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Finnish music institutes take a flying digital leap

by Hanna Isolammi

When the Government shut down contact teaching in Finland because of the coronavirus pandemic in mid-March, music institutes also suspended their operations on site and went virtual. From the outside, it seemed that music institute teaching went online with amazing speed and ease. Yet this ease could not have been achieved without a huge amount of sweat and toil behind the scenes.

Eija Kauppinen, acting executive director of the Association of Finnish Music Schools, says that she is still astonished at how quickly the transition to remote teaching was achieved at music institutes. “It means that teachers have had to redesign their teaching on a really tight turnaround. But I’m sure that we’re all glad that we’ve been able to continue. Education providers haven’t had to lay off any teachers, and if there had been a long pause in teaching, we would face a much more difficult situation with musical skills when eventually returning to contact teaching.”

Tuuli Talvitie, rector of the Käpylä Music Institute, has received much positive feedback from students’ families for facilitating their children’s continued activities under these uncertain circumstances. She says she is proud of how her teachers embraced the remote teaching challenge. “It’s another case of the expertise gained through extensive, high-level education and training showing itself in many ways in this wholly exceptional global situation.”

For many teachers, the major challenge was suddenly having to come to grips with the software, platforms, applications and equipment involved. Most of the programs used for teaching were designed for video conferences, and as such they filter and compress audio frequencies outside the range of human speech. It is impossible to make music together in real time, and group lessons are complicated to say the least.

Although in some programs it is possible to tweak the settings so as to make the audio better for music, addressing subtle issues in tone and sound quality really cannot be done remotely without specialist equipment designed for conveying audio signals. Even simply adding an external microphone brings a substantial improvement to sound quality in a video conferencing program, but not every home has one.

Teaching content and goals have also had to be revised, because contact teaching cannot be translated into remote teaching as is. “This situation also compels teachers to consider their pedagogical approach: how they can manage to teach certain things over a remote connection. They were now forced into doing this, but no doubt the process will have been useful in the long run too,” says Eija Kauppinen.

Miika Snare C Tuutikki Tolonen
Miika Snåre with his students Maia and Aili before the coronavirus pandemic.
Photo: Tuutikki Tolonen

Skype concerts and diverse music-making

Some of Finland’s music institute teachers already had experience in using the software, platforms and equipment used for remote teaching. Miika Snåre, who teaches the guitar and structural awareness of music at the East Helsinki Music Institute besides being the resident digital tutor says that he was already familiar with digital equipment and the relevant software because of his own training and interest. “In remote teaching, I’ve simply adopted many of the digital tools I was thinking about earlier than I’d intended. This is a great way to try them out in real life,” he says.

Snåre sees a lot of positive things in digital teaching. One of them is that it integrates music as a hobby more thoroughly into the student’s life, especially in the case of middle school pupils and advanced amateurs. “My students make home pages which they can decorate as they wish and where they can document their musical pursuits besides posting their proficiency demonstration videos – their own songs or GarageBand recordings. This blends their music institute studies into their musical interests in general.”

Snåre notes that using studio software prompts students to create a more polished final product, as they are able to listen to and edit their own singing and playing. “It also allows them to perform music across genre boundaries,” he says.

Sanna Vaarni, lecturer in piano at the Espoo Music Institute, was also acquainted with remote teaching in practice before the coronavirus pandemic. “I had given lessons via Skype for students who had moved abroad, for instance,” she says. Also, Vaarni has been using audio and video recordings as teaching tools for quite some time. In the current circumstances, this has become a weekly practice. “My advanced students, who are almost of professional calibre, always send me an audio recording for their lesson, and I begin each lesson by listening to the student’s recording because the audio quality is much better. Then I contact the student via Skype and we begin the live lesson.”

Vaarni reports that the highlights of her remote teaching weeks are the two weekly student recitals on Skype. These have been streamed not just among the students but also to nursing homes in Espoo. “Some people have been listening to my student recitals live online, and the recordings of them can of course be played multiple times later. The nursing home residents have been really appreciative in their feedback, since visits to nursing homes are now prohibited.”

Peer learning in social media

In contrast to the above, many teachers were faced with a completely new situation when remote teaching was mandated, and groups were hurriedly set up on music institute websites and on social media to collect know-how, tips, peer support and generally ideas about remote teaching. When reading the Facebook group Musiikin etäopetus [Remote teaching of music], it becomes apparent that there is a huge number of programs, applications and platforms designed for music out there and that many teachers are keen to learn how to use them. On the other hand, the discussions in the group demonstrate that this is not always easy.

Few institutions have coherent instructions or equipment available to everyone, and teachers have therefore been given both the freedom and the responsibility to find the tools that suit them best. “I think it’s excellent that our professional community has camped out in social media in these circumstances to share their digital experiences and observations. At times it’s like the blind leading the blind, because in their enthusiasm teachers sometimes share tips that don’t really work,” says Miika Snåre.

Teachers differ hugely in their digital skills, but so do the students and their families. Sirkka Mäkelä, who teaches structural awareness of music at Ilmajoki, says that she deliberately uses media and software with which the students are already familiar. “Children don’t necessarily have advanced IT skills, so I’ve chosen to use channels that they know. We mostly communicate via WhatsApp and e-mail,” she says.

Composer Markku Klami, who teaches composition and structural awareness of music at several music institutes in the Helsinki metropolitan area, explains that high-quality contact teaching promotes equality: “Although remote teaching has its merits, it does require not only being competent in using new technology but also having access to that technology in the first place. The financial situation of families is a factor in this, and from what I’ve heard there are regional differences too.”

Sanna Vaarni C Giuseppe Salerno Markku Klami C Laura Karlin
Sanna Vaarni by Giuseppe Salerno
Markku Klami by Laura Karlin

Dedicated educators

Markku Klami says that remote teaching is a relatively good fit for teaching composition. “If a student has a recording or sheet music of their work, it is quite easy to share it online, and the screen sharing features of current software allow quite a good facility for reviewing material during a video session.” Klami reports having tested several programs: “I’ve learned a lot along the way, and in the past weeks I’ve come to understand the key technological needs for my teaching and the suitability of various programs and platforms for teaching composition. I’ve spent a remarkable amount of time on this.”

All the teachers interviewed agree that they now have to use more time in preparation: the time spent in planning lessons has increased by a factor of two or three. However, this is bound to come down as their skills improve and procedures become established. “Digital devices are like instruments – you can’t expect to become a virtuoso overnight,” Miika Snåre points out. “With the coronavirus, many of us have simply been shoved out on stage to play an unfamiliar instrument, so to speak. My advice is to be lenient with yourself and to select any solution that will get you through your teaching.”

Tuuli Talvitie reports that as a rector she is particularly worried about how teachers are coping with the stress of the situation: “How can I, as a supervisor, guarantee equitable working conditions for teachers from completely different backgrounds and ensure that no one is overstressed? And how can we maintain enthusiasm and a community spirit when we only see each other via a video link?” Talvitie says that the Käpylä Music Institute will return to contact teaching as soon as it is allowed. “We’re not going to remain a ‘virtual music institute’ or a ‘remote music institute’. Contact teaching, interaction, social contacts, community and education via music will remain our core mission.”

Kmo Ukri Siiralakonsertoi C Tiia Ignatius
Ukri Siirala (cello) and Terhi Siirala (piano) performing a concert online
Photo: Tiia Ignatius (cello teacher at Käpylä Music Institute)

Life after quarantine

The teachers interviewed agree that remote teaching can never fully replace face-to-face teaching. In addition to the poor sound quality and the impossibility of ensemble playing, something in human interaction remains lacking when the people are not in the same room. “Even if you have a video link, any remote communication has a distancing element to it. The natural mode of human interaction is meeting in person, not via technology,” says Markku Klami.

The physical presence of the teacher makes things easier and quicker especially in the teaching of beginners. “What I miss in remote teaching is the element of touch. I can’t show the student paths of motion by guiding their hand, for instance,” says Sanna Vaarni. “It’s also impossible to play music with the student, which is what I do a lot in contact teaching.” Although concerts can be simulated through streaming or videoconferencing software, the experience is always somehow unsatisfactory.

Despite all of the above, some practices adopted during this spring’s digital leap will no doubt become a permanent feature of contact teaching too. In discussions in the aforementioned Facebook group, teachers who teach at several music institutes or several locations have declared that they would be willing to continue using remote teaching for some of their lessons. Remote teaching would also be useful in case of a mild flu, to prevent contagion. Recording music-making on video for teaching purposes has also become a natural part of studies at a music institute for many. “It’s useful to make a documentary database of your musical history that you may want to enjoy later in life,” notes Miika Snåre.

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Featured photo: Sanna Vaarni