Experiences of Teaching Music in Finland

So, the Finnish education system. One of the most discussed and celebrated systems amongst those in or studying the education profession. So what is the big fuss about?

Well naturally that is a question I cannot answer; however I have been lucky enough to have spent a two month placement teaching in Finland and even luckier to have spent that time working with the music specialist teacher in that school. So is music teaching really that different in Finland? From the school that I experienced, yes it is.

First of all, that was the first primary school in which I have ever experience the teaching of music theory. It was also the first school in which I observed and was also able to engage every child in music lessons.

The main method I experienced was that of creating a band with the entire class. The key here seemed to be allowing the children to choose their own instrument. I don’t know what other people experienced in Primary school but when I was younger the teacher decided what you were going to play. They would usually give what they deemed to be a ‘better’ instrument either to a well-behaved child or a favourite. If you misbehaved, you received an instrument that was deemed inferior. It was always clear which instruments were supposed to be better. Should instrument allocation really be used as a punishment or reward? Surely every person will have a different preference for instrument anyway? And what kind of damage could these stigmas cause? Well in Finland, this did seem to be the case. The children were allowed to choose whatever they wanted to play. Piano, keyboard, xylophone, shakers, drums, drum kit, guitars and singing were all options. I even witnessed children playing upside down bins. If a child did not choose an instrument, they would not be forced. “Music should be done out of passion” one teacher said to me. The idea was that no one should be forced to play an instrument. Music was seen as being special to each individual who engaged with it. The few children who did not choose an instrument or to sing were not disruptive. Children who had lessons in a specific instrument could choose to play that at their own level but still had the freedom to choose another instrument if they preferred. If a child chose a tuned instrument that they had never played before the teacher would encourage them to learn the chords.

After they had chosen instruments or vocals the teacher would write chords on the board for those using tuned instruments and help those on percussion to work out some rhythms. It wouldn’t take long before the whole class were able to play and sing in the form of a band.

The structure I decided to use was that of a four chord song. We would repeat (toista) four chords (sointu) over and over with very little deviation from this pattern. We practised dynamics in this way as well as tempo. I was lucky enough to be asked to do this lesson with several different classes and witness the different interpretations that each class gave. Each class chose two or three songs from a selection I had chosen to put together. They were all able to perform together.

I have not yet had the opportunity to try this method in an English school but look forward to it greatly. Being able to choose their own songs, mostly popular ones, gave some meaning to what they were performing. Work on dynamics and tempo seemed to bring them together as a group. This method was self-differentiating. Children could challenge themselves to whatever level they chose. They were also allowed to enjoy music for what it is rather than doing it because their teacher said they had to. In addition, the pupils showed progression over their sequence of lessons and dedication to the project.

Another big difference between Finnish and English approaches to music seemed to be the time allocated to the subject. In Finland the classes would each have two music lessons a week. In England, as far as I have experienced, it is rare to have one a week. The Finnish school allowed children to book out the music room at lunch for practice and teachers would give up their breaks to teach basic guitar. In England the instruments are often kept in a cupboard in a hall and brought out rarely; children often only learn specific instruments if they can afford a private teacher and their own instrument. During teacher training Finnish teachers are all taught either the guitar or the piano. During my own teacher training I have spent eight sessions on music over three years. In this time we learnt some basic chords on the ukulele then left to pursue the instrument ourselves if we so wished. It seems to be these basic differences that have an impact.

Finland has completely changed my confidence in music teaching. I was always a willing volunteer to teach the subject, especially singing, but I feel that my understanding of how to do so has improved massively since this school placement. Many teachers seem under confident about teaching music; perhaps the biggest issue of all is how we can change that. Does this mean that something is missing from our training or is there something missing from our culture as a whole? There is much evidence to suggest that musical patterns are beneficial to a child’s development in addition to music allowing for development of specific skills and understanding of culture. So why is it that music is often so undervalued in schools?