riikka Talvitie (photo: Maarit Kytöharju)

Worth the effort

Where then can compositions by female and non-binary composers be heard? One place is the Musequal festival, which has shown since 2016 that it’s possible to run an artistically high-quality, diverse festival by programming music from outside the canon, says its artistic director, violinist Linda Suolahti.

“Women composers are in the minority today, as they have been throughout history, in Finland and around the world. In the early years of the festival, it was really challenging to find the repertoire,” she says.

“Sometimes the composers’ stories were printed on sheet music or album covers, and we had to gather crumbs of information from them to use in our programme guides. When recordings or sheet music from works by female composers weren’t readily available, we had to spend part of our budget on planning the repertoire, for example by ordering sheet music and records. All of our programmes can be found on our website, partly because they provide information to others who are looking for repertoire beyond the canon,” says Suolahti.

Nowadays, more information can be found online, as well as from sources such as a soon-to-be-published book about Finnish women composers by Nuppu Koivisto and Susanna Välimäki.

The Musequal festival supports women in the field in many ways, such as buying services from female entrepreneurs and raising composers’ profiles through the visual arts. Works by racialised composers are heard throughout the festival programme, but particularly as part of a concert series entitled Murtaudu kehän ulkopuolelle (Break Out of the Ring). Commissioned works and composer residencies are also concrete moves toward equality, in Suolahti’s view.

“We commissioned four works from our first residency composer, Cecilia Damström, which was significant in her career. I’m wary of the idea of how people in closed circles decide who gets the next commissioned work or recognition. So we organised an international competition to choose the next residency composer, where the members of the board did not know who submitted the compositions and only the names of the finalists were announced. The competition was won by Iranian-born composer Rouzbeh Rafie.”

The festival has also encouraged others to work toward greater egalitarianism. “It’s time to abandon the idea that there’s some qualitative reason why works by female or non-binary composers have been left out of the canon of art music,” says Suolahti. “I hope that other festivals will dare to change their familiar repertoire, perhaps by combining the old and providing space for something different. I think the public wants to see and hear this change, too. Naturally, you can’t recommend or remember a work that you’ve never heard and that therefore does not evoke emotional memories. That’s another reason why it’s important to have an opportunity to publicly hear works by female composers, for example.”

Linda Suolahti3 C Maarit Kytoharju
Linda Suolahti
Photo: Maarit Kytöharju

What if there was no canon?

“It’s not egalitarian to think that we’re all the same in terms of culture and skill. We have different values and starting points – and that’s how it should be. It’s important to welcome diversity,” says musician Puro Paju, a teacher at the Sibelius Academy’s Global Music degree programme, which is expanding from bachelor’s and master’s programmes to include youth  education as well. There are already adult education courses as part of open university studies at the University of Arts Helsinki.

“Starting with the entrance exams, we build the idea that inclusiveness and equality are core values in our education. We’re working to dismantle colonialist thinking. Through actions and pedagogical exercises, we build the opportunity for everyone to be seen as themselves and to express their ideas safely. This allows us to do things within so many cultures,” says Paju.

The study language is English, but support is provided during the first years of study so that language is not an obstacle. Scholarships are available for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Studies can be pursued with any musical background or instrument.

“Almost all music professional training requires a certain level of knowledge of Western music theory, except ours,” they say. “If a student’s music culture starts from a modal starting point, for example, there’s no point in requiring knowledge of Western harmony. Therefore, we try to design entrance exams so as to allow people from many backgrounds to participate.”

The jury itself is diverse. The core team of teachers includes representatives of different genders and sexual minorities, as well as people of various ethnic backgrounds from four continents.

“That already improves an applicant’s chances of having a jury member who understands the culture they represent. We try to consider cultural diversity and gender balance within each group of incoming students. Of course, skill is always the most important,” Paju emphasises.

Puro Paju Kuva Sami Korhonen Sanni Kahilainen C Tero Ahonen
Puro Paju (left, photo: Sami Korhonen)
Sanni Kahilainen (right, photo: Tero Ahonen)

Representation matters

The Global Music programme is not a ‘world music’ course where one first learns to play Cuban and then Indian music. Rather, the focus is on communicating and finding musical ownership by collaborating with musicians from different backgrounds.

As each student is an expert and skilled representative of some kind of musical culture, students learn a lot from each other. Each of them develops their artistic identity by simultaneously deepening their own area of strength and bringing it into contact with other cultures.

“In this way of working, starting with the human encounter, there is an opportunity to get closer to real communal equality. Improvisation is also a major part of the pedagogy, because it can work directly from the palette that the musician already possesses. Our approach to music is also evident on the concert stage, when our Global Orchestra brings together traditional instruments from many cultures with Western instruments to harmoniously play music composed for them,” says Paju.

“It’s important to see from an early age that people from a wide variety of backgrounds can play different instruments as respected musicians. In the future, it should be possible to study music from around the world at music schools.”

“Representation matters. I was the first non-male identifying bassist to study for a professional degree at the Pop & Jazz Conservatory, and even as a child, people asked me whether I was carrying my brother’s instrument around,” they recall.

“The situation has changed for the better, but I’m still the only teacher who identifies as non-male who teaches ensemble players in the Music Education department at the Sibelius Academy of the University of Arts Helsinki. Sometimes I notice that that’s more important than I’d like it to be. Still, some students who identify as non-male, especially instrumentalists, experience so much questioning of their musicianship that they do their final projects on the topic. I wish that everyone would be able to focus on music rather than their role as a player in a community.” 

Anna Dantchev Presenting Safe At Every Stage Musicians Union C Rosanna Mantila
Musicians' Union's Community Coordinator Anna Dantchev presenting the 'Safe at every stage' project at G Livelab Helsinki.
Photo: Rosanna Mantila

Stronger measures on the way

Sanni Kahilainen, head of communications at the Musicians’ Union, points to recent studies on equality themes.

A study called Yhdenvertaisuus musiikkialalla (Equality in the Music Industry) study was commissioned by the Musicians’ Union and the Finnish Music Creators’ Association along with other music industry groups. Issues related to sexual harassment and racism had been studied earlier, inspired by the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements. But now we wanted to know the bigger picture about structural problems. Who’s being left out of the field? Have they been heard? Has anything been done about it? We weren’t surprised by the findings that most had experienced inappropriate treatment based on their language, background, skin colour, sexual orientation or gender,” she says. “The project was carried out by Inklusiiv, an NGO focusing on diversity, equity and inclusion. Based on the respondents’ experiences, it drew up recommendations for better working models. At the Musicians’ Union, we aim to develop very practical guidelines for the field based on the research.”

Concrete guidelines can also be found on the Safe at Every Stage website, which went online in May, offering extensive information on what to do when encountering discrimination. A number of music industry groups have been involved in developing these rules aimed at creating safer spaces.

The project is led by the Musicians’ Union newly appointed Community Coordinator, Anna Dantchev.

“We wanted to allocate resources to have a contact person focusing on diversity, organising events that actively create safer spaces and monitoring what should be done to promote equality,” she explains.

The future is young

“Among young people, there is more of an assumption that no-one should face discrimination. The culture will change with them,” says Kahilainen. “But if the music sector seems reactionary, do young people want to be involved in it? We need to show that our sector can meet the challenges and close the inequality gap by creating diversity and bringing new perspectives into our structures.”

“I dream of a future where music plays and singing rings out, where young people can create their own music no matter what they look like or where they come from,” says Professor Heidi Partti. “In this way, the professional field will diversify and flourish, too. We might start to think that definitions of music quality are not just about aesthetics, but about whether our ways of making music are equitable and offer opportunities to a wide variety of people.”

Translation: Wif Stenger
Featured photo by Rosanna Mantila: Panel discussion about the results of 'Equality in the Music Industry' survey and how the music industry should improve. Journalist and project coordinator Helmi Saksala (left) and panelists (from left): PhD and DJ Inka Rantakallio, Music Director of Nelonen Media Mikko Koivusipilä, vice chairperson of the Musicians' Union Pekka Lehti, artist and music maker Hassan Maikal, and Orchestra Manager of the Finnish National Opera orchestra Anna Kondracka. The discussion took place in G Livelab Helsinki on May 12, 2022.