Music education in Finland: the recipe for excellence
Antti Juvonen, Professor of Pedagogy in Arts and Skills at the University of Eastern Finland, reveals the ingredients for Finland's miracle recipe.
Let's mention a few names: Rautavaara, Lindberg, Kaija Saariaho, Karita Mattila, Jukka-Pekka Saraste and Esa-Pekka Salonen; Finnish orchestra conductors and composers carry the colours of their country's musical identity. Finland is a music lover: today, it has around thirty professional and semi-professional orchestras, 45 annual music festivals, including the renowned Savonlinna Opera Festival. Where does this excellence in all areas of music come from? We are talking about a country with only 5.5 million people hidden in northern Europe! The answer is well known: Finland has one of the best music education systems in the world.
As explained by the recently deceased composer Einojuhani Rautavaara for The New York Times: “Music is extremely respected in Finland, even by politicians”.
There is an effective music education system, largely supported by the government, as indeed is Finland's whole education system, which according to the OECD's latest global education survey, known as PISA, is among the best in the world: “The reason why we have always had very high ratings in OECD's PISA results is precisely because we have in the school curriculum a complete and mandatory art education from the early years for all students”, says Antti Juvonen, Professor of Pedagogy in Arts and Skills at the University of Eastern Finland, which trains primary teachers in music education.
Music education is of national interest
Music education has become a national cause, and that can be explained by Finland's historical enthusiasm towards culture and arts. Timo Klemettinen, director of the The Association of Finnish Music Schools, explains: “We all learned that preserving our culture and language means affirming our national identity, which was especially true at the time when Finland was only a battlefield between Russia and Sweden”.
Thus, artistic education was integrated into the school curriculum since the founding of public school in Finland, in 1866, and it has played a major role in the process that led to Finland's Declaration of Independence in 1917. While the framework of music education is taking shape after World War II, there is a severe shortage of qualified music professionals. Orchestras are founded in large cities, but qualified musicians are lacking. In order to train musicians, you need good teachers. The first objective was therefore to train music teachers, and consequently to create a pool of qualified and professional musicians.
“The main strength of Finland's education system is its professors and teachers. They are all trained with the same requirements, regardless of the music level they will specialise in. We have three types of music teachers in our school system: professors of music education, teachers with a background in music education and teachers specialised in music education”, specifies Antti Juvonen. Voice, music theory and accompaniment are among the necessary skills to teach in primary school. In 1957, the famous Sibelius Academy takes charge of teacher training by opening a music department.
Qualified teachers and a demanding approach
Since the 1970s, music education in schools develops and is intensified, regularly and continuously financed by the Finnish government. “Artistic education has always been a political argument, which is always raised during elections. People ask for it and politicians are well aware of that”, says Antti Juvonen.
Regarding the school curriculum, Finnish students receive music education for about 10 years: learning an instrument, listening, corporal expression and creative musical activities require teachers to have a solid knowledge: “Music education is compulsory during the eight years of primary school, and is taught for one hour per week. Starting from the fourth year, certain schools offer elective courses that take one or two hours longer, and there are also special music lessons, at least two or three hours per week, for those children who want to expand their knowledge and that are offered by at least a school in the region”. In fact, Finnish students spend, on average, a thousand hours less at school than other European pupils, and they also have less homework. Their day ends around 2:00 pm so that they still have time for sporting or artistic activities.
From the age of 7, students learn to read and write music, they study music theory and history, they are also introduced to the different European and non-European musical aesthetics. The older they get, the more demanding the programme becomes. They learn polyphonic singing and music theory gets more complex. Instrument playing is introduced first using percussions, and then with the recorder and the kantele, a traditional Finnish string instrument. Once they are in secondary school, the students have already acquired a solid foundation of music: music education becomes an option, like all the other artistic disciplines, but the arts have to be part of each student’s path: “When the music teacher is highly motivated, the school’s musical life can become extremely rich, with at least a choir per school and many opportunities for children to express themselves through music”.
All students are involved. As explained by Antti Juvonen, even students with a disability have the same access to music education as everyone else, because they are integrated into the regular school system. Inclusive education in Finland has been around since the 1970s, and the schools offer special support to pupils in difficulty, even in music.
A dense network of music schools
In parallel, the network of music schools is extremely widespread and stable, thanks to cross-funding by the government and municipalities, defined by the law since 1969. About a hundred music institutions are targeted at pupils for specialised education and they are present even in the remotest territories of Europe's eighth largest country: “We have a very strong music school system since the 1970s, which allows to play music from a very young age. It is relatively expensive: on average, music schools cost 200 to 300 euros per school year, to which you need to add the cost of the instrument. On the other hand, we have a geographically extensive network, there are music schools located less than 20 km even from the most remote regions, such as Lapland. From this point of view, it can indeed be said that access to music education is guaranteed to every single child”.
According to Timo Klemettinen, quoted by Music in Australia, the state covers 57% and municipality 27% of all the expenditures of the music school. The cost for families varies according to the geographical location of the school: it can be up to 1000 € per year in Helsinki and 200 € per year in rural areas. But music schools offer individual courses and they also provide classes for especially talented students who have a particular interest in music. “As a general rule, music schools are those that train professional musicians since the beginning, at a very young age. Some of them even offer musical activities for babies, and primary music education through songs and games at the preschool level is no longer an exception. Since primary school, however, music is taught through a very serious approach”.
Praxial music education
If on one hand music is taught very seriously, on the other this does not mean that it is academic. It is inspired by praxial philosophy, defined by David J. Elliot, educator and composer, as an approach of music education that is more pragmatic than aesthetic; according to Antti Juvonen: “The musical experience can be found at the heart of the pedagogical approach. We place the pupils in front of percussion instruments and we encourage them to play and sing in order to understand music not as an abstraction, but rather through the practice and the sensations it awakens. Acting to feel and to understand, even before integrating theoretical knowledge, represents the principle of our method”.
Music lessons support of all the cognitive, emotional, motor and social development in children, and they enrich their creative ability: “We believe that music education and, more generally, artistic education from primary school is essential to make our children adults open to the world, with knowledge and critical skills that will allow them to pass on these values to future generations”.
And there's more. Contrary to the trend that has reduced the number of art classes in Europe, the recent educational reform in Finland plans to increase the number of hours devoted to art disciplines.