Géza Szilvay: "Spring" - Thirty Years of The Helsinki Strings in 2002

In order to locate large rivers, such as the Rhine or the Danube, one does not need a map. Similarly, in the music world, the great institutions such as the academies, conservatoires, festivals, operas and orchestras, have a place in the mind of the connoisseur that is quite self-evident.

    But only the few who are especially interested in geography know the sources from which these big rivers draw their inexhaustible supply of water; and few music lovers bother to find out from which wonderful wells our prominent music institutions scoop their resources.

    Most important is that the water flows, the ship sails, audiences fill the halls and the academies and orchestras have plenty of applicants!

    If, however, we want to understand our water systems in more depth – their nature, past and future – we must acquaint ourselves with the landscape from which the waters spring.

    The future of musical institutions depends entirely on the minor and major wells that ceaselessly ensure there will be enough performers and listeners, both quantitatively and qualitatively.

The Helsinki Strings have been such a water well for the last thirty years.

    Over a quarter of a century ago, in one corner of eastern Helsinki, in what was effectively a village school, fifty pupils started to study the violin, inspired to do so by their talented classroom teacher. From this school, a violin playing fashion spread into the environment, and soon violin playing was heard in the suburban schools of East Helsinki. By Christmas of 1971, the children had the courage to give a concert in the ‘cathedral’ of the area and the concert church of Roihuvuori became the birthplace of the East Helsinki Music Institute.  Its vicar, Mr. Väinö Karhumäki, became the spiritual supporter and sponsor of this young music institution.   This co-operation between schools, church and institute was a unique one that enriched all its members.

    The first concert tour of our violin group to Central Finland was prepared in 1972.   The cost of the tour – I can recall it precisely – was 50 marks.   One of the girls told weeping at a meeting that she could not participate because of lack of money. The tears turned into a smile when another child’s grandmother, who was present at the meeting, donated the missing sum.  From this scholarship, from this gesture of helping a neighbour and child, I consider the existence of the Helsinki Junior Strings to have started. The name, referring to the whole capital region, was due to the fact that some of the players came from West Helsinki, where there was still no chamber music activity at that time, and the pupils therefore came weekly to East Helsinki to enjoy playing together.

    As a young teacher, I was inspired and motivated by the supportive spirit and neighbourliness that surrounded me and my pupils in the different parts of eastern Helsinki, which you could call ‘my Finland’ at the time.  I travelled between these little schools daily. Teaching took place in a handicraft classroom, library, store room and sometimes in the cleaning cupboard in the midst of maps, stuffed owls, buckets and mops.   Regular performances on different occasions at the schools guaranteed that instrumental music became a natural part of the everyday life and atmosphere of the primary school.   Violin playing became a hobby comparable to ice hockey and football.

    The level of the violin group was tested and inspected many times.   The visits of renowned musicians, like Onni Suhonen, Arno Granroth, Erik Cronvall and Jorma Panula, were important occasions.   Besides these invaluable Finnish mentors, two celebrities of the international music world, Max Rostal and Yehudi Menuhin, became our patrons. When the teaching was completed by the addition of the ‘cello, the most influential doors of the capital started to open for this children’s orchestra.   The Finnish Broadcasting Company, television studios, Karelia House, the Cultural House, Finlandia House and the Sibelius Academy became known to us.  Invitations also came from the Parliament, the Government and the President’s Palace.

    The Director of the East Helsinki Music Institute, composer Ahti Sonninen, the teachers, parents and pupils all felt that something new, something important and lasting, was developing in the field of arts education.

    The orchestra bounded into nationwide fame by winning the Finnish Association of Music Schools Competition in 1997.   To me, however, the victory tasted bitter. I was very concerned to see how my angelic players changed into gladiators in course of the competition. The negative ‘side-effects’ of the competition, such as aggressiveness, made me question the justification of competitions in the education of young artists and its use as a motivation.   At the same time, we attempted to lessen fears connected to exams.  We noticed that performances, public concerts, television and radio programmes, recordings and especially tours motivated and developed young people without harmful side-effects. They make competitions unnecessary and exams mere formalities.

    Active, regular participation in the cultural life of the capital and the whole country, and the experience of equality in the world of adults enormously enhanced the self-esteem of these young people.

    We sought to realise Zoltán Kodály’s idea:

The choir or orchestra of any school can reach the level at which it becomes suitable for an educational role within the school.  And one step further: it can be of significant value in public musical life of the whole country as well.  Because it is not technique that is the essence of art, but the soul.  As soon as the soul can communicate freely, without obstacles, a complete musical effect is created.  Technique sufficient for a free manifestation of the child’s soul can easily be mastered under a good leader in any school.  Pure enthusiasm and native instinct – rare gifts with professional artists – are to be found in every healthy child.  With a few years’ technical preparation children can achieve results measurable by the most exacting of absolute artistic standards.

The activity of the Helsinki Junior Strings proved the Hungarian philosopher’s claims to be correct. Public performances – radio and television programmes and concerts – raised the Junior Strings to a national institution.  International forums ISME (International Society for Music Education), ESTA (European String Teachers’ Association), NMPU (Nordic Music Pedagogical Union), ASTA (American String Teachers’ Association) and IKS (International Kodály Society) promoted the orchestra’s reputation beyond its national borders.

    Thirty acclaimed tours on the most important stages, festivals and music centres, and thirty records praised in the international media, have brought the Helsinki Strings the honorary title “the best youth orchestra in the world”. This title obliges us to pass on the thirty years’ pedagogic, artistic, methodological and educational experience we have gained.

The violin, viola, violoncello and double bass are the instruments of the orchestra.   The most remarkable treasures of European classical music are mainly written for ensembles.  Orchestras have offered and will offer the most important working opportunities for professional musicians and the greatest artistic experiences for audiences.   In teaching orchestral instruments, this should be taken into consideration from the very beginning.  Naturally many a talented child dreams about becoming a famous soloist.  A teacher, however, who only promotes this endeavour, makes a terrible error.  Intensive teaching may bring fast results, but the career of a child thus educated – separated from his/her natural environment, “freed” from going to school, moulded to become a star – remains rather unhappy almost without exception.  Parents and pedagogues do realise this danger but the temptations of the prodigy phenomenon and star cult magically draw them in to a virtual conspiracy against their child and pupil and against his or her happy future.

In teaching stringed instruments, different areas should be developed simultaneously and thus be continuously connected:

  • solo musicianship
  • chamber musicianship
  • orchestral musicianship.

String orchestras offer an excellent opportunity to realise this triangular education, whether for future professionals or amateurs.  The Helsinki Strings have been the musical cradle of many soloist personalities.  Alongside the orchestra’s activity, we have, over time, developed a comprehensive orchestral repertoire for young string players. This repertoire has been made gradual so that there are suitable pieces for each level.  Even after a few months’ studies a small beginner can step in front of the orchestra as a soloist and play little pieces with the accompaniment of his or her friends.

    The stage, conductor and audience become familiar both to the child soloists and to the group of players supporting the soloist. A great majority of traditionally educated professionals have never had the opportunity to enjoy playing in front of an orchestra.   In the Helsinki Strings, it is a natural option for anyone who is willing.

    Besides a perfect, rhythmic and interesting performance, however, something else is required from the soloist: in time, his or her turn will come to accompany and help the little players of the next generation.

Talent is not solely the possession of the one who has it; others can claim on it as well.  But a talented person may discover that the gift does not decrease however generously it is shared.  On the contrary, it will thereby multiply.

A child or an adult who fulfils this expectation will happily notice that Kodály’s advice is true. Unfortunately, there are also those who do not take this challenge.  A great number of the Helsinki Strings’ members are distributing gifts in our cultural life, amazingly many of them, in fact, and particularly in musical life – as pedagogues, composers, conductors, journalists, orchestral musicians, soloists, chamber musicians.

A good string orchestra is like an enlarged chamber ensemble, quartet or quintet. Few arts institutions have the economic or human resources to give regular, small-scale trio, quartet or quintet teaching to all its pupils.  In the best cases, these have been organised as periodic teaching. A responsible teacher knows, however, that the artistic and technical level of students does not improve profoundly by periodic teaching. Education in general, and hence arts education as well, has to be regular and continuous, the instrumental tuition at least weekly.

    The Helsinki Strings, as a large chamber ensemble, has served the basic chamber music needs of its members.  Co-operation with composers has produced unique trio, quartet and quintet repertoire that can be performed either in a small ensemble or with a string orchestra.  This rich collection has prepared many generations of the Helsinki Strings for interpretations of the most demanding works of chamber music literature.

    Naturally there should also be time and opportunity for more intimate recital-type ensemble playing.  In the arts educational programme of the Helsinki Strings, there is also a wide repertoire of duos and sonatas that have guided our children towards this fine genre of chamber music. This material can be performed as a soloist or in groups.

One of the greatest challenges for arts education is breaking down the seeming contradiction between and combining the concepts of

individual – community

solo – tutti

I – we

In theory, the main parties - teachers and parents - know and admit that a happy individual grows up in a community.  However, in reality both pedagogues and parents oppose these concepts against each other.   Orchestra playing, group teaching and supporting subjects, in which the teacher’s attention is not focused only on one person, are often considered secondary, or even obstacles to progress.  As far as a large youth symphony orchestra is concerned, there may be truth in this.   A child or young person may feel like drowning in such a huge ensemble consisting of many instruments of different kinds and many players of different levels.  During rehearsals, most of the instrumental groups sit idle, while another section is rehearsing its part.  Time seems to be wasted. At the performance, the individual is lost into the whole and there is no room for artistic detail. Frustration and disappointment may be near.  Therefore, it would seem much more useful to let the strings and wind grow and develop in separate ensembles: string orchestra and wind orchestra.

    Re-combining at the final stage of arts education, these young players will be high-level symphony orchestra musicians. The string orchestra, in its turn, leads the child step by step to the top – gradus ad parnassum.  The Helsinki Strings is not intended to be an instrument for the conductor to express himself but a community and ensemble of fine young artists. In a string orchestra, personal contact between the player and conductor will be maintained, every player is visible, everybody’s voice can be heard, everybody is cared for, and everybody is needed. The following ‘Kodályan’ thought is put into action at the Helsinki Strings:

Could there be a better example of co-operative activity than a choir or an orchestra? Many people unite to accomplish something that cannot be done by a single person alone, however talented he or she may be.   In this joint effort the contribution of each person is equally important.

Those who have learned punctuality, phrasing, expression, regularity, a way of working, the joy of, and quality of, working and who have gained experience on the performing stage at the different levels of the Helsinki Strings (the Little Rascals Orchestra, the Children’s Strings, the Junior Strings and the Helsinki Strings), have gained comprehensive qualifications right up to and including professionalism.

Those members of the Helsinki Strings who want to become professionals usually continue their studies at the Sibelius Academy. The conductors of the Helsinki Strings were invited to teach at the Sibelius Academy in 1978. This ground-breaking cooperation, which has lasted now for 25 years, has proved exceptionally fruitful.  Every Director of the Academy has become a friend and protector of the Helsinki Strings.  Hopefully, this relationship will broaden and the Colourstrings teaching philosophy and technique may eventually open up to all the string students of the Sibelius Academy.

    In thirty years, over three hundred players have received an education in the Helsinki Strings.  Of them, almost two hundred have chosen music as their occupation. What has the Helsinki Strings meant for the others?  The orchestra has offered help for families in raising their children. A young person, especially at adolescence, needs to belong, wants to be part of a group.  Building up a reliable, positive circle of friends is the responsibility of parents and teachers.  The Helsinki Strings is meant to be just such a circle – besides giving musical education, it intends to give a safe environment and a warm home for the young people, guiding them

  • morally
  • aesthetically
  • artistically.

Globalisation, the new ideology of our time, is now intruding even into arts education.  Globalisation misinterpreted can underestimate local and national values. There are plenty of worrying examples. It is often easier to find support and appreciation for projects that have been given the title ‘international’, rather than for continuous day to day work at a local level.  However, many of the widely advertised events often remain single events in isolation without any long-term positive effects. As such they may benefit their organisers more than the participants. The musical life of a country, which has been built slowly, brick by brick, may collapse quite rapidly if the significance of local work is not respected and supported.

    Rivers have their origins in their own springs.  Every country, every village, should have a cultural well of its own, serving its families and children.

    The Edinburgh Festival music critic wrote of the Helsinki Strings:

Elsewhere, stock exchanges stagger and currencies crumble, politicians of all persuasions rant and roar but in Finland two Hungarian brothers, adapting Kodály’s choral method of music education to strings, maintain an uninterrupted flow of superbly disciplined players – young fiddlers on the roof of the world – whose warmth of corporate tone would melt the heart of the snow queen and whose rapt enjoyment and quite stunning technical security imparted an infectious sparkle [to Haydn].

(The Scotsman)

These days, besides the two Hungarian brothers, there is a team of music pedagogues to maintain, continue and develop the education of the new generation of the Helsinki Strings.

Water from a pure source bubbles forth even today:  let us protect it and draw from it.

Géza Szilvay (2002)

Translated by Deborah Harris and Minna Launonen