In 2003, the American comedian Jack Black starred in a Hollywood blockbuster called “School of Rock.” The premise was that Black’s character, an aspiring rock star who moonlights as a substitute teacher, sneaks his way into an American classroom and starts teaching ten-year-old students rock music.
The kids form a band and learn lessons about music, self-expression, and teamwork. The movie’s creators relied on a general understanding that this scenario is somewhat preposterous in an American classroom. The movie is mostly played for laughs, but a subtler message shines through: music in the classroom should be fun and immediately engaging. If music class was like this, everybody would love music class.
As an American music teacher observing general music classes in Finland, the overarching goal of music teachers was immediately clear: make sure that all students experience and love making music. And how do Finnish teachers do this? Well, for one thing, they form rock bands.
I’ve had the absolute pleasure of spending the last three months in and around Helsinki as Fulbright Distinguished Teacher, learning the ins and outs of the Finnish music education system. Understanding the structure of how, where, and to whom music education is delivered took some time because there are fundamental differences between the United States and Finland. An in-depth comparison of the two systems is far beyond the scope of what I will discuss here, so I will focus on those rock bands and explain how they represent the overall philosophy of Finnish music education in comprehensive schooling.
In Finland, music in the first six years of education is usually taught by the classroom teacher, not a specialist. In the seventh year, all students participate in general music, and this is where the rock bands come in. After that, there are usually elective offerings for students who want to continue. Alongside music in comprehensive schools, a parallel system of music institutes and private music schools provide instrument-specific education. Because the parallel system is well-organized, easily accessible, and state-subsidized, it is a reasonable expectation that most can participate in some way if they wish.
In the United States, many students have some sort of music program at their schools, but there is no mandate, as in Finland. In the elementary grades, general music is usually taught by a specialist. At the middle school level, students choose between specialized offerings, no longer moving with all students in their class.
Programs vary widely between schools and states. Common offerings include concert band, choir, orchestra, or general music. General music at the middle school level is often presented as an alternative for students who do not want to participate in other offerings and may have a “music appreciation” focus. Repertoire in any one of these ensembles or classes usually includes a wide variety of genres including rock and pop, but it’s rare to see it done with the class themselves acting as the back-up band.
In some cases, music at this level is completely elective, and those who do not choose an instrument or choir no longer continue with formal music education. Community music schools and private music teachers offer additional opportunities. Since extra-curricular music system is not state supported and regulated in the same way, access (financial and geographic) and quality is more variable. I would describe these offerings, especially the instrumental ensembles and choirs, to be quite skill-based and music literacy and instrumental technique are primary goals of instruction.
Getting back to those rock bands: the difference in format is immediately visible, but the reason Finnish teachers use so much rock/pop music is more interesting and revealing. Finnish music teachers, and the professors who train them, speak often and eloquently about their overarching philosophy: teachers must cultivate a love of music through active participation. The relationship that students form with the art form itself is more important than any skill. In fact, there is a Finnish term – hyvä musiikkisuhde – that means one’s good relationship with music. The classroom groups don’t always sound polished and they often don’t read traditional music notation, but absolutely everyone participates.
Finally, the point isn’t really rock music, because I saw many teachers use other music, from Latin choral works to Finnish folk songs to Mozart. The point is to immediately connect with your students. Make them love the experience of music making and give them a good experience so that they continue to make music, develop their skills, expand their musical horizons, and have an outlet for creative expression.
Text: Katie Condon