View Full Version : Music Education in Finland

June Pelo
26-04-04, 01:05
BYLINE: Kristin Tillotson
CREDITLINE: Star Tribune (Minn.)
HEADLINE: Music education permeates Finnish society

HELSINKI -- Finland is filled with crisp air, steamy saunas, Nokia cell phones, double vowels, hockey players -- and classical music. Helsinki alone is home to five symphony orchestras. Nationwide, there are 21 more, as well as 12 regional opera companies. At least eight world-class conductors, including the Minnesota Orchestra's Osmo Vanska and the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Esa-Pekka Salonen, were raised and trained in Finland. More than 30 full-time classical composers live and work there. How has a nation of 5.2 million people -- a population only slighter greater than the state of Minnesota's -- produced such a surplus of talent? Outstanding music education is the primary reason. But at its source is a national attitude that music is not dessert, but an essential food group for personal, cultural and civic sustenance, and as deserving of government subsidy as health care and schools. Before the advent of the euro, an image of Jean Sibelius, the country's most famous composer, adorned Finland's currency.

"It's so ingrained in our culture; there is never a question about the government putting a lot of money into it," said Osmo Palonen, director of advanced studies at Finland's top music school, the Sibelius Academy. "This also makes music very democratic here, not just something for the elite."

Direct comparisons between music education in Finland and Minnesota are unfair. The Finnish government subsidizes the arts and education to a much greater degree than here. Finnish schools are structured differently, and the country's entire education system is superior in general to most others around the world. But taking a look at how and why the Finnish system works can offer inspiration and ideas.


Finland is filled with crisp air, steamy saunas, Nokia cell phones, double vowels, Vänskä, who began playing the violin at 9 and the clarinet at 10, would be considered a late starter today. On a Friday morning outside the West Helsinki Music School, there were almost as many baby carriages as cars parked in the lot. Inside, a music class for infants and their mothers turned into a hot lunch of homemade soup and fresh-baked pastry downstairs. "Oh, this is educational?" said Maarit Forde with a laugh as she spooned some soup into 10-month-old Matias' mouth. "I thought it was fun."

Riita Poutanen, the school's principal, knows each child by name and gives each a yearly individual assessment, making sure that each is properly matched with an instructor. "Especially nowadays, children are so alone," she said. "They don't have true relationships with enough adults, and they should have one with their music teacher."
A 20-minute cab ride away, the 15-year-old Espoo Center in the Helsinki suburb of the same name houses an orchestra, a theater, a concert hall and a music school. In one basement classroom, 10 children aged 4 to 6 hopped on feet clad in bright Marimekko socks to help them grasp the concept of 4/4 time. When asked by their teacher to tell a visitor what they were grateful for about music, one impish boy replied, "I'm not -- I'm just sorry we aren't allowed to eat anything right now."
Kids will be kids in Finland, just as they are everywhere else. But on that same day upstairs at the Espoo Center, in music-theory class, a dozen 8-to 10-year-olds still wearing their snow boots were studying music theory -- voluntarily. At this age, they are able to sing a song, then skip up to the chalkboard and write down the notes, the tempo and other details. The students at Espoo put on more than 200 concerts each year.
In Vänska's view, one of the most important qualities setting Finnish music instruction above its counterparts is how early children begin playing in chamber ensembles.

"For kids, playing as a group makes learning music so much more enjoyable than the individual lesson," he said. "It helps develop the musical ear along with social skills." All Finnish students are required to take seven years of music coursework. Also, third graders begin taking up to four hours of electives, allowing them to start "specializing" at a much younger age than Americans. "If you only educate those with a special talent for an art, the culture loses," Poutanen said.

Children begin school a year later in Finland than they do in the United States. But in many Finnish households, children learn to read music before they learn to read words. At the East Helsinki Music Academy, director Gza Silvay developed an early-learning method for kids too young to read that is based on matching notes with different-colored strings as well as images of animals. In Minnesota, by contrast, music education for younger students faces constant budget cuts. On Monday, the Edina school board will vote on whether to make significant cuts in its public-school district's fifth-grade music program, despite 80-percent participation by students in that grade. "Music is getting hit at the middle-school level, and anything beyond general music classes are vulnerable," said Kathleen Maloney, executive director of the Minnesota Alliance for Arts Education. "We're lucky that arts have been declared a core subject in our state, and that artists and arts organizations in our community are so generous with their time in the schools. But we need to change kids' daily experience."

Concerned parents across Minnesota are delaing with dwindling music-education resoruces by lobbying school boards. At Seward Montessori, a public elementary school in Minneapolis, parents held a fundraiser to help pay the band teacher, Maloney said.

Finland's economy was mostly agricultural until the 1950s, when rapid industrialization fueled a southern migration, enlarging Helsinki and turning some formerly rural villages into small cities.
In the 1960s, as different sorts of revolution were playing out across the globe, a sort of musical revolution occurred organically throughout Finland. These smaller cities started municipal music programs, often launched by locally prominent families, then maintained by the communities, nearly all of which also began a tradition of summer music festivals -- still a common way to spend holidays in Finland.
"It was all born naturally and locally, not designed from above," said Pekka Hako, a music historian and former head of the Finnish Music Information Centre. "It's almost like it's just in the air, in our national character. That is its strength." A love of classical music only serves as a catalyst for the creation of contemporary music, Hako said: "The aesthetics of composing in the '90s was everything melting together. People are willing to hear new voices, not just confirm the old ones."

The music scene definitely doesn't all center on Helsinki. Kuopio in central Finland, a sister city of Minneapolis, has one of the best new music halls in the country, along with the handsome, acoustically flawless Sibelius Hall in Lahti (where Vänskä leads the local orchestra).

Five professional trombone players, including the Minnesota Orchestra's Kari Sündstrom, were schooled in Tampere. Even the most remote northern city, Rovaniemi, has a strong music program. There is hardly a family in Finland, Hako said, that is not "emotionally connected" to music. Nearly 50,000 youth between 9 and 17 are enrolled at a music conservatory. Sündstrom, who has been with the Minnesota Orchestra for the past nine years and lived in the United States for 12 (he played hockey for Juilliard), began music lessons at 5. His parents had no music training; his father was in construction, his mother in the food industry. Yet he and his two older brothers are musicians. "I started out on the trumpet like one of my brothers, but switched to the trombone because I didn't want to compete with him," he said. "Also, my facial muscles are more suited to it." Tuition is nominal, he added: "The only money you really have to spend on school is for books." In fact, private fees account for only 16 percent of music-school funding; national and local governments provide the rest. Sündstrom's wife, Eeva Savolainen, has degrees in voice and music education. While she only recently began teaching part-time at her children's school in Roseville, she has observed some differences.
"In Finland, all music teachers are good musicians themselves and so can be great role models that way," she said. "Also, if you want to go to conservatory and take private lessons in Finland, you must take theory and try out. Here, if you have the money, you get the lesson."

In Finland, classical music has little of the elitist aura that tends to be the case in the United States. In the 1970s, there was an opera boom; two-thirds of a total 250 Finnish operas were composed after 1975. All over, little towns began staging operas, sometimes outdoors, sometimes with plots based on local subjects or themes. Here, learning and listening to music are truly democratic passions. Most top-priced tickets for orchestra concerts are about $25; for the best opera house, the top ticket is $50. And because the government kicks in partial tuition at private music institutions as well as public ones, many more families can afford one-on-one lessons for their children. Fred Plotkin, a New York-based music author and researcher, has been to Finland on musical-study trips four times in the past two years. "The first time I was there, I checked out the three local TV channels one night," he said. "On the first two channels, they were showing classical concerts. On the third was a debate, in Finnish. When I asked the desk clerk at the hotel what the debate was about, he said whether or not to build a fourth concert hall in Helsinki. Needless to say, funding was approved. "In Italy, where classical music and opera were once omnipresent, with the generation growing up now there seems to be no pride or knowledge or sense of necessity about it," he added. "Finland has completely devoted itself to music, not for any emotional or moral uplift, but because it is good for the brain."

David O'Fallon, president of MacPhail Center for Music in Minneapolis, sees the U.S. attitude as cultural bias. "It's somehow built into our DNA here that the arts are extras, not fundamental," he said. "Music is not a ride on a carousel. It is not something you teach so you can have fun little entertainers at the keyboard for your home parties. It is essential to the neurological development of children, not what you tack on after all the supposedly important work has been done."
In Finland, that attitude has become as permanent and pervasive as seven months of snowfall.
"Finns operate on the basic principle that music is good for people -- all people," Hako said. "Music education doesn't only provide us with musicians. It provides us with audiences to go see all those orchestras and operas." Vänskä removed his glasses and held them a short distance from his face, to illustrate the myopia he believes politicians can display when the subject is the arts. "When you invest in culture, it always comes back, " he said. "Always."

Kristin Tillotson is at tillotson%40startribune.com