Saturday, January 31, 2009

No Prodigies

It has been interesting to work and spend time in my onetime home city of Pori, Finland. During my early to mid twenties I lived in nearby Noormarkku, of Alvar Aalto’s Villa Mairea fame, for five years, teaching, playing and raising my first family. I even had a splendid house built there. Already then I had this curse following me as another incompetent conductor had my first wife fired from the concertmaster position on a technicality and made sure that the teaching position, which I held at what later became the Palmgren Conservatory, was eliminated. Of course, it didn’t take long for the conductor to lose his own job and he recently retired from his post as the head of a small local music school some 40 miles away.

I visited this place two years ago and liked what I saw. As a result I was invited to hold master classes and play a recital in this province’s String Festival. There are still former students of mine in the area playing in the orchestra and teaching. It was nice to see so many of them at my concert. Another eight hours of teaching tomorrow and then I’m free to visit my late uncle’s widow, and after that my elderly father, some 200 miles to the east from here. Observations so far: 1. I really don’t like flying although I traveled Business Class and overnighted at Heathrow. 2. Halcion gives a good night’s sleep unlike Ambien which wakes one up after about five hours but it also playing tricks on one’s memory. 3. Tuning to an A at 443 or higher is enough to make music sound strange if one has perfect pitch. I play fine but can’t really tell what notes I’m producing.

Today I listened to almost 40 young instrumentalists perform and gave them both verbal and written feedback. A distinguished Finnish cellist, Raimo Sariola, was there, too, so we both took part in the long day. Tomorrow he’ll present his class and I’ll offer mine. It turns out that we both traveled to Warsaw as representatives of the Sibelius Academy in 1972. He was the only student in the group and I was faculty, although we are about the same age. Now he is a passionate pedagogue in great demand.

Of course I was most curious of the level of the young musicians which started at under the age of ten and continued up to their 20s. Among the older ones there were some amazing young artists in both the violin and cello. The younger ones were all gifted but compared to the American scene, the child prodigies and the stage parents that come with them are totally missing. They simply don’t exist in this system. Yet these youngsters will turn into fine young artists when the spoon-fed American Wunderkinder are ready to pack their instruments for the last time. I think this way is far healthier.

The Finns are great educators and the proof is in the pudding. In regular school achievement Finland competes with South Korea for the #1 spot, yet the methods couldn’t be any dissimilar. While the Korean system practically tortures their children with insanely long days and special classes after school, the Finnish children live a very Western free life. Teaching as a profession is highly regarded and failing schools don’t exist. It is said that the test score difference between the “best” and the “worst” schools is somewhere between 2 and 4 percent, in other words almost nonexistent. Schools are usually small, perhaps 400-500 students, and issues therefore are more manageable. If there is a problem, parents are invited to the schools to discuss the issue immediately and if help, from the social services for example, is needed, the school will take care of the matter, and successfully. I'm not trying to insist that this society is all healthy and perfect, as a couple terrible school shootings in recent years have proven otherwise.

So, these kids may not be trained monkeys sawing away on their Khachaturian concerto at breakneck speed, but they have incredible raw talent and I have no doubt that in a few years their level will have surpassed the other. And since they have pursued the studying from their own desire to learn, they also are able to read music with total fluency. The Finnish system provides not only affordable private lessons but throws in mandatory theory classes and various ensembles. Sadly, the great Hollywood import American Idol has influenced the Finns and they now have their own version of it. More and more people prefer instant stardom rather than working diligently for year and years. Interest in classical music has declined here, too, but it certainly isn’t in a dangerous territory yet. I wish America could export other values than Hollywood images with car chases and endless shooting scenes, or American style investing and consumerism, collapse of which has had a negative impact even this far. We have a great country but don’t often understand its real worth.

Dear Mr. Obama, please make us a proud nation again. It has been such a long time.

Oh, I almost forgot, walking on crunchy snow feels great. No blizzards this time!

Old Pori: