in Columns

Happy birthday to Finnish music education!

by Heidi Partti

The year 2017 not only marks the centenary of Finland’s independence but is also an anniversary year for Finnish music education.

The founding of the School Music Department (now the Music Education study programme) at the Sibelius Academy in 1957 was a major milestone on the road towards a high-quality music education system in post-war Finland. The primary role of the department was to provide students with the knowledge and skills needed for teaching music in schools in particular.

Music had of course been part of the Finnish school curriculum for decades, mostly in the form of singing. But by the 1950s, a need for a reform of music teaching in schools and hence of teacher training had emerged due to broader societal changes, a new understanding of child psychology and learning, and novel imported ideas. The journey from singing hymns and patriotic songs to a diverse and versatile music education had begun.

Lessons from the past 

Birthdays are a unique opportunity to both look back and envision the future. While we celebrate music teacher training as it is today, we should also look at history and see what we can learn from the past. Consider Uno Cygnaeus and Ellen Urho, for instance.

Cygnaeus was a clergyman appointed to develop a folk school system in Finland in the 1850s. His plan was a radical one, and as such probably shaped the future of the nation: free education for every boy and girl regardless of social class; high-quality teacher training; and the inclusion of arts and crafts as mandatory subjects in the school curriculum. Cygnaeus understood the importance of giving every citizen the opportunity not only to acquire academic and practical skills but also to gain aesthetic experiences.

Ellen Urho, who joined the Sibelius Academy as Head of the School Music Department in 1970, is also a major figure in the history of Finnish music education. Under her leadership, the department underwent its most profound reform to date, building on her vision of music teachers as multi-skilled and flexible professionals. Her visionary thinking is why today’s music teachers are educated in a master’s-level degree programme with a wealth of studies in music, didactics, pedagogy and research.

A look back at the history of Finnish music education reminds us how visionary thinking can make a difference. Rather than aiming to merely preserve the past or allowing the challenges of today to determine the course for the future, visionaries such as Cygnaeus and Urho were inspired by their conception of what the future could be.

We are now reaping the harvest of seeds sown long before today’s music education students were even born, in the form of a broad music education available to every child in Finland.

Visions for the future

The Music Education study programme at the Sibelius Academy has aged well. Its capacity to adapt to a world in a state of flux has been tested multiple times over the past 60 years. Music teacher training has also expanded in both volume and content. In addition to the Sibelius Academy, music teachers are now trained at the University of Jyväskylä and the University of Oulu, those programmes also focusing on musicianship, pedagogical thinking and research. Graduates of all these programmes find varied employment in the field of music as teachers at primary, secondary and upper secondary schools, as instrument or voice teachers at music institutes, or in other positions requiring expertise in music education.

The days when a music teacher needed to do nothing but teach musical repertoire are long gone. Current music education students are expected to gain extensive general knowledge of music, to master music-related subjects taught at schools and also to develop a personal pedagogical approach.

The socio-cultural, economic and political changes fostered by globalisation and technology have challenged music educators in Finland to a constant re-evaluation of their core values and everyday practices, and will continue to do so.

The requirement for music teacher training to prepare students for living and working in a rapidly changing and complex world is one of the basic tenets of the new curriculum that will be applied in the Music Education study programme at the Sibelius Academy in the coming academic year. Efforts to equip future music teachers with skills and attitudes that they need to work as change agents in communities include focusing on lifelong learning, intercultural competencies and skills for using technology in creative and flexible ways.

Professor Marja-Leena Juntunen, in her inaugural lecture in October 2017, envisioned the music teacher training of tomorrow as taking its cue from social phenomena such as cultural diversity, various ways of learning and inequalities between families. The focus in music teacher training is inevitably shifting, or at least expanding, from music teaching towards issues of social and moral responsibility.

Celebrating past achievements should not prevent us from moving forward. The challenge we face is similar to those faced by Cygnaeus and Urho: to discover new visions of what is possible. Pedagogical flexibility, the ability reinvent ourselves and the capacity to learn with and from others may be more important now than ever before.

Illustration: Minna Luoma