A Nation of Musicians

April 27, 2023

Finland’s extraordinary commitment to music can be traced in part to a struggle to reassert its unique cultural identity in the 19th century. Ultimately, the country created a huge and effective network of state-supported music schools—which now face a set of new, very 21st-century challenges.

According to choral director Pasi Hyökki, Finland’s extraordinary success in music education shouldn’t be judged solely by its disproportionate production of international superstars, such as soprano Karita Mattila or conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen. “When looking at ail educational system,” advises Hyokki, “the most important thing to notice is the general level of knowledge of those involved.”

The general level of musical knowledge in Finland is high. With only 5.3 million people, the nation has established a government-supported, regionally dispersed network of music schools serving students from elementary through high school. In addition to attending their regular schools full time, about 50,000 Finnish children and teens (half of those who apply) are accepted for after-school study in one of the system’s 98 music schools. Average weekly after-school instruction in a state-supported music school includes an hour-long private lesson in the student’s main instrument; 60-90 minutes of music theory, solfège, and music history; 60-90 minutes of ensemble playing; and the possibility of studying a second instrument or a subject such as music technology.

The state covers half (or 50 million Euros) of the annual cost of music school operations; municipal funding amounts to one-third, leaving 17 percent for fees. Music school tuition is typically 400 Euros, or $625, per year about $12 per week.

At the highest level of the system is the Sibelius Academy, which trains the most advanced performers and the teachers. A recent addition at the base of the system is a chain of music “playschools,” which 25,000 preschoolers attend. All in all, the educational setup is superbly equipped not only to single out brightest of musical talents, but also to provide a chance for personal growth and development for those wanting to make a lifelong hobby of music.

Music is also taught in the comprehensive schools (equivalent to our public school system), and about 140 private music schools and 240 adult education centers provide music instruction. Most of these programs emphasize a general music curriculum, with the primary aim of creating a good relationship with and a lifelong interest in music.

Given the current panoply of music education institutions, it may be hard to believe that it was a shortage of music professionals that spurred the for·mation of the Finnish system in the first place. In the decades after World War II, the immediate objective was the production of competent professional musicians and music teachers. A surge in the public’s interest in music in the 1960s culminated in a 1969 parliamentary act mandating music education for all; and music schools began to open at an ever-increasing pace.

But a complete explanation for the nation’s broad governmental and public interest in arts requires looking much further back in history, to the beginnings of the Finnish language and culture and the formation of national identity.

Singing—in a trochaic tetrameter often referred to as the Kalevala meter—had been a tradition among speakers of Balto-Finnic languages since before the Christian Era. These indigenous songs were a vibrant part of local Finnish culture for about two thousand years, until the Reformation, when the Lutheran Church declared the songs to be pagan and banned them. The Finnish language itself—already subordinated during the long period of Swedish colonization (from the 13th century until the early 19th century, at which point Finland was annexed by Russia)—had become the vernacular, while Swedish was the language of the administrative classes. And starting in the 16th century, new musical trends from the West were finding a foothold in Finland, and church hymns began to replace the archaic songs.

The turning point came in 1835, with the appearance of the first printed edition of the Kalevala, the national epic poem of Finland. Collected, compiled and edited by the linguist Elias Lönnrot, the newly published Kalevala brought the tradition of a small, unknown people to the attention of other Europeans and bolstered the Finnish sense of identity. For composers who came of age during and after the late 19th century, the Kalevala proved a virtual goldmine. The young Jean Sibelius was not the only one to dig into this rich poetic tradition; numerous others also found inspiration in the wild stories, deeply human lyric songs, ritualistic poems, and in the verbal magic of the Kalevala meter.

“When one talks about music in Finland,” says Pasi Hyökki, “links can always be traced to the long tradition, the fight for freedom from our bigger and stronger neighbors and the eventual gaining of independence. There are, of course, varying perspectives to how one should view the government’s financial investments in music. But yes, surely it can be said that the money given out today for the development of arts education reflects the deeply rooted respect for these values in our society.”

During the period of resurgent nationalism in the second half of the 19th century, the question arose of where and how to educate Finland’s composers- and instrumentalists-to-be. No organized music schools existed, nor were there any institutions that trained music teachers. When, in 1882, composer/conductor Martin Wegelius founded the Helsinki Music Institute (now known as the Sibelius Academy), he had to start from point zero. Wegelius began by hiring the master Italian-German pianist and composer Ferruccio Busoni (who dreamed of teaching Franz Liszt’s style of pianism) as institute’s head of keyboard studies. But for Wegelius, success in music education required broader measures.

Finding that his early students the institute varied widely in how well they were prepared for musical study, Wegelius devised a sequence of course exams and a list of required masterworks to evaluate entrants and measure their progress. His system remains the basis of the universal student assessment in the Finnish music schools today. Unknown in other countries, the assessment method consists of three basic exams, the music institute graduating exam, and three professional-level exams.

But Wegelius’s system is no longer accepted uncritically. The tests have been widely faulted for being too restrictive and too professionally targeted. “The historical fact that the system was originally created for the purpose of educating future music professionals can work a little against us here, if we’re not careful with the setting our goals right,” observes Hannu Wuorela, principal of the Turku Conservatory of Music and chairman of the board of the Conservatoire Association of Finland.

Wuorela’s viewpoint reflects a change of attitude that came after the 1960s, as music education evolved into a broad-based system serving not just future professionals, but a significant segment of the population at large. Although acceptance to the state-supported music schools is determined by entrance exams and qualifying tests, the early childhood music education provided by these schools remains open to all—at least in theory. The playschool lessons—singing and instrument-playing, games, listening, and exercise—support the children’s cognitive, emotional, motor and social development, as well as providing a sound basis for further musical study.

Anna-Elina Lavaste, the principal of the Kuopio Conservatory, believes that education in the music school network can be adjusted to suit both highly motivated pre-professionals and talented students who don’t aspire to a music career. “We simply try to arrange more teaching time for those students advancing faster,” says Lavaste. “This is usually a decision that can be made within a particular institution. The student’s individual needs are what we want to follow as much as possible.”

Liinu Helkiö, a graduating master’s student in cognitive psychology at the University of Helsinki, supports the position that the current system already works well for everyone. After studying piano and flute at the Espoo Music Institute for nine years, Helkiö progressed to the second-highest exam level without choosing to become a professional musician. Nonetheless, she strongly supports the universal assessment tests: “I found the studying in the institute to be always free, in the sense that I never felt that it smothered my individual needs. On the contrary: the exams bring more goal orientation to the studying, without which my chosen hobby would probably not have been as rewarding.

“The exams also functioned as great coaching for other life experiences. It was important to learn that even after a poor performance, there was a chance to keep studying and, with the support of the teacher, to feel more adult, through these challenging experiences.”

Another new—and major—issue for music education in Finland, as in many other countries, is the drastic reduction in the number of music and arts lessons in the comprehensive schools. Though it’s no different from what’s happening to arts education throughout the Western world, in Finland the problem hits a nerve: cultural identity. Many in the music community worry about the vanishing of the local and national musical traditions. The phasing out of arts subjects in ordinary schools also imposes further pressure on the special schools still teaching them. More and more, youngsters who aren’t getting enough music in the comprehensive schools are driven to take part in the special schools’ entrance tests, but unfortunately there are not enough places in these schools for all of them.

Says Hannu Wuorela in an irritated tone: “We call ourselves a bastion of culture, but the general level of musical refinement lowering all the time. The comprehensive schools are not bearing their responsibility anymore; but they are not to blame, because the roots of the problem are in the overall changing attitudes.”

Pasi Hyökki agrees: “Our children don’t know how to sing anymore, and if the traditions are not passed along by the regular school system, then there isn’t much to be done with the limited resources of the music education system. This might be a key factor in keeping our respected position on the international field of music. We have to take care of the overall cultivation in music, and the music schools alone cannot be accounted for this.”

And the 21st century has brought other social challenges. Anna-Elina Lavaste comments: “The aging of the population, for example, and the growing needs of certain special groups, the needs of the immigrant population and the local needs, especially in bigger cities and rapidly growing towns, are forcing the music schools to take a more active role in society than before. These new sectors are all interested in music-related activities, and if we’re the only ones providing these, then it’s our responsibility to try to respond to these needs as much as possible.”

So what might the role of the future schools in music Finland be? Hannu Wuorela has a clear vision: “First of all, complacency is the one trap we cannot fall into; there is always more to be done. Creativity is the factor we must hold on to and this must stay also in the parliament’s objectives; it’s a necessary factor for the Finnish society to prosper also in the future.” All in all, the Finnish music professionals interviewed here agree that the role of the music school is first and foremost to function as a regional cultural center, offering learners of different ages a chance to study music (and in many schools also dance and other arts). The students, whether aspiring professionals or amateurs, should receive an excellent basic education from qualified teachers in an inspiring environment.

Though many questions about the future have yet to be answered, Finland remains—for the moment at least—an outstanding example of government support for music, culture and the arts. Even in times of recession, during fiscal crises of various sorts, governmental involvement and funding have remained high in comparison with many other countries. Statistics tell the story. The Association of Finnish Symphony Orchestras counts 14 professional symphony orchestras, one opera orchestra, eight professional chamber orchestras and a number of semi-professional large ensembles among its membership. Finland Festivals, an 80-member arts organization, boasted a total attendance almost 2,000,000 at its events in 2007. And amateurs abound. SULASOL, the Finnish Amateur Musicians’ Association, has more 13,500 individual members, not to mention approximately 360 amateur choirs and 20 amateur orchestras. Aside from these, there are orchestras and choirs operating within the churches and other smaller amateur associations, such as student music clubs and university music societies.

Finland’s musical values were born out of struggle for identity—and at the juncture of West and East. During the period leading up to political independence in 1917, culture and the arts were regarded as prerequisites for an autonomous nation. Today, even as the country has become a member of the European Union and of the global community at large, the national culture remains the cornerstone on which the Finnish identity—and its impressive musical system—rests.

Originally published in Chamber Music Magazine, issue September/October 2008.

At the time of publication Elisa Talvitie (then Maaret Elisa Ollila) was serving as Executive Director of the Conservatoire Association of Finland (Suomen konservatorioliitto.

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