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.

No comments:

Post a Comment