There are many others besides Salonen and Vanska who were raised and
trained in Finland. More than 30 full-time classical composers live and
How has a nation of 5.2 million people produced such a surplus of talent?
The answer is that 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. As such it is
deserving of government subsidy as health care and schools. Before the
advent of the euro, which image adorned Finland’s currency? It was of
course an image of Jean Sibelius, the country’s most famous composer.
“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
Direct comparisons between music education in Finland and other countries
are unfair. The Finnish government subsidizes the arts and education to a
much greater degree than the majority of other countries with Venezuela as
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
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.”
Just a 20-minute cab ride away, the 15-year-old Espoo Center in the Helsinki
suburb of the same name houses an orchestra, a theatre, 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
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 --
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 “specialising” 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 USA. 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. For example, many school boards have to try and balance preparation for
the NCLB tests and all that that entails with music programmes. Even when many of
the public-school district’s music programmes have a very high participation rate
there is always the risk of budget cuts.
“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 dealing with dwindling music-education
resources by lobbying school boards. At Seward Montessori, a public elementary
school in Minneapolis, “Parents held a fundraiser to help pay the band teacher.”
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
A love of classical music only serves as a catalyst for the creation of
contemporary music, Hako said: “The aesthetics of composing in the 1990s
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 programme.
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 USA 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.”
“Good for the Brain” - 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. In addition, 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
“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
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