Leaps in kantele pedagogy – encourage children to play through play

The department of piano, accordion, guitar, and kantele at the Sibelius Academy of the University of the Arts in Helsinki organised a national seminar on kantele pedagogy last weekend. While not being directly involved in teaching at any official institute, I am occasionally guiding and giving workshops to groups and individuals on the instrument.  Thus, I attended the seminar with great interest in order to reflect how I was taught back in the days, and what kind of teaching philosophies and methods are available today.

For someone who has not been following the field, I met the development and increase in knowledge with awe. Flexibility, encouragement, and student-centredness were strongly present among the participants and in the content of the presentations. The main themes that carried through the first 1,5 days of the seminar spanned group teaching, bodily awareness and posture, improvising, and new methods for teaching kids (and why not also grown-ups with no experience with musical training). With all due respect to my previous kantele teachers (who by the way were all present at the event) and their methods throughout my 20+ years with the kantele, I want to go back to being that seven-year-old again and to start my studies again at the conservatory. It seems so much fun with all the colours and joy of exploratory sounds.

We were introduced to the colourstrings-method for teaching the violin to children. By taken the focus away from the hard part, like reading the score, producing music became so easy and enjoyable. The kantele is, of course,  a great instrument for beginners because whatever you play with the instrument sounds good (you don’t need to first learning to produce the sound like it is with the bowed instruments for example).

Salla Pesonen reminded that the posture of the head is the beginning of a healthy body of a player. Ritva Koistinen-Armfelt  urged to collaborate with local physiotherapists to find a good posture for playing. She has recently finished a PhD on the playing posture, and excellent videos are available online at Multisensory Motility in Kantele Playing Techniques (descriptions only in Finnish at the moment). Her thesis is also available online.

Professor on improvisation at the Estonian Music and Theatre Academy, Anto Pett, outlined that improvisation has to do with self-confidence. Once you feel confident you can follow what is happening, you can focus on listening. He demonstrated an extensive set of improvisation exercises that help you to listen to certain aspects, like the size of the interval, phrasing, duration of the notes, repetitions, rhythm. These kind of exercises help you to recognise the tone colour and enable to you to deliver the colour of the performance also when improvising with other fields of arts. When learning to improvise, it is also important to debrief the feelings after the exercise, so that you remember the improvisation through feelings and you can learn through the feelings.

Lecturer on piano, Mr. Niklas Pokki, reminded us that we should encourage the talented  students to be creative; to rearrange music and to improvise. At the same time, we should remember that talent may not be innate, but it is the result of social environment and support, practice, and a helpful teacher. One comment from the audience during the day considered eight-month-old babies in front of grand pianos – they discovered communication through the keys on their own. It has also been shown that musical hobbies at a young age help develop the brain. I really feel that as we grow, we learn out of music.

I am told the seminar with hopefully be organised again in the near years, and it better be; the weekend had around 60 participants!

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