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Never too young to study composing

by Auli Särkiö-Pitkänen

The Society of Finnish Composers aims to beef up basic instruction in composition. The society wants to shake off outdated ideas about composing, expand the job description of the professional composer and focus on the music of the future.

Finland’s “music miracle” and the educational system behind it are perennial subjects of interest abroad. One of the latest hot topics is composition pedagogy, which the Society of Finnish Composers has actively developed through various projects in recent years. Finnish composition teachers have also recently discussed the latest trends in the field at international events from the Faroe Islands to New Zealand.

Composer Sanna Ahvenjärvi was among the speakers at a seminar organised in September by the Society of Finnish Composers. The Helsinki event summed up the composition pedagogy project of the past few years and set out visions for the future. 

“People everywhere have been impressed and excited about this,” says Ahvenjärvi, who has taught composition at the Jokilaakso Music School in North Ostrobothnia since 2008.

In public discussion, it is often argued that classical music institutions have lagged behind those in other arts. This has been seen, for example, in the recent heated debate around equality. Composers are often still defined by the genius myth, which suggests only those with exceptional talents can become composers. In practice, this has been reflected in how slowly composition has been adopted into basic arts education.

The principles of the new National Core Curriculum for Basic Education were introduced at Finland’s comprehensive schools in 2016-19. In terms of basic arts education, the fundamentals of the new curriculum were completed in 2017. In these, for the first time, composing was clearly included as part of the everyday life of both primary and music schools. Composing and improvising as part of music lessons and playing lessons implements the latest learning concepts, which emphasise creativity and holistic growth.

However, it is only recently that composing has also begun to be treated as a subject of its own, which can be studied at a music school just like singing or playing an instrument. In this new situation, professional composers hope to influence how composing is perceived at schools and other educational institutions. At the same time, they are doing grassroots work on behalf of the future of concert music.

“We still have much to do to ensure that composition teaching is seen as a task for professional composers,” says Minna Leinonen

A subject with equal status

A new way of teaching composition in schools has also required consideration about what composing actually is. Composers Minna Leinonen and Markku Klami have been closely involved in the Society of Finnish Composers’ pedagogy projects. Speaking at the seminar, they divided composing into two parts.

Composing is generally seen as part of a creative activity, parallel to the notion that anyone can dance, draw or write. In this sense, composing should increasingly be brought into the teaching of primary schools and music school, as urged by the principles of the new core curriculum. Suitable forms of activity include composition workshops and group teaching. Teachers can train themselves to be able to guide students in the basics of composing.

On the other hand, we should primarily talk about teaching composition as instruction by a professional. Composing as a subject at a music institute means lessons with a professional composer, rather than just a quick introduction amid other studies.

“We still have much to do to ensure that composition teaching is seen as a task for professional composers,” says Leinonen.  

Significant progress has been made in recent years, though. Minja Koskela, executive director of the Association of Finnish Music Schools, told the seminar that composition teaching is still new and confusing for many educational institutions. Students can however study composition as a major at 40 percent of the association’s member institutions.

One of the pioneers in the field is the Jokilaakso Music School in western Finland, where composition curriculum has been offered since 2002. According to principal Heidi Veikkola, it’s a matter of willpower: composition teaching was established early on within the same structures as instrument studies.

“After all, you don’t make a clarinet instructor teach cello lessons. The best composition teacher is a professional composer,” says Veikkola. “We’ve attained a high level of quality in Finnish music education, and that must be maintained.”

This view also has an international dimension. For example, composer Takashi Tokunaga, associate professor of music pedagogy at Hiroshima University, recently spent a year familiarising himself with Finnish composition pedagogy, including at the Jokilaakso school. In Japan, there is great interest in Finnish music education.

Composing is often seen as such a specialised field that it does not make sense to teach it to children. The thought is that for starters, it is sufficient if an instrumental or theory teacher provides an introduction to the subject. Various counter-arguments to this idea were presented at the seminar. Producing music from an early age is natural for humans, and children’s imaginations are not yet limited by learned concepts. Ahvenjärvi and Veikkola stressed that even a small child’s desire to study composition should be taken seriously. No one is too young to start studying composition, as long as the instruction is oriented to the individual child.

Tools on offer

Pedagogical projects implemented by the Society of Finnish Composers between 2013 and 2020 brought dozens of composers to elementary schools and music schools. The Ääneni äärellä (“Finding my voice”) project, which was launched in 2017 and still continues for one more academic year, focuses on supporting the elementary teaching of composition at music schools and the pedagogical skills of composers. One of the points raised by the projects is that everyone has the prerequisite to learn to compose. It just requires the right tools and interaction skills.

More of these are now available since the Society of Finnish Composers  completed its recommendation for composition within the National Core Curriculum for Basic Education in the Arts in 2020. Composer Markku Klami, who has eleven composition students of widely varying ages at three educational institutions, helped prepare the recommendation. Klami was also part of the working group of the Society of Finnish Composers and the Society of Music Theory and Solfège Teachers (MUTES), which created a comprehensive material bank for composition pedagogy called Opus1 in 2017-18. The website has been expanded in recent years, and its contents have been gradually translated into Swedish and English as well.

“The new Core Curriculum for Basic Education in the Arts makes it entirely possible to offer composition as a subject at music schools, and it’s worth making the most of this,” says Klami. However, it is unsurprising that educational institutions have been uncertain about this, as there has never been a curriculum for composition as a subject in basic art education. Now a proposed curriculum is available on the Opus1 website.

“For some people, studying an instrument may not be a suitable choice – for example if they’re really stressed out about performing. In that case, composing could be a better path to realise one’s own musicianship,” Klami points out. 

“For some people, studying an instrument may not be a suitable choice – for example if they’re really stressed out about performing. In that case, composing could be a better path to realise one’s own musicianship,” Klami points out.

Processing feelings through composition 

Developing the teaching of composition requires shaking off old conceptions. Do we talk about classical music as something in the past or as a living artform? Is composing a mystical activity or something that anyone can grasp?

“Perceptions of art music don’t match children’s world of experience,” says Leinonen. “Half of the students in a music class said they had composed, yet half of people in Finland don’t recognise Kaija Saariaho’s name.”

In her speech at the seminar, Leinonen emphasised the importance of interactional skills. This means both pedagogical studies for composers who are becoming teachers and recognising the social dimension of teaching composition. In the seminar, many examples were brought up showing how students had found ways to express themselves and their feelings and dealt with difficult issues through composition classes or workshops.

“How can a teacher support a student’s own imagination and the development of their expression? It is important to recognise the student’s own potential, to offer various ideas, exercises and reference works,” she says.

This interaction goes both ways. Klami says that his students have been a great resource for his own composition.

In the long run, basic instruction in composition is a question of the music of the future. How can we discover new compositional talents? How will composition be seen by society 30 years from now? Internationally, there is often a sense of wonder at the number of top music professionals who have emerged from Finland’s small population. It is not enough to invest in education as we have in the past – rather, education must be able to renew itself in pace with the changes in society and culture.

Photos: Maarit Kytöharju

Translation: Wif Stenger