About studying the kantele at a later age

In Finland, kids normally have their first touch to the kantele in music playschools, or by latest in the elementary school, thanks to the project that started in the 1980s, “Kantele to school!”. Some kids continue studying in music academies and conservatories, and a few reach the highest level at Universities of Applied Sciences, or the University of the Arts (Sibelius Academy).

What if the kantele entered your life at a later stage? Or perhaps you want to revive your kantele playing like I did? Where can you go and get someone to teach you in Finland? Music academies often have an age limit, but luckily not all. I am going to list some opportunities for those living the capital area of Finland, as I am currently residing there. Hints about other areas in Finland are more than welcome.

Every spring you can apply for the Sibelius academy as a practice student for those Sibelius student who want to complete their pedagogical studies. Occasionally, they may have a need for practice students outside the application period.

Every semester the Sibelius academy offers some open courses on music at low cost, such as folk music ensemble, instrument building workshops, instrument maintenance, music theory, and so forth.  You can enroll for the courses during August. Some courses require a special application procedure.

The academy usually offers beginner groups for small kanteles 5-11 strings and a kantele ensemble (Satakieli) for all kinds of kanteles. The repertoire includes Finnish folk songs both played and sung.

  • Go to a kantele camp

The Finnish summer is full of kantele camps where you can dedicate some time to kantele playing, singing, jouhikko playing.. The most prominent kantele camps are perhaps Sommelo and Ilomantsi, both located in Eastern Finland. The camp is Sommelo is organised together with a music festival and seems to draw a lot of international players. The Ilomantsi camp is time-wise the longest camp, and offers a plethora of side courses to take. In addition, the camp is accompanied by a kantele/jouhikko building workshop. Follow the Kantele Association newsfeed for a list of camps for each summer. The keyword you are looking for is kanteleleiri.

  • Get a private teacher

You can reach the University of the Arts-database for students offering private lessons or ask around in the Kantele Association. Join their Facebook group. The private lessons are a flexible way of studying but may be slightly more expensive than academy fees. You can also consider gathering a small group of people for private group lessons. In the areas around Lahti, Joensuu, and Kokkola, you may also find private teachers, as there are many students aiming to become professional musicians or expects in music pedagogy with the kantele.

If you yearn for professional studies in the kantele, you can check the aforementioned and linked institutes, as well as the Sibelius Academy and the Conservatory of Helsinki.

Enchanted playing and Kalevala day activities with kids

The day of the Finnish national epic, Kalevala (first published in 1835), approached and passed on Saturday the 28th of February. To join the festivities, I went to play in a kindergarden on Wednesday of that week. Together with my cousin, we organised a half-an-hour session of playing and singing, and the kids could re-act the singing contest of Väinämöinen and Joukahainen, two characters in the epic. I began by playing The Churchbells of Konevitsa with my concert kantele, and the kids were completely enchanted! This is not the first time that people have quieted down for my playing, but it definitely was the first time with kids. It is no wonder that in Kalevala the whole forest quiets down to the listen to Väinämöinen’s play:

All the beasts that haunt the woodlands
Fall upon their knees and wonder
At the playing of the minstrel,
At his miracles of concord.

The Kalevala poems describe the birth of the kantele twice. Or more accurately, the editor Lönnrot chose two different poems to be included in the collection. The editor was also an enthusiastic kantele player and developer, and he started playing the kantele between the 1830-40’s. Among other things, he developed the chromatic kantele…But I wanted to talk about the poems. The first kantele poem  describes a kantele (or “harp”) made of jaws of a pike (Rune 40, 41), and the second one made of birch (Rune 44). It is interesting that Väinämöinen has already defined it to be a five-string kantele (and the string are maiden hair!). But when studying the rune,  it becomes evident that the kantele playing has always been enchanting since these poems or runes started going around as word of mouth maybe even thousands of years ago.


Ps. I hear the singing contest is used almost on a daily basis in the kindergarden now. Highly recommended!



A dive into the diversity in contemporary kantele music

Two weeks ago in Alppipuisto, Helsinki there was a park festival Puistokarkelot with contemporary folk music. I did not attend but as I was checking the line-up I could not help noticing what an important part the kantele had come to play in the programme.

I started googling other festivals like Kihaus Folk and Sommelo, and I found another bunch of kantele artists. New areas of music, techniques are being adapted to the kantele at a exponential speed. For example, I attended Sarah Palu’s bachelor thesis concert this spring.  I was impressed by how she had combined some dub beats with kanteles! I am just waiting for her to release a record!

Last weekend I and my two Greek friends played Greek folk songs in my home village.  It seems like kantele can replace bouzouki in many occasions. I was playing with my 11+4 string kantele. The challenge comes with changing scales and many unfamiliar tonalities. Since kantele does not have any frets, each string represents only one pitch, unlike in bouzouki. A solution is to add the semitone levers to each string and practice rigorously to change them smoothly in the fast tempo.  Another option is to tune different scales in the kantele. I love this challenge.

Other contemporary kantele artists/groups I found:

And I saw on Facebook that Kardemimmit are filming an advertisement for the Japanese market.  お疲れ様!

Using acoustic simulations in musical instrument restoration

Last February I attended the opening conference of the COST-Action Wood MusicK at Cité de la Musique, Paris.

“This Action (WoodMusICK – WOODen MUSical Instrument Conservation and Knowledge) aims to combine forces and to foster research on wooden musical instruments in order to preserve and develop the dissemination of knowledge on musical instruments in Europe through inter disciplinary research. This program involves curators and conservators on the one side, wood scientists, chemists and acousticians on the other side, and finally, researchers in organology and making of instruments.”   www.woodmusick.org

In other words, I met lots of interesting people ranging from musical instrument conservators to builders of medieval instruments such as the serpent.

I was there to present my master’s thesis about finite element modelling (FEM) of the kantele. FEM is simulation method used quite commonly nowadays in musical instrument research. I thought it might be an interesting tool for studying how different methods for conserving old instruments affect the sound of instruments before actually going into practice. But I did not think that most of the times we assume that wood is linear, orthotropic material, which makes the computation easier. However, we do not know much about the properties of wood in extreme conditions, e.g., eaten by worms, filled with cracks, dried cells.

Organ by SchweickartAnother case where simulations can be useful is when an old instrument has been changed in the course of time before it has been brought to the museum for conservation. Occasionally it may be difficult determine why a certain change has been made to the instrument.  I recently learned an example of this when visiting the Cité de la Musique again. In their collection, they have an organ made by Jean Baptiste Jeremy Schweickart in 1784. Later someone had added extensions to the tubes, which makes some notes sound off-key and it is not clear why this kind of change has been made. In this case, one must carefully undo all the changes to examine their effect. This is easily done with computer simulation.

For the restoration of the kanteles, several aspects related to the strings are interesting. Museum kanteles are often found without strings. We are not sure which material the strings have been made from, and how they have been attached to the body. Most common way to study the old instrument is to make a copy, a fac-simile of the instrument. A few years ago,  a working group, Kantele eläväksi, published a guide to document old kanteles for enabling copies of them. While it is a good way to obtain a playable version of the old instrument, making several fac-similes can be laboursome.


Check this video about a fac-simile kantele played by Arja Kastinen.


Mechanical distorters in the kantele

This Wednesday instrument builder Jyrki Pölkki  (Soitinrakentajat AMF) came for a visit at the university to talk about musical instrument making. The thought that struck me the most was that unlike violin or piano, the kantele is not yet fixed in sound or shape, and thus it is easy to develop and introduce new features  that the players are likely to accept. This is why this spring I have been supervising a Master’s thesis on mechanical distorters in the kantele that Jyrki devised.

The mechanical distorters are essentially additional surfaces that the string touches while vibrating. They literally distort or limit the string vibration. The end result is a buzzy sound which very typical in some Asian instruments like biwa, shamisen, or sitar. In general, the distorters in the string, make it sound louder or more irritating. Why are these distorters more typical in Asian music? The master student found out an interesting speculative thought on this matter: in Europe amphitheaters were common places to perform music. These have a rising stall with seats, and this kind of structure can decrease the level of low frequencies. For example, wind noise is typically a low-frequency phenomenon. The high frequencies would thus be emphasised at amphitheaters. The Indian sitar, or the Japanese biwa were both played outside where they had to compete with low-frequency noise. In order to do this, adding distorters would produce more high-frequency components to the sound. Interesting speculation indeed. As soon as I find it, I’ll add the reference here.

In the experiments we conduct, the distorters are made of paper clips and pieces of leather. We have already made some measurements in an anechoic room. There is a possibility to use a high-speed camera to extract the waveform in the time-domain. In practice, with this device we can see that the vibration of the string that meets a flexible termination is not sinusoidal, but it has some discontinuities.

All in all, the string vibration is a fascinating and a difficult topic, when the boundary conditions become complicated. In the kantele string, the flexible pins make the sound more interesting, because they generate nonlinearities in the string vibration. For example, the twang you hear when you pluck the kantele string powerfully, is a result of this nonlinearity.

Kantele in Japan

I just returned from Japan where I did a four-month internship related to guitar acoustics. I took my 15-string kantele with me. Before I went to Japan, I knew that there was a community of kantele players, mainly in Tokyo and the Hokkaido area. So, in the early days of November I set out to meet some Japanese kantele players in Sapporo, Hokkaido.

I was invited to perform at the Hakodate Earth Village festival together with three Japanese women, who turned out to be the kindest of all people. We met the previous day and practiced some songs together for the performance. And had the most delicious kaiten sushi, as Hakodate is a harbour city. My experience of Japanese so far had been of a very reserved kind, but playing all these Finnish melodies brought us closer. I am surprised how kantele can create such connections across nations.

There may be hundreds of players of kantele around Sapporo alone. Why are there Japanese people who play the kantele? I believe that Finnish folk music and the calm sound of the kantele appeal to the calm, nature-appreciating Japanese. After the performance in the Hakodate Youth Centre, an old man came to ask for my name to his notebook. He said he collected all the artists’ names he had listened to. And he thanked us for taking him to the forest with our music.

As far as I know, this kantele connection between Finland and Japan has existed for quite some time. There is a duo composed of a kantele player Eva Alkula and a koto player Tomoya Nakai. Many Finnish kantele players have performed in Japan. Last spring I had a chance to hear a Japanese duo called Rauma at Pitskun Kulttuurikirkko in Helsinki. Many Japanese kantele players I spoke to had been to Sommelo kantele camps. And my guess is there are many things bubbling under the surface.

Finally, in Sapporo I talked about my kantele research to the Sapporo kantele club members, the most hospitable kantele players and enthusiasts I have met. They gave me great ideas to study further in the acoustics of the kantele, and many pieces of Finnish dried rye bread, which I had missed since moving to Japan. Thank you very much!

One particular question that was raised got really stuck in my mind. How do the different ways of knotting the kantele string affect the sound? Knotting in general has been studied previously. Yet, the instrument builders seem to know much more about it, since they are marketing kanteles with different sound for different kind of music. I have often heard that in folk music, a lot of beating is essential, while in classical music, a more direct sound may be preferred. This is definitely something to look further into.

More about kantele in Japan.


Intro: What is a kantele and where is it played?

Anatomy of a five string kantele

Essentially, the kantele consists of strings wrapped around tuning pins, which are attached to a wooden resonator box. The amount of strings can vary from 5 to 40. In most kanteles, there is a sound hole on the top plate. The strings are typically strummed or plucked. The kantele is said to belong to the family of zithers.

The Finnish folk like to call the kantele their national instrument. After all, its birth is described in the national epic Kalevala. The hero Väinämöinen would enchant everyone with his playing.

Some kantele models from different geographical areas.

However, kantele-like instruments are not only found in Finland, but also in North-West Russia, Poland, Ukraine, and the Baltic states. Consequently, there are many shapes and sizes of kantele, and there is not a clear definition of what exactly makes a kantele (or kannel, kokle, kankles, gusli, krez, kysle, gesle, göslä, sangwyltäp, nars-juh..).

To me, it is fascinating that the kantele may have different wood materials, string materials, body shape, the way strings are attached to the body, and consequently different kind of sound. And yet, there is something that makes all the kanteles feel similar. There is much work to be done in the acoustical analysis of these different kanteles. Perhaps it could be possible to extract some common features to the kantele sound. I hope to write about that in this blog.

The kantele folks have recently been mapped in a Finnish-driven project called “Kindred of Kantele”. In the overview of the project you can also find more detailed analysis of what is the kantele. The project consists of field trips to meet the peoples who play the kantele. As a result, a series of books will be published. The field recordings have already been released as a radio series at YLE. And of course, they are available for purchase on iTunes.