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Good music education produces lifelong music-lovers

by Anu Karlson

Finland prides itself on being an exemplary country as regards its music education. Foreigners sigh with envy on hearing about our unique music institute system covering all levels from babies right up to PhD students and beyond. And although the music institutes nowadays receive considerable public funding, not one of them was founded by an order from on high; they have just sprung up in response to public demand wherever sufficient material resources have been forthcoming.

The first Act on music institutes was passed in Finland thirty years ago. The most significant clause in it was that on the statutory state aid to which the existing institutes would, provided they satisfied certain conditions, be entitled. The Act has since been revised a number of times, and as of the beginning of this year it was replaced by an Act on basic tuition in the arts. To put it simply, the trend has been away from the adherence to strict rules and regulations towards greater liberty and evaluation.

The Sibelius Academy and Finland’s eleven conservatoires recently commissioned an international team to carry out institutional evaluations. A year ago last autumn, as part of its agreement on results with the Ministry of Education, the National Board of Education ordered the first evaluation of the basic tuition provided by the music institutes. The information for this was sought by means of a questionnaire looking into the institutes’ operations and finances and by visits to the institutes by an outside team of assessors. This team was headed by Professors Erik T. Tawaststjerna and Kari Kurkela from the Sibelius Academy. The present article is based on the team’s report and interviews with the two Professors and Katarina Nummi, a teacher of the piano at the Espoo Music Institute who has also toured the music institutes widely as a coach.

The Finnish music school system has been hailed as an institution that lays firm foundations for subsequent vocational studies, catering for children from town and country alike and regardless of the family’s financial standing. Less than two per cent of those who study at a music institute actually end up as professional musicians, however, and indeed, this is all Finland needs. The music institutes thus basically exist to give children and young people a chance to learn the art of music making. But granted that the music institutes have done an excellent job in preparing students for a career in music, what about their other mission: to arouse an interest in and love of music that will remain with the pupil long after he has left the institute? Can goal-oriented music education and “therapeutic” amateur music-making in fact be reconciled?

Kari Kurkela points out that goal-oriented music education can also be extremely therapeutic. “If you had to express everything on a straight line, then you would have management by results based on outside criteria at the one end and the fostering of a personal relationship with music at the other. At one end the pupil would be a tool enabling the music institute to achieve its material objectives, and at the other the institute would try to create the potential for the fostering of a good relationship with music.”

Erik T. Tawaststjerna points out that it was, in laying the foundations for the music institute system, only natural to prescribe the grade requirements as well. And it is equally natural that, now that the objective has been achieved, new alternatives are being sought. “I feel it’s wrong for any very far-reaching rules to be issued centrally. Allowance should be made for the local conditions, and the teachers should be allowed to express their opinions. This was indeed the aim of the previous Act in 1995.”

Katarina Nummi, herself a grass-root teacher, goes even further: when a pupil first enters the music institute, goal-oriented education is not only in harmony with the therapeutic effect of music but a basic prerequisite for it.

“Milestones such as the grade exams are an extremely important means of sustaining the pupil’s motivation. You can’t tell a child that study is a lifelong project and you will never reach the end! With young children, particularly, the goals have to be very concrete. They want to know what they’ve got to practise for their next lesson and what will happen if they don’t. A large proportion of the teacher’s work with young pupils is didactic. You can use music as a means of teaching your pupils how to get on in life, and the art of enjoying life. And it’s impossible for any outsider to regulate the role of music in this process; the child himself determines the role which music will play in his life.”

Kari Kurkela is the head of a Research and Development Project for Music Schools (known as MOP) at the Sibelius Academy. This project has launched the concept of a good music relationship. “I find it an interesting concept for describing what might be the ultimate goal of the music institutes,” he argues, “and many of the music institutes have in fact incorporated it in their curricula.”


Unruly boys and good little girls

Fewer boys than girls apply for and get accepted for the music institutes. How could the interest of boys be aroused and sustained?

Erik T. Tawaststjerna: “Adding more light music has had good results, but if we want to keep up our classical piano and violin, for example, we can’t completely change the curriculum. There could perhaps be more composition teaching, and more of the group situations boys seem to like.”

Kari Kurkela: “It’s also a cultural issue and on a wider scale a societal issue, too. Boys need more role models taken from their immediate circle: Magnus Lindberg and Esa-Pekka Salonen are not enough. But girls seem to adapt more easily to being a pupil and to the necessities of the learning process.”

Erik T. Tawaststjerna: “What’s more, most of the teachers [particularly at the lowest level, the music play school] are women. The music institute is a woman’s world, just like the day nursery and the comprehensive school. I’m sure things would be different if there were more male teachers.” (According to the most recent statistics, 62% of music institute teachers [and over 96% of music play school teachers] are women.)

Kari Kurkela: “especially as emulation of the teacher does, to a moderate degree, usually have a positive effect on learning.”

Erik T. Tawaststjerna: “The example set by the environment is terribly important. Take the town of Odessa, where it is perfectly OK for boys to play the violin and families feel it is quite natural that their son might one day be a second Heifetz.”


Could new music and a ban on “boring” sonatinas be one solution for the young person who quite obviously rebels against the system?

Kari Kurkela: “It works in some cases, as a sort of protest at the “old fuddy-duddies”. All in all there should be room at the music institute for dissent; because it carries vast potential that ought to be exploited. And we must remember that dissent is always driven by strong inner motivation.”

Katarina Nummi: “We should also remember that there’s more to the piano than just pretty pieces and producing a nice tone. All pupils, boys and girls alike, should also be allowed to play pieces where they can hammer away like crazy. That, too, is one aspect of piano playing. And thinking of adolescence, this century has produced a lot of music with conflict written into it.”


How would you feel about a male quota?

Erik T. Tawaststjerna: “I’m not so sure… attitudes on the whole are so strong… people usually say boys should be out playing ice-hockey or sitting at a computer. And if a boy’s interest in music fails to call forth any reaction in his parents, it’s virtually impossible to generate a reaction by administrative means.”

Katarina Nummi: “Although it’s never been publicly stated, I always feel there’s a latent quota principle at work in the student selection process. We want more boys at our music institute! I certainly wouldn’t like to have just one boy in a whole class of girls. The boys entering the institute must have role models: an older boy who’s considered great and who’s enthusiastic and can set an example to younger boys is worth his weight in gold.”


Healthy competition an incentive

There’s an element of competition running right through musical life in Finland from the moment the pupil enters the music institute. Is this enough to kill art, or does it in fact act as a positive incentive?

Erik T. Tawaststjerna: “As far as the piano’s concerned at least, there’s a lot more to competitions than just deciding who’s best. They act as useful training events, the contestants get feedback and meet other players. The teachers also have a chance to meet their colleagues and the parents other parents. Personally I have nothing whatsoever against competitions. They do, of course, always carry their own risks, but if the teacher is aware of these and doesn’t make the competition a matter of life and death, then it’s an added richness in our musical life.”

Kari Kurkela: “Competitions are good tools in the same way as grade exams, but they shouldn’t be ends in themselves. There’s always a right and a wrong way to use any tool.”

Erik T. Tawaststjerna: “On an international scale, competitions have more or less become an essential part of our musical life. Even an audition for an orchestra is a competition.”

Katarina Nummi: “The more chances a young player has to enter for competitions, the better. Coming next to last in two but first in one is far more encouraging than coming last in one and one only. Listening to others play also gives pupils an idea of their own standard and a sense of proportion. The fact that so many competitions have more or less the same jury is, I feel, a bit questionable, however. Competitions should try to create a profile of their own, to make them distinct from all the others. Parents and teachers should also keep a cool head over competitions, both beforehand and at the post mortem after it’s all over. Pupils need the full support of both their parents and their teachers at both stages.”


Material and non-material asset

What about funds? Now that the Act on music institutes has been replaced by an Act on basic tuition in the arts, the music institutes are afraid they will suffer financially.

Kari Kurkela: The state nowadays grants the local authorities funds to maintain a music institute on certain criteria, but the funds go into the general coffers and may be diverted to something the local authority feels is more important. Something should be done to ensure that the council really does hand over the full sum to the music institute, that it also puts up its own share of the funds, and that any funds the music institute manages to raise itself do not result in a cut in public funding.”

Katarina Nummi: “Since the institute cannot compromise over the fixed overheads, above all the salaries of its regular teachers, it tends to cut down on its fee-paid staff. As a result, an orchestra is often out of the question, because no institute can possibly hope to find enough trombone pupils to warrant a full-time trombone teacher. Yet the orchestra is in a way the soul of the music institute, and often the side most visible to the public. The answer might be for music institutes to share a teaching post in some areas, but on the other hand it would seem natural for orchestral playing to be taught by a musician who does himself actually play in an orchestra.”


Could the music institute be regarded as a non-material asset to the impoverished local authority, as a means of helping to keep the rural regions inhabited?

Erik T. Tawaststjerna: “I would be only too pleased to see the music institute occupying a central role as the local provider of concerts. The institute must take its music out to the local schools and hospitals, and not confine itself to the institute hall. And the institutes are beginning to realise this.”

Kari Kurkela: “The profile of the music institute should be moulded not only by the national objectives but also by the local needs. This also includes making full use of the teachers’ special know-how. It’s not important for all to do everything.”


Student selection

How should musical talent and motivation be assessed in the selection process to ensure the best study prognosis? Does the pupil in fact need to have good study prognosis, and if so, how would you define it?

Erik T. Tawaststjerna: “Well I would say that some sort of test of musical talent is necessary, because not all the applicants can play any instrument when they take the entrance exam and prove their talent in this way. I personally would be prepared to trust the eyes and ears and instinct of experienced teachers in this respect. And I would imagine that music lessons are more rewarding for pupils with some musical talent than for those who have none at all and who find the whole thing a bore. There will always be the risk of failure in any test, but I can’t see what would be a better method.”

In the light of her long experience, Katarina Nummi does not believe that any selection method can unfailingly pick out the most motivated or even the most musical applicants. As an example she quotes one pupil who fell far short of the required score the first time he took the entrance exam at the age of seven but who came away with the maximum score after his first year at school.

“Even the most incredibly talented youngsters don’t necessarily stand out. I know some who have only got into a music institute at their third attempt, have then proved to be extremely talented by all standards and gone on to become professional musicians. Some just jog along for the first three years and then suddenly come to life and display great talent. Boys, particularly, often just mess around up to about the age of 12 and then suddenly progress in leaps and bounds. Then there are others who never get very far with an instrument but to whom music obviously means a lot. They, too, have earned their place at the music institute.”


How about trying to decide whose quality of life would be enhanced most by a place at a music institute?

Kari Kurkela: “Sounds an interesting approach. Or perhaps we could ask: for whom would study at a music institute later prove important in life?”

Katarina Nummi: “Magnificent – but how would you measure it?”


If Finland is in every way such a model country when it comes to music education, how is it that music does not in fact occupy a very central position in people’s lives? At least it is often claimed that the people who have been through music school do not as adults even go to concerts.

Kari Kurkela: “Oh I would say music is important to the Finns. You must remember that music also means light music and pop. The fact that concert music is not perhaps very important to everyone is another matter. We should ask ourselves what we Finns as a whole want of music. Do we want it to boost our national morale, or do we want it to express our innermost feelings and raise the quality of life? ‘Amateur’ means ‘lover’, and a music lover can be anything from a soloist touring the world to a listener of light music on the radio. It all springs from a love of music.”


Today’s young people tomorrow’s adults

But is there any musical life after the music institute? This question was brought home to me when a British amateur musician who has been living in Finland for a long time asked why all the music schools and summer courses are for young people only. There is virtually nothing for the adult who would like to play in an orchestra or a small ensemble, at least outside the Helsinki region.

Kari Kurkela reports that this is something his project, too, has been debating.

“At our MOP project summer school we got together to discuss The music institute in the year 2014. We talked for ages about adults and amateur musicians and realised they really do get a raw deal. I crystallised the question as: will people still be playing once they have learnt to play?

“The question led to a host of others. Such as: Do people look on music lessons as something you do when you are a child but stop when you grow up? Are people’s memories of their music lessons basically positive or negative? In other words, is leaving music school tinged with sadness or relief? Will people whose interest in music making has waned find their interest is revived when they have children of their own? Do people stop playing because there is no suitable context in which to continue? And why isn’t there? Should society arrange everything? Why can’t former pupils seek each other out on their own initiative?”

Katarina Nummi reports that the Department of Musicology at the University of Helsinki arranges regular chamber music activities for amateurs, but that summer courses are hard to find.

“I personally have had the pleasure of teaching middle-aged amateur pianists and I find it really rewarding. It is all the more encouraging to work with children when you know that music can give their lives meaning as adults even if they don’t take up music professionally. Another indication of a “good music relationship” is if, later in life and after starting a family, a former pupil encourages his or her own children to apply for a music institute.”


Erik T. Tawaststjerna is professor of the piano at the Sibelius Academy.  He has visited most of the Finnish  conservatoires as an adjudicator and to give illustrated lectures and was  recently a member of the team conducting an international institutional evaluation of the Finnish conservatoires. While holding master classes at summer camps he has taught numerous music institute pupils and met their teachers.

Kari Kurkela is professor of performing art research at the Sibelius Academy and head of an ongoing research and development project for music schools. He previously taught the piano at various music institutes and the Sibelius Academy and has visited numerous music institutes in recent years, training and coaching the staff.His book Mielen maisemat ja musiikki (Mindscapes and Music) has aroused widespread interest among arts pedagogues, psychologists and others.

 Katarina Nummi is lecturer in the piano at the Espoo Music Institute and frequently coaches at many of the Finnish music institutes.


This article was first published in FMQ 3/2006.