in Columns

Music education from Finland: Experiences, exploration and excitement

by Petri Aarnio

"Rather than focusing exclusively on musical skills, Finnish music education aims to consider students holistically as human beings, from their very first steps. (-) Music education is not about the subject; it is about the people," writes Petri Aarnio in his column.

Finnish schoolchildren have repeatedly ranked at the top of the global PISA survey, and the Finnish comprehensive school system is currently being cloned in Dubai, for instance. The Finnish music institute system has also enjoyed high worldwide appreciation for quite some time: after all, it is thanks to this system that Finland has produced a disproportionately high number of internationally distinguished conductors, composers and instrumentalists.

Our goal of social equality manifests itself in how teaching is provided at music institutes. In a small nation such as ours, it makes sense to leverage everyone’s potential. Accordingly, the aim is to give children of all social classes and backgrounds the opportunity to learn music.

The content of the teaching is rooted in the tradition of Western classical music, albeit extended to include a variety of genres and updated to embrace modern, student-oriented pedagogics. The range of instrument tuition available is broad: instruments of the symphony orchestra and pop band instruments, and of course the staples – piano, accordion, voice, recorder and Finland’s national instrument, the kantele.

In order to level the playing field financially, music institutes covered by the Act on Basic Education in the Arts are subsidised by both the central government and local authorities. There are about 100 such music institutes, distributed evenly throughout the country. Almost all of their teachers are appropriately qualified, with a university degree. The teaching is governed by a national core curriculum.

An interesting feature in this field of teaching is a model of ensemble playing based on Finnish folk music, known as ‘Näppärit’. It is a scheme where musicians of all ages and skill levels can come together in a relaxed and encouraging atmosphere.

A new national core curriculum is in preparation for Finnish music institutes, focusing on musical creativity and improvisation. It will also allow theory of music, ensemble playing and instrument tuition to be brought closer to one another. Also, government guidance will be reduced, as music institutes and by extension their students can be given more leeway in how to evaluate learning and progress.

Khmo Musikkileikkia Veikko Somerpuro Pieni
Photo: Veikko Somerpuro / The Central Helsinki Music Institute.

The ground-breaking pedagogical work done by Géza and Csaba Szilvay at the East Helsinki Music Institute since back in the 1960s is an important chapter in the history of Finnish music education. They created the simple and easily taught Colourstrings method, originally for string instruments but since extended to other instrument families. The method also led to the establishment of the International Minifiddlers project, involving music schools in Australia, Austria, France, Germany and the UK.

Yet even though music is traditionally the strong suit in Finnish arts education, its export efforts are currently not doing quite as well as those of some others. A case in point is the Arkki project (School of Architecture for Children and Youth), which is leading to the establishment of a string of schools worldwide. Its curricula are licensed and localised as needed, and Arkki trains all teachers. There are currently four such schools in Greece, an agreement is about to be signed in the Czech Republic, and there are two dozen interested potential partners in China.

This model could easily be transposed (!) to music education.

I also believe that recognition of the wellbeing and health impacts of music and recent findings in brain research and genetic studies (see also the FMQ article) have the potential for opening up unprecedented opportunities in the nursing and health care sectors. One of the pioneers in this area is the Well-being Know-how Center of Eastern Finland or VOIMALA, where operators in the social welfare, health care, education and culture sectors have come together for a low-threshold exchange of services. Could the forthcoming health and social services reform enable a unique opportunity for Finland to launch an internationally available range of musical wellbeing services?




Khmo Huiluryhma Konserttilavalla Veikko Somerpuro
Photo: Veikko Somerpuro / The Central Helsinki Music Institute.

In the ideal scenario, the education of future musicians will begin before birth, with prenatal training provided for mothers. Children under school age attend music playschool before they even take up an instrument. Children who are learning an instrument have face-to-face contact with their teachers and progress at a rate that is just right for them. Students have responsibility for their own learning, which thus becomes both creative and fun. Learning also includes making friends, improving self-confidence and getting to know oneself better. Music education is not about the subject; it is about the people.

Global markets value critical thinking, problem-solving skills, cooperation, creativity, initiative, goal-oriented thinking, responsibility for self and others, media literacy and learning skills. All these can be improved through music education. Indeed, the instrumental (!) values of music education may soon come to be very highly valued indeed, as individual personalities are being increasingly appreciated for instance in Asia as societies grow wealthier. Quality is the most important single factor in individual-oriented teaching: after all, learning an instrument provides instrumental skills for managing other areas of life, and these two competences are different aspects of the same overall quality goal.

Given all of the above, ‘music lesson’ is quite an uninteresting term for what is actually a learning moment of experiences, exploration and excitement for children and adolescents. And the only limit is your imagination!

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi