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Music for life

by Timo Klemettinen

Finland's music education has succeeded in combining the best features of the old Russian and Hungarian schools with the principles of the Nordic welfare state and democracy. Establishing a good relationship with music has become the basis of the new teaching methods. The audible result - quality - nevertheless continues to occupy a significant role.

A flexible framework for music education

When the basic framework for Finland’s music education was being constructed after the Second World War, the country was suffering from a shortage of music professionals. The primary objective was thus to produce competent professional musicians and teachers. Looking back, we can see that this objective was admirably achieved.

The underlying values of Finland’s music education were born at the juncture of West and East. As in other walks of society, these values witnessed a transition from an industrial to a technology and information society. Right now the trend is towards an entertainment and creativity society.

The pillars supporting the Finnish music school system have been – and still are – the government and municipal funding, the high standard of teacher training, institutional networking, the nationwide spread of good practices and the Finns’ high respect for music and the arts in general. During the process leading to political independence for Finland in 1917, culture and the arts were regarded as basic prerequisites for an autonomous nation. The national culture is still the cornerstone on which the Finnish identity rests in the EU and the global community.

Aim to encourage

Now that the professional music school objectives have been achieved, the focus in music education has shifted to developing the all-round personality of the child. The music schools have been relieved of their top-down external regulation and more decisions are being made at local level. The schools, students and teachers now have greater freedom to arrange the tuition as they wish, and as suits them best.

The student assessment has also seen major changes. Whereas it was formerly designed to check whether the students had reached the target level of knowledge and skills, its aim is now to encourage, to provide a basis for further study and to generate a healthy self-esteem.

More freedom, collaboration and practice

Tradition sits firmly in our collective values. The master-apprentice method is still at the heart of our music education, though the importance of playing with others and online pedagogy is growing steadily. Efforts are also being made to develop the instrumental tuition by including improvisation and composition.

Keyboard harmony is a new and important item on the curriculum for accompanying instruments. It releases the students from strict adherence to the printed page and means they can be far more useful on, say, special school or family occasions. Extending the scope of instrumental tuition and allowing for students’ personal musical preferences pave the way for the active pursuit of music later in life.

Collaboration between music schools and composers has grown considerably in recent years, and contemporary music is increasingly among the works for study. The idea is indeed to make new music a natural element of the musical experience of all children and young people.

The music schools are also trying to see music theory and its practical application in a new light. Instead of attending “blackboard lessons”, students learn theory via their own instruments and in practice. Personal experience and a practical orientation have become integral to the study of theory.

Future challenges

The present music school infrastructure operates well. Much of the schools’ work is funded by government grants; student-oriented standards have been set up for the educational objectives and the teachers are highly trained. In this respect the schools are well equipped to face the future. All in all, the outlook for arts education is thus bright, so long as creativity is, in accordance with Parliament’s objectives, taken as one of the factors necessary for Finnish society to prosper.

The modern media and the entertainment society nevertheless pose their own challenges. It is up to the music educators to teach that the value of the arts lies not only in their power to entertain.

One of the big questions in music education has been and will always be integrating the music made by the young on their own initiative with the goal-oriented music education provided at the music schools. The system must not be an end in itself, and nor must it smother individuality. Open, flexible teaching structures provide a framework for varied, pluralist music education.

Promises of fortune and virtuosity far away in the future are not sufficient motivation to practise. Only profound commitment and the experience of music as a meaningful part of life can sustain the pupil’s interest in later years.

The ideal future amateur or professional may be someone who is at home with all genres of music, who knows how to compose and arrange music and to use it both in everyday life and on special occasions: who is able to make music for life.

Translation: Susan Sinisalo

This article was first published in FMQ 3/2006, and is now republished with the kind permission of the author.

Featured photo: Veikko Somerpuro