Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The Future is Still Murky...and That's Okay

It's been quite a few months since I have written a blog entry.  In fact, we were still in Finland the last time I wrote.  My lack of writing isn't because I've had nothing to say - quite the opposite, actually.  It's more like I've needed time to synthesize the seemingly endless and relentless thoughts that are with me day in and day out.  In many regards, the transition back to life in America has been difficult for me.  I was not prepared for the degree to which this trip would transform me, nor was I expecting the transformation to affect so many aspects of my life.

Today is the 100th Anniversary of Finnish Independence, and this milestone has stirred up in me the desire to finally share some reflections on this blog.  Here's some of what I wrote in my first blog post, nearly a year ago on January 3rd:

"Now we are less than a week away from leaving and I can hardly believe it.  I keep saying that I’m ready to finally get going, that this has been looming for so long and I’m anxious to rip the bandaid off and just DO THIS!  But it strikes me every time I say it that I actually have no idea what all of this will be like.  There is so much unknown.  “The future is murky” has become my mantra - not only for my time in Finland, but also for what my life will look like after we return.  I went into this thinking that the Fulbright was the final destination, but I have learned that for most people, the Fulbright is a stepping stone that opens many doors.  And what are those doors for me?  I have no idea.  But the way everything has fallen into place at every step of the way gives me a sense of peace about the unknown.  I’m confident that taking this wild risk is the right move for us to be taking, and good things will come from it, even if it is hard to know what that means."  

As the title of this entry suggests, the future is still murky, and I'm okay with that. It is true that the Fulbright was not the final destination for me, it was most definitely a jumping off point. Here are a few tangible things that have come directly out of this experience:
  • I've been hired as part of the artistic staff in the Angelica Cantanti Youth Choirs and I couldn't be happier to have this beautiful, artistic, creative outlet in my life.  
  • My choir was invited to perform this September at FinnFest as part of the Finland 100 celebration.
  • I was also asked to present my Fulbright project, "An In Depth Look at Music Education and Children's Choirs in Finland" at the FinnFest choral symposium.
  • I have had the opportunity to share my research with multiple groups, including graduate students in music education and fellow educators in my school district.
  • I've accepted the invitation to direct the ACDA-MN State Honor Choir for 4-5-6 Boys in May of 2019.  Directing a state honor choir was one of my post-Fulbright 5 year goals, so I'm VERY excited for this opportunity.
In addition to the tangible, there is so much that I have gained personally, and so much that I hope is still to come.  To those of you who have listened to me talk ad nauseam about my time and learning in Finland, I sincerely thank you.  It means more to me than I can tell you.  I've never wrestled internally with something quite like this before.   I've been through many highs and lows on this journey of trying to discern what exactly I believe about education as a teacher and as a mother.  Each of the discussions, listening, questioning, and even the arguments, have been helpful in the process of me working through all of this.

So what exactly do I believe?  Here are a few things:

  • We need to pay more attention to "who" we are teaching.  The "who" and "what/how" of education cannot be separated, but I believe there is currently an imbalance in American education.  It is my opinion that teachers do give attention to this, but I do not believe we are encouraged systemically to really know our students for who they are.  We are trained to know their academic strengths and challenges, but not to really know them and their passions/strengths/fears/struggles.  We are also not focused on how to help them discover their own identity and then foster that into a happy, fulfilling, sustainable future.
  • I wish our littlest students were given more help and time in becoming ready to learn before being asked to learn.   Perhaps not having a lockstep system where students move ahead based on their birthday would be a way to address this issue.  Could we find a way to decide this that takes into consideration things like home life, previous personal and education experience, and developmental skills? 
  • I believe more attention needs to be given in the early years to helping students develop their character and identity.  Again, I believe our early childhood and primary teachers work very hard to do this in their individual classroom.  I do not see, however, enough support for this on  systemic level.  What I mean by this is the training and professional development we receive is extremely heavy on the side of instruction and content.  The academic demands placed on primary teachers are really incredible, and seem to come at the expense of character development.  My school district has a new program in our high school that allows students to choose different pathways in their education.  My understanding is that this is based on the idea that there are different roads to "success" and that "success/career readiness" doesn't look the same for everyone - and that's GREAT!  I would love to see this idea expanded to our younger students.  
  • Kids need more time playing and moving, preferably outside!  Really.  20 minutes of recess is not enough.  (Elementary students in Finland go outside for 15 minutes of every hour - 45 minutes of learning and then 15 minutes of recess.  All. Day. Long.)  Besides the obvious benefits of moving and using their bodies, I believe this would have many positive effects on our students.  Unstructured play time is where students have real-world interactions, both positive and difficult, with their peers.  This is the time when students can practice and apply skills like problem solving, conflict resolution, and other relational skills in authentic ways.  I've wondered if there is any research documenting the percentage of time students spend in teacher directed activities vs. self directed activities.  If you know anything about this, let me know!
  • American teachers, at least the ones that I know of, and especially the ones in my school district, are SO WELL TRAINED!!!  Our instruction is incredible.  I don't know how to stress this enough.  I wish administrators and others who make educational decisions could see what I saw in Finland.  All 8 of us Fulbrighters in Finland last year had the same observation:  Across all subjects and grade levels, the instruction we saw in Finland was not as engaging or rigorous as what we see in our home schools.  And the children of the Fulbrighters who were attending Finnish schools said the same thing. 
  • Finland's success is not due to the quality of instruction, it is due to three things, in my opinion:  
    1. The many social safety nets in place for all of their citizens, which results in their students being ready to learn because all of their basic needs are met before they come to school.
    2.  A society who makes decisions from the standpoint of "we all do better when we all do better."  It is a shared cultural priority to care for others rather than to focus on the needs of you and your own.  
    3. The purpose of education in Finland is to help students discover and affirm their personal identity as human beings, learners, and community members.  
What are the implications of all of this?  I see two primary sides to the equation of education: 
teachers and students.  I know this is over-simplified, but stick with me.  My personal opinion is that as a system, the vast majority of attention is focused on teachers and how to improve their instruction in order to increase student success.  My current wonderings are: What would happen if we trusted teachers and their instructional skills and turned our focus toward the students?  What would happen if our professional development focused on how to help our students develop their personal character and identity?  What if we had a system that accommodated and affirmed each and every child, rather than making children conform to our system? What if our early childhood education was more developmentally appropriate? What if we trusted students enough to let them take risks and learn/grow from those experiences?  

Who wants to explore these idea with me?   I'm serious! 

I know there's more...but that's a lot of what I've been thinking about.  And I have hopes about where these musing might take me.  I was not expecting to come away from Finland with a passion for educational systems and education reform, but that's where I seem to be.  I hope to move out of the classroom and into some sort of position where I might be able to have an influence on our systems.  That could look a lot of different ways (who wants to open an experimental school with me?) - which is why I still think the future is murky, but now that's an exciting thing to me.  This journey has taken me exactly where I need to be, and has provided me with the exact people I need in my life.  I trust that if I continue to listen to the messages presented to me and follow my passions, I will end up exactly where I'm supposed to be...even if I can't predict what that might be.  


Tuesday, May 2, 2017

"I teach children, not music."

Today is Tuesday, May 2nd, and this marks the start of our 10-day countdown to leaving our sweet town, Jyvaskyla. Bittersweet is the only word I can use to describe how I'm feeling right now.  We are genuinely excited to return to Minneapolis.  Each of us misses different things:
  • Rachel: our house, my garden, my parents and all of our friends 
  • Jerod: work
  • Ruthie: all of her neighborhood buddies and  horse riding lessons
  • Lydia: Cash and Karis
But at the same time, this has been such an amazing four months, and I am quite sad to see it coming to an end.  It's just so difficult to put into words what this trip has meant to us individually and as a family.  We've made such dear friends here, both with our fellow Fulbrighters, and also with people from Finland.  Our time here has been relaxing, simple, exciting, challenging, reflective, and transformative.  I'm honestly kind of nervous about coming home and trying to discuss this trip with people.  These four months have really challenged my understanding of education and culture, in deep, deep ways, and it sounds daunting to try to convey this in any sort of cohesive or meaningful way.  One thing that I've thought so much about how to explain to people, is all of the ways in which Finland is a "people-centered" society.  Their education system is no exception to this truth.

I have been sitting in one of my favorite coffee shops all morning pouring over the Finnish National Core Curriculum for Basic Education.  My plan was to write up a comparison chart between these music standards and those from the National Association for Music Education (the US common core standards for music education), both of which were written in 2014.  Once again, this task is proving to be difficult because it just doesn't work to compare cultures in neat little boxes like that.  I tried, I really did.  I've drawn up no less than six charts attempting to compare these music standards, and they just don't line up neatly.  It doesn't work, because they have different primary focuses. 

As I read through each country's standards, certain statements stood out to me that highlight these different focuses.  I've compiled a sampling of these statements from each set of standards that illustrate my point. I understand that this is not a complete comparison of the standards from each country, but I hope it helps to explain one of the fundamental differences I'm seeing.

First, here are a few non-music specific examples.

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-The Common Core State Standards provide clear and consistent learning goals to help prepare students for college, career, and life.

-The standards clearly demonstrate what students are expected to learn at each grade level, so that every parent and teacher can understand and support their learning.

-The mastery of each standard is essential for success in college, career, and life in today's global economy.

-The standards focus on core concepts and procedures starting in the early grades, which gives teachers the time needed to teach them and gives students the time needed to master them.

-Basic education helps pupils to identify their personal strengths and to build their future by learning.

-Basic education offers the pupils possibilities for versatile development of their competence, and reinforces their positive identity as human beings, learners and community members.

-The mission of basic education is to support growth as a human being and to impart competence required for membership in a democratic society and a sustainable way of living.

-Basic education encourages pupils to recognize their uniqueness and their personal strengths and development potential, and to appreciate themselves.

*Finnish National Board of Education National Core Curriculum for Basic Education 2014

Does this not make you want to cry?  I know it does for me.  America's standards are all about THE STANDARDS!    And it sure feels to me like there is a very narrow path being set before American students: college and career.  This can be seen in how we define a school's success - test scores! Finland, by comparison, appears to care about raising students who feel good about themselves, and who have a strong sense of identity, recognizing their own strengths.  It is written into their national standards that basic education should help pupils recognize and appreciate their uniqueness!  

This dichotomy is carried through to the music standards as well.  Here's a peek into them:

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The National Association for Music Education standards are divided into four primary categories: Creating, Performing, Responding, and Connecting.  Each of those categories are then broken down into subcategories.  

Because my purpose it to make a point, and not educate you all on the intricacies of music standards, I will use "Creating" as an example. 

Generate musical ideas for various purposes and contexts
-Plan and make
Select and develop musical ideas for defined purposes and contexts
-Evaluate and Refine
Evaluate and refine selected musical ideas to create musical work(s) that meet appropriate criteria
Share creative musical work that conveys intent, demonstrates craftsmanship, and exhibits originality.

Then, under each subcategory (imagine, plan and make, evaluate and refine, and present), there is an explanation of the intended "Enduring Knowledge" as well as an "Essential Question." And below the Enduring Knowledge and Essential Question are the specific standards for each grade. This is what the subcategories "Imagine" and "Present" look like:

Generate musical ideas for various purposes and contexts.
Enduring Understanding: The creative ideas, concepts, and feelings that influence musicians’ work emerge from a variety of sources.
Essential Question: How do musicians generate creative ideas?
With guidance, generate musical ideas (such as movements or motives).
With limited guidance, generate musical ideas in multiple tonalities (such as major and minor) and meters (such as duple and triple).
Generate musical patterns and ideas within the context of a given tonality (such as major and minor) and meter (such as duple and triple).
Generate musical ideas (such as rhythms and melodies) within a given tonality and/or meter.
Generate musical ideas (such as rhythms, melodies, and simple accompaniment patterns) within related tonalities (such as major and minor) and meters.
Generate musical ideas (such as rhythms, melodies, and accompaniment patterns) within specific related tonalities, meters, and simple chord changes

Share creative musical work that conveys intent, demonstrates craftsmanship, and exhibits originality.
Enduring Understanding: Musicians’ presentation of creative work is the culmination of a process of creation and communication.
Essential Question: When is creative work ready to share?
With substantial guidance, share revised personal musical ideas with peers
With guidance, demonstrate a final version of personal musical ideas to peers.
With limited guidance, convey expressive intent for a specific purpose by presenting a final version of personal musical ideas to peers or informal audience.
Convey expressive intent for a specific purpose by presenting a final version of personal musical ideas to peers or informal audience.
Present the final version of personal created music to others, and describe connection to expressive intent
Present the final version of personal created music to others, and explain connection to expressive intent.

If you take the tables above and multiply them by all of the categories, subcategories, standards, and grade levels, you can see that these standards are quite extensive.  

These standards are all about skills related to the content.  At each grade level, the skill level and content amount increase slightly, while guidance from the teacher decreases slightly. All of the writing above (and throughout the entire NAfME music standards document) is about what the children are doing with the content they are learning, or demonstrating their knowledge of a concept learned.  There is nothing listed about the students themselves.  Nothing about how the students feel about themselves, or what they are discovering about their identity, or how to work with their peers, or what we want the students to learn about themselves, or what we hope for their emotional or social health and well-being etc...

Image result for finnish flag

Now let's look at the Finnish music standards.  The music standards begin by explaining the "task of the subject," which is the same for grades 1-9.  Here is a sampling of this writing:

"The task is to create opportunities for versatile musical activities and active cultural participation...The pupils' musical skills broaden, which also enhances their positive attitude towards music...[teaching them to] be curious about music and cultural diversity....A functional approach to the teaching and learning of music promotes the development of pupils' musical skills and understanding as well as holistic growth and cooperation skills."

Did you read that last sentence?  Holistic growth and cooperation skills!  In their national music standards!

After the task of the subject, a more specific description is given of what this looks like at each grade level.  Here is the first sentence from Grades 1-2:  "The teaching and learning of music allow the pupils to realize and experience together how every pupil is unique as a learner of music and how musical activities at their best can bring joy and create a sense of togetherness."

Again, did you read that?! Experiencing together how every pupil is a unique learner?!  Musical activities at their best can bring joy and create a sense of togetherness?!"  Sigh...

It continues.  After the task of the subject are the Objectives of Instruction for grades 1-2.  I'll include the full writing, but I'll highlight the parts that really stand out to me (like the first objective!)


  1. To guide the pupil to act as a member of a music-making group while building a positive self-image
  2. To guide the pupil to develop his or her natural voice and to sing and play instruments as a member of a music-making group.
  3. To encourage the pupil to experience and perceive the sound environment, sound, music, and musical concepts through movement and listening to music.
  4. To provide the pupils with opportunities to express their own musical ideas and to improvise as well as to guide them to compose and perform their own, small-scale pieces of music using aural, physical, visual, technological, or other means of expression.

Cultural understanding and multiliteracy

  1. To encourage the pupil to explore his or her musical heritage through play, song, and movement as well as to enjoy the aesthetic, cultural, and historical diversity of music.
  2. To help the pupil understand the basic principles of music notation while making music.

Safety and well-being in music

  1. To guide the pupil to act responsibly in music making.

Learning-to-learn skills in music

  1. To offer the pupil experiences that help him or her understand why setting goals and practicing together are important in learning music.

These standards are about the students.  Finland's education system (and society as a whole) is based on the idea that each person has value, just as they are, and it is a teacher's job to help students figure out what that means for them.  Success is not so narrowly defined.  In fact, the entire system is set up to give people many options to find a path that fits them and helps them find their own way to success.  And it is no different in the music classroom.

I don't know that I have a neat and tidy way to wrap up this blogpost.  I just know that on the eve of returning to my American life this difference is sort of haunting me as a teacher and as a parent.  As a teacher, I wonder how I can possibly give this to each of my students when I teach nearly 700 students in two different schools.  When I only see each student one week out of the month, I can't possibly know them all like I should.  If I don't know my students, how can I help them discover their strengths?  How can I make their education individualized to them?  And I've seen how this shift in focus has positively affected my daughters, even at their young ages.  I feel like they have been celebrated for who they are, and I trust that if we stayed here that would continue. Their strengths have been encouraged by their teachers, and as a result, I do believe they have grown in their sense of self.  I see them talking about how they are smart, strong, curious little people, and they are proud of these things.  And in areas where they struggle, they have been encouraged to keep trying, with the belief that they have the ability to overcome hard situations.  They've got SISU, baby!   

Sigh...I feel heavy over this subject.  I don't have good answers.  But I know this is a difference I see that I think is worth American educators and administrators giving some though to.  

"I teach children, not music."

I honestly don't even know where I have seen that...probably on pintrest, or on a t-shirt at a music teacher convention.  Who knows?  And while I have previously been turned off by the saccharine nature of this sentiment, it has been floating around in my head as I've been reflecting on the difference between education that is child centered vs. subject/content/process/methods/anything besides child centered.  I still think it's a pretty cheesy thing to say, but I do think it gets at the heart of the difference between American and Finnish education.  

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Pedagogy: It's not what you think.

Warning:  This is a lengthy one...and a bit rambling at times...

I have been thinking about this blog post probably since mid-February.  I now realize the topic of "pedagogy" is at the heart of the differences between American and Finnish education.  Well, that and the way Finland values their people, which I covered a few posts ago.  

Before I delve into this tricky subject, I want to say that the process of struggling to figure out the Finnish understanding of pedagogy has been one of the most pivotal, meaningful, and personally shaping experiences of my entire time in Finland.  Much of what I am learning about Finnish culture has been easy to see: they don't wear shoes in school, the education system is free, they love salmiakki etc...  But this was a case of knowing that what I was observing was a new thing to me, but I couldn't make sense of it.  I have been blessed with an advisor who is good at sitting and talking with me, and who has given me literally hours of her time.  Most of our conversations have been fairly easy in that one of us asks the other about some aspect of our respective culture, and the other answers it.  This topic, however, was different.  I have come to understand that sometimes it is difficult to describe something about your culture when you are speaking as an insider, from a perspective where you're culture is all you know.  It's like the questions being asked don't really make sense because you can't even see what the question is.  What would the other option be?  This was pedagogy for us.  We were using the same word, but meaning very different things by it.  

Let's see if I can walk you through some of this journey....

Part of the application for a Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Education grant is a proposed inquiry project.  Here's an brief outline of mine:

I wanted to create a resource guide for music educators based on what I observed in Finnish choral rehearsals.  The main purpose of my time in Finland was to increase my skills as a conductor and choir teacher.  I was also hoping to come back with a handy little guide full of new tools and techniques that teachers in the US could take into their classrooms.  Chapters one and two were meant to be brief descriptions and chapter three was going to be the meat of my project.  

An In-Depth Look at Music Education and Children's Choirs in Finland

Chapter 1: Music Teacher Training in Finland

Chapter 2: The Finnish Music School Model

Chapter 3: Finnish Children's Choirs
-Conductor Responsibilities
* Choosing Repertoire
* Learning the Score
* Conducting Gestures
-Tools and Techniques for Teaching Musicianship Skills
* Vocal Development
* Musical Literacy
* Part-Singing
-Rehearsal to Performance
* Song Presentation
* Planning Rehearsals - both short and long term planning

As it turns out, Chapter 1 is the only chapter that will remain the same.  The issue with Chapter 2 is that the Finnish music education system is much more extensive than just music schools. And Chapter 3...well this chapter is pretty much going to be thrown out completely. It became clear to me almost immediately that I was asking the wrong questions in Chapter 3.   

Let's back up a little.  The very first day that Sanna (you all know her as my advisor by now, right?) and I met to talk about my project, she suggested I look at the pedagogy in Finnish children's choirs.  Excellent, I thought!  I've got an entire chapter of my project dedicated to this!  

Now fast forward a bit.  Sanna invited me to teach a handful of songs to her choir - quite a generous gesture!  The first song I worked on was "On Suuri Sun Rantas Autius."  This song is a bit like a Finnish "Shennandoah."  The words talk about hearing the wild duck crying on the shores of a beloved lake, and the cries make the writer long for their home land.  Like a good choir director teacher, I spent time analyzing the piece and figuring out what a good "entry point" was for introducing this song.  Vox Aurea, Sanna's choir, is an advanced choir and I had a hunch they wouldn't need much help with the actual notes.  So I decided that a way to get right to the musicality of the song would be to focus on the mood of the piece.  I read the words to the choir and then I played them an audio recording of a loon call, which was the closest connection I had to a wild duck.  We discussed what kind of emotions a call like this evoked.  I had the choir sing the song with those emotions in mind.  I also noticed that the music had no dynamic markings, which I found unusual and interesting.  I had the choir break up into small groups and discuss what they thought the dynamics should be throughout the piece.  Then each group took turns writing out the dynamics on the board and we sang through the song according to each groups dynamic interpretations.  I should mention, I was absolutely impressed with the choir's ability to sing the dynamics differently each time.  They really did sing with such sensitivity.  Then my time was up so I said we would come back to this next week and make final decisions about dynamics as a whole group.

Pretty good lesson, don't you think?  Engaging, analytical, opportunity for group discussion, and repeated practice of the song.  This lesson had it all!  I was supposed to have worked on two pieces that day, but what teacher hasn't run out of time for their entire lesson before, right?

Not so much.  Sanna's response was basically:  "What was that?"  Her general feedback was that in the time I had to rehearse, I only got to one piece.  They have very little rehearsal time to learn LOTS of songs, so there is no time for things like what I did.  She did, however, agree that I had told the kids we would decide on dynamics next week, so she said I should work on it again next week and follow through on my promise...but be quick about it!

So I taught the song again the next week.  I don't honestly remember as many details about that rehearsal, but I know we decided as a group on the dynamics and we rehearsed a few tricky spots that I was noticing note-wise.  I thought it had gone better.  Again, not so much.  Sanna still seemed confused about the choices I had made for that rehearsal.  She posed questions like "was I happy with the speaking vs. singing ratio" and "what did I think about the timing / effectiveness of the session."

I was starting to stress out!  I'm here on a FULBRIGHT, for goodness sake, and I felt like I was coming across as some American yahoo who didn't know how to run a choir rehearsal.  And it wasn't for lack of trying on my part!  I put a lot of thought into both of those rehearsals.  Aaaagh!

Sanna and I met the next week to talk things over.  At some point during this conversation she again mentioned that I should examine the pedagogy of children's choirs. As we began discussing "pedagogy" it was clear we were not understanding each other.   I remember her saying "well...maybe the issue is in each of our understanding of pedagogy."  But neither of us were doing well at articulating our understanding of pedagogy.  It was a frustrating position to be in.  I wanted to do well by her, and I wanted to learn the Finnish way, but we were struggling to communicate to each other.  

All I knew was that she was giving me another chance to work with her choir, and I did NOT want to screw it up.  But I didn't really know how to fix what I was doing.  I remember thinking and thinking about this.  I was frustrated, I didn't understand, and I didn't really even understand what it was that I didn't understand.  It was like there was this big black hole that I wasn't able to penetrate.  I can remember coming up with a brilliant solution to my problem as I was walking one day.  I sent her an email asking if she would be willing to give me a sample "lesson plan" of what she would do if she were me.  How would she use those 30 minutes to work with the choir?  I thought that if I could see how she would use that time, maybe I could prepare by trying to do my best at following her modeling.  She responded by saying that she'd be happy to try, but that's not really how she thinks about teaching.  She said she doesn't decide beforehand what she will teach, but she listens to what the singers' needs are and reacts accordingly.  She comes prepared with many different plans and then works in cooperation with the singers to meet a shared goal. 

Again, aaaaagggghhhh!!!!  Of course I don't disagree with this, but you can see how I was struggling with knowing what to do with this.  I mean, what exactly was I supposed to do?  I wanted a step by step guide about how to improve my instruction.

We met again and Sanna suggested that I talk with a professor from the education department who was from England but has lived in Finland for 20 years. Sanna thought a native English speaker with an "outsiders" perspective may be able to help make sense of the confusion I was experiencing.  

I met with this woman and basically explained to her everything I've written above, and this is where the breakthrough happened.  She understood immediately what I as talking about and described it like this:

In America (and apparently England too):
Pedagogy = specific techniques, tools or methods used to teach and assess different skills or content.   This is teacher or process centered.

In Finland:
Pedagogy = The process in which a child grows in personal and cultural development, and how the teacher uses various tools to help each child in the process according to what works for each individual child. This is student centered.

Understanding this difference made me realize I had been asking the wrong questions.  The question wasn't "what tools and techniques do they use in Finland."  Those are basically the same as what we use.  As Sanna says, "Educational research is universal."  I kind of agree. Instructionally, I have seen nothing new happening in Finland.  The difference isn't in their tools and techniques, the difference is in their approach to education.  So the correct question to be asking was, "How does Finland approach education, and what does this look like in a choral setting?" A primary goal of Finnish education is to help students discover who they are and to grow into their own personal identity.  Educational ideals are not imposed on students they way they are in the US.  There isn't one definition of success (ie, high scores on tests.)  Teachers here are expected to know something about many different methods and instructional models, and then look at their students as individuals and choose the instructional method that is right for them in that moment.  

So what did this mean for my time with Vox Aurea?  I decided to just focus on the music.  Each time I've been asked to teach a song, I prepare by making sure I know the score really well so that I'll be able to spend all of my energy listening to the choir and responding to what I hear.  I've taught through a very straight forward method - basically teaching the songs by playing the music on the piano.  There is not much creative about the teaching process, but then we get to the "making music" part more quickly.  And since I've done that, Sanna has said, "That was perfect, Rachel!"  This is quite different that the training I've received in the US.  I can see pros and cons to both systems, but I am avoiding making judgments, and simply trying to learn the Finnish way.    

As a result of all of this learning and reflection, the three chapters to my project will now be:

1. The Finnish Music Education Model
2. Music Teacher Training in Finland
3. The Finnish Approach to Teaching and Learning in a Choral Setting

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Finnish Music Education: It's complicated.

This is gonna be a big one.  Finland's music education system is quite complex, and I think we are going to need some visual aids to help sort this all one.  Here goes...

Remember this picture from a few posts back?

Visual Aid #1
For right now, we are going to start by focusing on the lower half of this picture:  Early childhood education through basic education (birth-16 years old.)

Finnish music education is divided up into multiple "pillars."  From what I can tell so far, there are four pillars, but there is honestly so much music here that I wouldn't be surprised if I'm missing something.  Each pillar has its own purpose, and it appears that different pieces of the music education are pretty compartmentalized into a certain pillar, and there's not a lot of cross over between them.  

Visual Aid #2

Basic Education

Basic Education/
Special Music Classes

Music Schools:
Conservatory (auditioned)
Community Ed

3 Yrs:

General Upper Secondary School

(High School)
Music Lukio

Music every day
Various courses that include many genres of music
Community Ed.

-Private instrument  lessons
-Music theory classes
-Folk music
-Pop/Jazz Ensembles and lessons
Youth Choir
Ages 11-18
9 Yrs:
Grades 7-9: Two compulsory music courses

Music every day:
various music courses
(Audition for Music Lukio)
Grades 3-6: Music class once per week

Four hours of music instruction per week, including choir

Grades 1-2: Music class once per week
Audition for special music classes -  may vary
Children’s Choir
Ages 7-10
1 Yr:
Pre-Primary Education (Kindergarten)

Music Playschool
Instrument Lessons
5 Yrs:
Early Childhood Education and Care

Music Playschool

Playschool Choir

The chart above shows the four main pillars I have observed so far.  Let's dig in a bit.

Basic Education
I don't see that Finland's music education is terribly different from American music education (in structure, at least) during basic education.  There is one exception to this, and that is the early years.  I do not believe there are any music standards for students younger than kindergarten in America. Here, all children do receive music education in preschool, and have access to music classes from birth.

So far I have only observed primary music classes.  I am still hoping to observe some classes in upper secondary, but have not yet done so.  After observing numerous primary music classes, three things strike me as notable.  First, there seems to be an overwhelming focus on instruments rather than singing.  The classrooms that I've been in are well stocked with instruments.  It is common to see class sets (meaning enough instruments for each student to have their own) of guitars, ukuleles, and recorders.  There are also usually a decent set of Orff instruments, a piano, many unpitched percussion instruments, and a set up for a pop band including electric guitars, drum sets, and microphones.  I've only seen singing in a handful of classes.

So many colorful UKES!

These kids were playing the guitar by plucking one string at a time
as a "bass" accompaniment to recorded music.  It was a nice beginner
level activity.

This is a kantele, a traditional Finnish folk instrument.
  It is similar to a dulcimer, but it tuned in a way that makes it very easy
for young students to play chords.  And it has a lovely, light sounds that
is suited perfectly for accompanying young voices.

Very nice recorder storage.
Bands!  This kind of set up was in every single music class I visited.

Second, music teachers seem to create experiences for their students, rather than rolling out lessons of explicit instruction.  There isn't much "do this when you see this" or "play this when I give you this signal."  It seems much more free form.  For example, there might be a quick overview of the song they will be playing, and then there is lots of time for the kids to "practice" on their own.  And I put "practice" in quotes because it's really more just exploring their instrument.  My advisor compared it to kids playing on a musical playground.  As in, they're just noodling around seeing what the learn from these instruments that are in front of them.
Lastly, pop and jazz music play a big role in Finnish music education.  A BIG role.  I would almost go so far as to say that pop and jazz are valued more than classical music.  The only other genre I see playing a big role is folk music.  I have heard quite a number of folk songs performed at various schools.  But definitely pop and jazz music are the majority of what I've seen students singing and playing.

One school I visited was particularly focused on pop music.  She started the 4th grade music class by having a group of kids show me their "band" playing ACDC's Highway to Hell.

Basic Education/ Special Music Classes
The easiest way to describe this is a magnet program for music within a regular public school that students must audition to be in. These classes begin in fourth grade and continue through what we would call middle school.  All of the students accepted into the program are in the same classroom, and they stay together from grade to grade.  For example, in the school I visited, there were two fourth grade classes, and one contained all of the students in the special music class program.  Next year, all of these students will again be in the same class in fifth grade.  Students in the special music class receive four hours of music instruction per week; two one-hour classes during the school day and a two-hour class after school one day.  This after school class is less like regular music class and more like an ensemble, made up of students in all the grades combined and co-taught by the special music teachers.  The cool thing is that the nature of the ensemble is flexible.  Sometimes it's a choir, other times it's an orchestra, or a ukulele ensemble, or an orff ensemble etc...   After "middle school," students may elect to either go to a regular lukio (high school) or take an entrance exam to attend the music lukio, which is essentially a music magnet high school.

If I were a child in Finland, I would be in the special music classes.  I would love all of the extra music classes and I would love being with a group of friends who love music as much as I do! As you can image, these students become a close knit group and end up creating quite a bond with each other over the years.  I observed the after school ensemble rehearsal of the special music classes in my town, and I was quite impressed.  The day I observed they were rehearsing as a choir.  I loved the repertoire the teachers chose, and I thought the whole rehearsal was quite engaging for the students.  I think I probably would love being a teacher in this setting as well because I love co-teaching!

I've been told that the number of special music classes has declined in recent years.  Apparently there used to be three schools in Jyväskylä with special music classes, but now there is only one.  It seems that despite the long tradition of music in Finnish culture, they are experiencing a similar fight for the arts as we are in the US.

Music Schools
Music schools are after school programs where people of all ages can study a wide variety of musical subjects including early childhood music classes, private instrument lessons, music theory classes, orchestra, choir, folk music ensembles, and pop/jazz ensembles and lessons.  There are three types of music schools: Conservatories, Community Education (not actually what it is called, but a similar system to what we have in the US), and Private.  The idea of public vs private and the prestige associated with each is the opposite in Finland than the US.  Conservatories are publicly funded by both the federal government and municipalities.  They are competitive, highly respected institutions for students who pass entrance auditions. Families do still have to pay a fee, but a nominal one.   Private schools, as it was described to me, are available to anyone who can pay the tuition, regardless of talent.  That said, I think there are some very good private music schools.  Then there is the community education program.  This is also funded by the government but is more of a place for people to study music as a hobby.

This seems to be where most of the explicit instruction takes place.  From an American perspective, and I am saying this slightly tongue in cheek, this is where it seems the "real teaching" is happening. I sat in on a theory class for late elementary aged students, with approximately 10 pupils.  It was based on the kodaly method and felt very familiar to me.  This is where students learn all of what we in America would call "musicianship skills" like sight reading, inner hearing, audiation, rhythmic and melodic dictation etc...  Many students who participate in choirs take theory classes and/or private instrument lessons in music schools.  I have been told that because they are learning to read music in these settings, these skills are not explicitly taught in public school or in the choirs.  There seems to be a concern about not repeating information, or making students sit through the same content multiple times.  It almost seems to me that the very involved students are catered to so that they will not be bored.  I do know that there is a lot of competition to keep students involved in choir, because there are so many activities for students to choose from, not unlike in America.  And it seems as if that may be even more the case here because these activities and sports are all much more affordable than they are in the US.


Each student had their own keyboard and headphones.  
They had spent the entire class up until this point working with one song, 
figuring out the solfege (pitches of the song) through singing, hand signs,
analyzing the intervals, and writing it on the staff.  Now they were discovering
how to play the song on their keyboard.

Children and youth choirs in Finland seem structurally similar to choirs in the US.  Choirs in this "pillar" of the system are non-profit, community organizations, have a board of directors, usually have choirs for multiple age groups, and rehearse in the evenings or weekends.  One interesting thing is the way they group students age-wise.  It it very typical for the "top" choir of an organization to include children from 10-18 years old, or even as young as 8 or 9.  One significant difference is that these choirs are typically funded by the city.  While there is a nominal tuition fee, the majority of the director's income is paid by the city.

Sanna Salminen and Vox Aurea

Pasi Hyökki and Tapiola Choir

While structurally children and youth choirs seem similar to the what I've seen in the US, there are actually many practices I've seen that seem distinctively Finnish.  The repertoire selections in Finland are largely modern compositions and folk song.  By my ear, there seems to be far less lyrical or romantic sounding music.  I've heard a lot of Baltic or "nasal" folky tones, overtone singing associated with yoiks, and an overall brighter sound.  It's very "fresh" sounding.  Despite the large age span, these choirs are still technically treble choirs, singing SSA, or SSAA music.  This does beg the question of where are the changed male voices?  The first thing I would say about this is that I have not seen many boys in general singing, and even fewer older boys.  This seems to be one similarity to youth choirs in the US.  Even though these choirs are technically treble choirs, the low alto parts (which are where the older boys sing) sound very low to me.  While the directors here in Finland say their choirs sounds like youth choirs, there are times where I feel like their music almost sounds like a mixed chorus.  I had an interesting facebook discussion with some American choral colleagues about how low is normal for altos to sing.  It seems as though the range isn't the difference, with altos singing between F-C below middle C.  I think the difference is in the tone or timbre of these low voices.  According to my dear advisor, Sanna, there have been studies done that show Finnish women have lower voices than women from other countries, and this is attributed to their long history of gender equality.  I know, it sounds like a joke, but apparently it is not.  Back to repertoire:  most of the music they sing is unaccompanied.  As one director put it, in Finland the harmonies come from within the choral music, where as in America the melody comes from the choir and the harmonies come from the piano.  This is of course not an accurate blanket statement, but I think there is definitely something to it.  And having the large age span of singers definitely allows for more difficulty in musical selections.  The older singers kind of help the younger singers along. Here's an interesting dichotomy:  while there is relatively no piano accompaniment in the pieces, the music is introduced almost exclusively through playing parts on the piano.  This was kind of a shocking one to me.  I am so used to presenting songs in a way that engages singers in the score, or helps to build their musical literacy skills etc...  You may remember from the music schools "pillar" that music theory and musicianship skills are taught there.  Thus, they are not taught in choirs.  When speaking with the director of one choir he told me that he will always pick students with a good ear over those with good voices.  I asked if he does anything in his rehearsals to help develop students ears.  He paused for a long time....and then said, "no."  It's just not a focus of rehearsals here.  And many, many of the students who sing in choirs here also play an instrument and and theory classes, so they come into choir reading music.  Those who don't just get carried along by the others.  To me, it almost felt like the rehearsals early in the season that were largely focused on learning new music were, well, boring!  I was honestly kind of shocked.  However, because there doesn't seem to be as much of a need to "teach" in these rehearsals, they get to the music making much faster.

There is one other thing that I absolutely LOVE about the Finnish philosophy about children's choirs or children in general.  Finns believe that youth choirs are not training grounds for children to become musicians later in life.  Rather, children already are musicians capable of making art.  

I love it.  ❤❤❤

So...what does this all mean?  I don't know.  It's a lot to sort through.  I think my general take away is that I feel like basic music education in public schools in America is more well rounded than it seems to be in Finland.  Partly I think that is good because I think my students are developing more musicianship skills than it seems they might in a Finnish music classroom.  And I am coming to realize how "American" this is, but I think the instruction as a whole is stronger in America.  (More on that in my post about "pedagogy.")

On the other hand, it is WAY easier and way more affordable for Finnish children to delve deep into their musical practice pretty early in life.  There are so many free or inexpensive musical opportunities available to students in Finland.  I would have given anything to have this as a child.  Really - it's pretty awesome.

It does leave me wondering about those kids who's only exposure to music education is from school? For me personally, I would choose American music education for those students.  If we are talking about students who are able to take advantage of all the opportunities available to them, however, I would absolutely choose a robust music education system like Finland's.