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Music is life! - For pedagogue-composer Soili Perkiö, music is not about accomplishment

by Amanda Kauranne

When reading the National Biography’s entry about Soili Perkiö, the living legend of Finnish music education, I begin to feel dizzy just seeing her list of publications. How is it possible for one person to achieve so much in a lifetime? The answer is simple: this pedagogue with a decades-long career at the Sibelius Academy, beloved composer, enthusiastic collector of instruments and active member of various associations, is someone who gets fired up through working with others.

“Children are a wonderful tribe who have a completely unique culture. The intensity that children have when they live in the moment is a goal of many major meditation techniques, and children are already experiencing it – and will for a time. That flow that enables them to face any situation, and the way all artforms are entwined in their life and play both fascinate me”, says Soili Perkiö, a specialist in early childhood music education. She chuckles when I start to rattle off her long list of achievements both as an educator and as a composer. 

“By my age, I have had time to get involved in many kinds of ventures. The energy comes from doing things together, and from music itself. During the past few years, I have managed to get even closer to young professionals through mentoring. Having been able to contribute to music textbooks has been an enjoyable facet of my career, as well as giving me the opportunity to influence the entire music education scene."

Music as a career choice

Soili Perkiö’s early childhood was peppered with everyday music-making: singing with her auntie and grandmother and in larger groups whenever there was a gathering at home. No-one in Perkiö’s childhood family pressured her to take up music. This is largely because her mother had been forced to take instrument lessons, and as a result she would only open the piano lid when the keys needed a dusting.  Only when Perkiö herself got motivated to play did she start taking lessons. After finishing high school, she decided to pursue a career in teaching mathematics, following the example of her own inspiring maths teacher who used singing as a way to illustrate the creativity of mathematical thinking. 

“He would make up songs about his students and improvise. For him, music was a part of an ordinary school day. It was tremendously inspiring.” After a year of studies, however, Perkiö realised that her fellow students did not share her enthusiasm for combining singing and maths, and she made the switch to the Sibelius Academy Music Education Department. There she learned about the history of music education, and soon began to spend her summers on study trips to Kodály, Jaques-Dalcroze and Orff Institutes.

”I got to meet people who had once worked with these legends, as well as getting closer to the roots of the Finnish implementation of these systems. I was excited to discover that one can access these courses all over the world!” Perkiö found her spiritual home at the Orff Institute in Salzburg where she studied creative music education for a year, and has returned there nearly every year to teach, in addition to her work as a lecturer at the Sibelius Academy Music Education Department. 

Music is self-expression

”I think about that child who lives inside of us, and the fact that all art forms are aspects of a greater whole. Different forms of art are entwined in a spiral, drawing energy from each other and giving out impulses in turn. It is an endless chain which enables you to discover yourself, the world and other people through art”, Perkiö muses.

“Composing is a form of recreation for me. It is something I do for myself in a heartfelt manner, and it gives me energy. Even when I receive a commission, I make sure to allow enough time for the process so that I never have to force myself to compose. That way, I can get to it whenever I have that tickle, that inkling that a song is about to pop into the world! Then it is easy to find the time and space for it, even with other things going on in my life.”

Perkiö’s pieces have been described as folk music influenced, due to their catchy melodies that are fun to sing along to.

”When I am at home and have the time to sing, I play with rhythms and look for natural repeats that make it easy for audiences to sing along. The way the song sits in your mouth is really important.”

For Perkiö, improvisation is a natural starting point. “A child will only need a spoon and a table to be able to begin exploring what kind of rhythms, or indeed noises, are available to enrich their lives. Improvisation is expression done by myself, and for myself. When done in a group setting, it involves sharing the feeling and mood of the situation.”

Ja Se Soi 2018 40 Soili Perkio C Inka Porttila
Soili Perkiö
Photo: Inka Porttila

Music is tonal colour

”I have brought back instruments of all conceivable shapes, sizes and sounds from overseas. They represent memories of my travels and people I have met. I fall in love with a sound and in a way ask the instrument how it would feel about moving to Finland! Then I start negotiating with the vendor, and then follow through the many and sometimes most peculiar steps at the customs”, Soili Perkiö laughs as she talks about her substantial instrument collection. 

Whenever she teaches a course, Perkiö brings along a big suitcase full of different instruments for the students to use. The instruments come in all shapes and forms, and there are no instructions attached.

”Through these instruments, I want to guide people to see that there is no right or wrong way of playing them, that they only need their own hands and skin. Skin meets skin or wood, and there may be the odd mallet in the mix. This may be one way for an adult to go back to a child’s way of marvelling at a sound they have just discovered, and to keep searching for sounds that seem like the best fit for them.”

Music is rhythm and movement

”In my compositions, rhythm is first and foremost the rhythm of language, playing and repeating, which will guide us into the song. The underlying harmonies represent an emotional connection, whereas the rhythm represents a physical connection to the music. Rhythm, whenever it is present in space as an audible sensation, is so irresistible to us that it will immediately draw us in. Music first begins a foetus, when during those nine months the womb is awash with a humming samba. The heartbeat is a bass drum that gives a solid beat to everything in this rhythmic body, with the maracas of our blood vessels sounding along! Rhythm is the first sensation we experience”, she says.

”Movement is visible music, and music is audible movement. This was the key message from Inkeri Simola-Isaksson, the legendary teacher of music and movement, and I adopted it as my own way of thinking. Now I get to teach music and movement to a new generation of music educators. It has given me an opportunity to reflect what it means to learn and understand concepts through one’s body. International research and my own experiences support the fact that children’s education must include art subjects and learning through their bodies, as it is such a strong way for many people to perceive things.” 

Ja Se Soi 2018 43 Pedagoginen Tiimi C Inka Porttila
JaSeSoi association pedagogical team: Markku Kaikkonen (left), Terhi Rauhala, Soili Perkiö and Elisa Seppänen.
Photo: Inka Porttila

Music is a community

”One of the challenges for the future is to include music education as a part of a natural flow in a school day, and to recognise what supports learning: positive experiences and alternating between physical learning and learning through thinking and analysing. I feel that today’s school is already heading towards this through the new national curriculum which includes the concept of phenomenon-based learning, where a lengthy period of time is spent examining a specific learning topic. I admire my students who display tremendous qualities as musicians and educators, and have the sensitivity to further advance the future of music education”, says Perkiö.

Should Perkiö at some point retire from her Sibelius Academy job, music education will be sure to remain a part of her life: “All of my projects in terms of producing materials, documenting my thoughts, composing songs and teaching at training courses will continue in Finland, as well as internationally.”

Perkiö is a founding member of the JaSeSoi association where she continues to be actively involved as an educator. Founded in 1985, the association operates on a volunteer basis and offers professional development in creative music education, catering to teachers all the way from early childhood education to the high school level. The association wishes to enhance their course participants’ pedagogic techniques and to offer a platform for collective thinking. “Every time we organise an event, it is a veritable firework display of creativity. Once you have experienced it, you will want to return.”

During the Coronavirus period, the association has drawn together hundreds of music educators from all over the world through their weekly Sunday Sharing event, giving them a chance to sing and play together online. Each session is led by a different group of people.

Put down your devices and start creating

”In today’s climate, it is so easy to satisfy the need for music – simply plug your earphones in and choose a piece of music that suits your mood – that people have begun to sing less. Luckily young children still need singing, and babies will not calm down unless they get their dose of music and movement, which means bouncing and some kind of sound, and even better if there are some rhymes and singing included”, Perkiö smiles.

Music education offers a form of encouragement for adults as well. “Parents who take their children to early childhood music classes know that music is good and beneficial for their child. Through these classes, it is possible to reassure parents that their own voices are valuable and important, and they should sometimes switch off from technology and make their own music instead. Music is not tied to formal music classes, it can be present in the smallest moments of being together, in mundane tasks and with the joy of inventing. Music is not just accomplishments, it is everyday life!” 

Translation: Hanna-Mari Latham
Featured photo by unknown photographer