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“We are all composers” – a revolution in orchestral education work in the 1990s

by Anu Karlson

“The orchestra as part of society” could well be the title of an ambitious project known for short as Education work that has so far got a dozen or so Finnish orchestras bursting with enthusiasm. The most important target group is schoolchildren.

As in other countries, Finland has long been debating ways of getting music education across to all children in schools, to pupils from all family and musical backgrounds. There have been experiments with school instruments, school concerts and, just recently, the inclusion of more light music in the school curriculum. These experiments can hardly be called successful, however, at least if the number of children taking music as an optional subject is anything to go by.

Artist Professor Heikki Laitinen, founder of the Folk Music Department at the Sibelius Academy, once criticised Finnish music education by saying, “As recently as the beginning of this century folk music collectors might hear a girl of 11 singing her little brother a lullaby, each time varying the words, the melody and the ornamentation. Children today improvise and invent new songs for themselves, until they are sent to school. There they learn that all the songs have been written already and it is their job simply to learn them off by heart.”


Tapping the resources

Education work as applied to music was introduced to Finland from Britain, where the first orchestra to set it into practice was the London Sinfonietta. It is paradoxical and, no doubt, significant that education was not turned to as a means of solving a burning problem, as a way of overcoming a crisis. On the contrary, it was hit upon at a time when British music had never had it so good. The London Sinfonietta had first-class musicians, and a broad, well-rehearsed basic repertoire in which contemporary music occupied a considerable role, and all served up in a way that fired the imagination. What more could society ask of its orchestra?

The powers that be at the Sinfonietta nevertheless saw things in a different light: “Our orchestra is a tremendous resource and should be exploited to the full.” In 1983 this led to the appointment of an Education Organiser, Gillian Moore, and the London Sinfonietta became a pioneer in a field that could well be said to have witnessed a revolution: music education.


Schoolchildren compose The House of the Sun

Tuula Yrjö-Koskinen is a pioneer of education work in Finland. She has gained considerable experience of the field in England and studied at the Performance and Communication Skills department headed by the influential, visionary Professor Peter Renshaw at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. She returned to Finland full of enthusiasm and ideas and immediately set about planning a pilot project for the Finnish National Opera. Ilkka Kuusisto, at that time Director of the Opera, was, from the start, greatly inspired by the idea and gave her every encouragement.

The first education project masterminded by Tuula Yrjö-Koskinen for the Finnish National Opera was executed in 1992 in collaboration with the Sibelius Academy and with expert assistance from the London Sinfonietta. It began with a British-led period of intensive training for a group of music teachers and students, along with musicians and artists from various departments at the Finnish Opera. Numerous music professionals wishing to find out more about the project also joined in at this stage. The project proper then began with a team of artists from the Opera, five teachers and a hundred pupils from the four arts-oriented secondary schools in the Helsinki region.

As its theme and source of inspiration the project took the opera The House of the Sun by Einojuhani Rautavaara, the guiding principle being to give the schoolchildren an opportunity to compose, direct and perform a piece of music theatre of their own on the same theme. They were initially supplied with simple, basic elements from the libretto and score of the original opera, which they then used to create their own version of the opera with the help of professionals. They were not allowed to hear the music beforehand: not until they had “premiered” their own works did they visit the Opera to hear a performance of Rautavaara’s opera. The project was highlighted by the composer’s presence at various stages along the way – during both the process itself and at the actual performance of the works.

This pilot project was a tremendous success and elicited a highly positive response in the participants. As Tuula Yrjö-Koskinen says, it seemed that the time was ripe for such a project, and that there really was a true demand for this type of workshop-based education activity in Finland.


Orchestras go out into the schools

Two years later, some time after Tuula Yrjö-Koskinen had been appointed Education Manager of the London Sinfonietta, an extensive 18-month pilot orchestral education project was launched in Finland involving the London Sinfonietta, the Sibelius Academy and the Association of Finnish Symphony Orchestras. Planned by Tuula Yrjö-Koskinen, the project involved four symphony orchestras (the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra, Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra, Lahti Symphony Orchestra and Tapiola Sinfonietta) and 16 school classes from different parts of Finland. The project was jointly coordinated by the Sibelius Academy and the London Sinfonietta with the assistance of an administrative representative from each of the orchestras.

First the musicians were trained in preparation for their new assignment. Naturally not all members of the orchestra could take part, nor was there any need for them to do so. Three members were chosen from each orchestra; these musicians committed themselves to the project for its entire duration. Three intensive training weekends brought together the musicians and school teachers chosen for the pilot project over a period of half a year. The structure and content of the workshops were planned by the Finnish pilot musicians with the expert guidance of colleagues from the London Sinfonietta, based on the individual compositions selected.

“Education work”, billed in Finland as “audience encounter” or “creative interaction”, has thus been imported from abroad, but the idea already seems to have been in the air, for at least one project had already previously seen the light of day: the “Adopt the Orchestra” project of the Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra. During this project musicians from the orchestra visited schools and each class “adopted” a musician of its own. Class visits were arranged to the Tampere Hall to attend the final rehearsal before concerts. The children did not actually do anything themselves, however.


Guided improvisation

Once the training phase for the musicians and teachers involved in the pilot project was over it was time to begin the first school visits. Each orchestra worked with four school classes and made four rounds of school visits in the space of two months. On the first and last visit they were accompanied by a team from the London Sinfonietta, who also attended the final performance.

The Tapiola Sinfonietta from Espoo was the smallest of the pilot project orchestras and could not manage any education work within normal working hours. Two players were nevertheless released for each stage of the pilot project: the teachers’ training session and four school visits. “You could call it leading a music improvisation group,” says Jukka Rantamäki of the Tapiola Sinfonietta. “And it was extremely down-to-earth instruction in analytical listening.”

Each project began by choosing a work that was to be performed by the orchestra in the near future. Building blocks – a snatch of melody, a rhythmic motif, a harmonic progression, etc. – were then picked out for the pupils to work on. If possible, the work was one the pupils had not heard before, and they were not allowed to hear any more than the selected blocks until their composition was complete. Not until the final concert did the orchestra perform the reference work as a whole, after first playing the pupils’ compositions.


No such thing as an unmusical child

The Lahti Symphony Orchestra came up with a trump card which none of the other orchestras held at the pilot stage: Kalevi Aho, its composer in residence of many years. Aho did not hesitate to grasp at this opportunity and has subsequently become possibly the most influential and inspired champion of this form of music education in Finland.

“This is the way to teach music,” he raves. “If only we'd thought of it earlier!”

Aho insists from personal experience that there is no such thing as an unmusical child. There is no limit to children’s creativity, or to the type of music they understand. Children are, furthermore, natural performers. The composer in residence even claims that exposure to education work has released new creative forces in himself.

Aho’s observations are revolutionary because they concern all children, not just those who say they like music or have played an instrument. “Wow, we’re composing” was the catchy name of the Lahti pilot project, and it very obviously succeeded in divesting the idea of composing of any mysticism in which it might be shrouded. In Britain it has already been decided to include composition in the curriculum for all children aged 5–8. Let us hope that Finland will one day follow suit.


Discovering oneself

The teachers, for whom the education project meant a lot of extra work and organisational headaches, were also astonished and delighted in many ways. The following are just a few of the comments made by the Lahti teachers:

“To begin with the pupils were a bit bewildered and felt the assignments were difficult because there was no one single correct solution. But once they got started, they became bolder in experimenting with different things.”

“The pupils became fond of the musicians and there were no communication problems in either Finnish or English.”

“All the pupils took the project seriously and ambitiously and threw themselves into it.”

“The desire to play has clearly grown in the music lessons, and the pupils listen to what they and their friends have produced in a completely different way from before.”

The feedback from the pupils was much along the same lines, and almost all expressed the hope that they might be allowed to take part in a project such as this another time:

“It was fun trying out new instruments.”

“They were nice guys. They could explain things well if you didn't understand.”

“We were awfully nervous at the performance; we were afraid it would all go wrong, but it didn't go too badly I reckon.”

“My mum said the concert was great!”

Over the months that followed it appeared that the composition project had had a positive effect on the school's work as a whole, the social relations and the spiritual well-being of the class community. The “problem” pupils in particular found an outlet for their excess energy and their egos were boosted by their sense of having achieved something. The musicians in turn said the workshop had made them more sensitive to their own playing: from then onwards they would react as chamber musicians even when playing in the orchestra.


P.C.S. at the Sibelius Academy

The London Sinfonietta having got the education project off to a good start, the responsibility for its further coordination was taken over by the Sibelius Academy Training Centre. As of autumn 1998 the Academy will be offering a course in Performance and Communication Skills for the various arts together. The course is intended not only for Academy students and teachers but for qualified musicians as well. There will thus be more competent leaders available for education projects. Four new orchestras joined the project in 1996, and by the end of this year [1997] there will be more than ten engaged in similar education work.

The education projects are being coordinated at the Sibelius Academy by Riitta Tikkanen, a music teacher. The British model is being moulded to produce an inherently Finnish version maximising the strong points in the Finnish education system.

“The Finnish teacher training equips teachers for education-type work better than the British,” says Riitta Tikkanen. “Added to which we have a well organised arts academy system, which means we can spread the responsibility over the various arts. Education in England is more musician-led.”


Funds required

Putting fine new ideas into practice almost always calls for money. Education is not expensive in the long run, considering the numerous dimensions and potential involved, but getting started did call for considerable economic resources. The initial phase of the education pilot project was made possible by a generous grant from the Finnish Ministry of Education, with the assistance of the Performing Music Promotion Centre (ESEK) and the British Council.

The Lahti Symphony Orchestra comes from a poor city and probably could not afford to take part in projects at all if they ment an additional cost to the city. The members of the orchestra are therefore compensated for their efforts by extra time off in lieu of money. Then again, the Tapiola Sinfonietta is so small that it could not afford to give its players extra time off, so it pays them money instead for their education work. The schools operate as best they can within the confines of the syllabus, but the teachers wish there were more funds for buying new instruments.


Reaching out

Outreach – crossing the dividing lines between professionals in different fields, the various arts and, above all, composers, performers and audiences – is the fundamental objective of education work in music. The key to achieving this lies in teaching musicians new performance and communication skills.

Having been given an initial stimulus, the programme is now adapting itself to Finland's musical practice and education system. Tuula Yrjö-Koskinen feels this is a healthy development, which is well in line with the original objectives. Training remains, however, essential before new orchestral musicians and composers can be let loose on projects, otherwise the whole project is in danger of getting watered down. Leading a successful music workshop of a high artistic standard calls for a good command of workshop techniques and creative communication skills.

Education is not a one-way system, Tuula Yrjö-Koskinen points out, but a process of interaction in which all parties are both on the giving and receiving end. Offering people a chance to reach out and truly express themselves can be tremendously creative and fun, releasing huge previously untapped sources of energy.

This article was first published in FMQ 4/1997 and is now re-published with the kind permission of the author.
Featured photo by Heikki Tuuli: The Godchildren project concert in 2012 by Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra.

Some further projects and initiatives in Finland:

“KUULE, minä sävellän!” (Hear this, I’m a composer!) and KUULE! (Listen!) projects, providing children and young people in Helsinki the opportunity to compose under professional instruction since 2011.

Lahti Symphony Orchestra’s Hey, we’re composing!

Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra’s projects for children

Tapiola Sinfonietta’s audience outreach 

Turku Philharmonic Orchestra’s projects for students & youth

Opera and ballet for/with schoolchildren and young people at the Finnish National Opera

Composing is for everyone. FMQ’s article on the revised National Core Curriculum for Basic Education, adopted in Finland in 2016, in which composing is highlighted as an essential part of music teaching at schools. The article also introduces the Ääneni äärelle [Finding my voice] project of the Society of Finnish Composers, which focuses on teacher training for composers and the development of introductory composition teaching. 

Teenagers faced with art. FMQ's article introduces a gigantic cultural project that over a period of three years will take every 8th grader in Finland to visit two cultural venues. 

Opus 1 – composition pedagogy materials databank [in Finnish only] aiming to respond to the need for teaching materials prompted by the new curricula and to offer tools and perspectives for the introductory teaching of composition.