Building harmony. Live & Learn - Stories of adult learning
The article was first published in Elm Magazine.
A symphonic team builder
The conductor´s baton signals the first beat. The violin section of Helsinginkadun Filharmonikot (Helsinginkatu-street Filharmonics) symphony orhestra emanates a melody in a minor key. Allegro molto moderato, as the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius wrote in the score of his sixth symphony.
The spring rehearsal season culminates in a concert, but there is still time for fine tuning.
- In an orchestra it is not enough to master your technique and know your own part. You need to be able to make music in a team and react to others, conductor Veli-Antti Koivuranta says.
His orchestra is an anomaly in Finnish classical music circles. All the players in the orchestra are amateur musicians, albeit with a long history of music studies. The orchestra is based in the Finnish Adult Education Centre of the city of Helsinki, an institution of non-formal learning.
Koivuranta´s work with amateur musicians is a mix of calling and realism. After graduating from the Sibelius Academy music university he discovered that there is an oversupply of conductors for professional orchestras but a dire shortage of directors for ambitious amateurs.
- The audience senses our energy and joy of playing. The power of our performances lies therein, not in technical finesse.
Assemble your team
Strings, winds, percussion... The components of a symphony orchestra seem meticulous but planning the order in which the players sit in the "pit" requires a professional touch. Each player must be placed so that they may be of help to their fellow players, and be able to develop as musicians at the same time.
- I need to build the orchestra based on everyone´s individual strengths, and then think about the strenghts of the whole group, Koivuranta sums up.
He draws a parallel between an orchestra and a team sports, say, football. Both need an outline of rules of the game and tactics. Both require players o be focused on their own performance and react to what others are doing.
During Koivuranta´s 13-year-stint as conductor, Helsinginkadun Filharmonikot has grown from a chamber orchestra of 15 players into a full 65-player symphony orchestra. At the same time their repertoire has expanded from adapted orchestral works to large canonical works often performed in cooperation with professional soloists and choruses. One such work looms in the horizon: in the autumn the orchestra will treat its audience to Edward Elgar´s The Dream of Gerontius.
The positive ethos of the orchestra has remained unaltered during the years of expansion - something that Veli-Antti Koivuranta is particularly happy about. The youngest player is seventeen years old, the most senior player is seventy-five.
- Players of different age are an asset to the orchestra: they create a sense of continuity and different generations interact. Young people can be mature players too, though, and senior members can be very energetic!
Expect commitment and give responsibility
Members of the orchestra are chosen through an audition - players are picked based on their music skills but also based on their willingness to commit to the common goals of the orchestra. Professional orchestra musicians play a whole working week together, while Koivuranta´s team meet only once a week.
As customers of the Adult Education Center they expect a return on the time (and money, some 80 Euros yearly) they invest in the orchestra. Work, family and other hobbies compete for that precious time.
- Nevertheless each must commit to the discipline of practice that is required of a musician, otherwise the repertoire will never be ready for the concerts. It is challenging to find a balance between flexibility and demands, the conductor confesses.
He has discovered that commitment is bred within the group. The cohesion of this group comes under pressure by life and its myriad paths: maternity leaves, PhD theses, moves abroad.
Even when people change, the quality and timbre of the orchestra must prevail. That, too, is the conductor´s task.
- If possible, I rotate players in their instrument sections so that they get used to working with as many other players as possible.
Bandwagoning or "following the better player" is a typical sin of an orchestra musician. The antidote to that is exposure to uncertainty.
- If for example the strings trust their principal too much, I can temporarily place him or her in the back row to keep the other musicians awake.
Crystallize the goal
Veli-Antti Koivuranta has noticed that setting clear goals is a great motivation.
- You get hungry for practicing only after a certain level which at first felt high has been achieved. Then you have the courage to set the next goal, Koivuranta describes the musician´s path.
Helsinginkadun Filharmonikot rehearses in a periodic fashion, in the rhythm of the semesters of the Adult Education Centre. There must be short and long-term goals: for example, the next concert, and the future works to be rehearsed. Ambition is needed, but with a heavy dose of realism.
One such long-term project is near completion.
- Few Finnish amateur musicians can boast of having played all seven symphonies of Jean Sibelius but we have almost done that. We´ll play the seventh next year, to mark the 100th year of Finnish independence.
Encourage with feedback
Someone is playing too loud, drowning out his teammates - the usual suspect again. And that´s a smartphone instead of the bow in that player's hand. These scenarios play out in rehearsals sometimes.
Sometimes the conductor must tap into his inner disciplinarian to return order to the reharsals but more often his duty is to encourage. To gently help the scatterbrains to refocus and to guide the shy player to find his or her courage. Feedback is the tool of this trade.
- Getting nowhere is frustrating for everyone. If someone needs more assertiveness in their playing, the conductor must say it! Then the player knows he or she is on the right path.
As a younger conductor he might have publicly berated a player late for rehearsal. Nowadays he prefers one-to-one communication. He has also learned that it is wise to pave the road to the next goal with positive feedback. Praise does not breed laziness.
- Adults appreciate honest, construtive and critical feedback, because one does not learn from mere praise. Something positive must be found, even if it is the fact that you were not late his time! But feedback works both ways: the orchestra is a mirror of the conductor. If music is not made the way it should, Koivuranta turns his gaze at his baton: is he conducting the way he thinks he is conducting?
- Communicate your information to as many people as possible, as economically and frugally in gestures and speech as possible, Koivuranta explains.
Offer a context
"Helsinginkadun Filharmonikot plays orchestral works from the 1750s until modern times. Thus the curriculum of the Adult Education Eentre. For the conductor this means delving into cultural history, in addition to tempi and notations.
Music is tied to the society and ideas of its times. Musicians´ interpretation gains more depth when they learn what inspired Richard Wagner to write Parsifal, or what was happening in 1920s Finland as Sibelius´ sixth was premiered.
- Amateurs are very keen to learn of the cultural context if the information is offered at an opprtune moment and in small segments. A minute´s worth of knowledge is already quite a lot!
Veli-Antti Koivuranta sees himself as an adult educator, of the humanist stripe.
- My task is to make my players better musicians and my audience more aware of what they are listening to.
An orchestra can play only for itself, too, but music gains meaning only when it reaches the ears of the audience. That is why the conductor raises his baton one more. Flutes and bassoons start the second movement of the symphony, soon joined by violins. Allegretto moderato, as the composer intended.
Terhi Kouvo is managing editor of Souli, the Finnish web magazine for anyone interested in learning. Souli and Elm are both published by the Finnish Lifelong Learning Foundation. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org