Matti Raekallio is one of Finland’s best-known piano teachers, who taught at the Juilliard School in New York from 2007 until 2021. In this essay, shared by the Finnish music magazine Rondo Classic, he examines the condition and requirements of music education from that perspective. What does it take to get to the top? What does the influx of Asian musicians tell us?
Let’s confront the elephant in the room right away. The bottom line is this: professional musicians are needed in all Western countries, but they should be fewer in number and better educated. This, in turn, demands respectful but uncompromising guidance for the small number of people who want it most fervently, starting at as early an age as possible.
For the vast majority, the approach can be more relaxed in every respect, in all age groups.There is an imbalance between supply and demand for music professionals, both nationally and globally. There are always hundreds of applicants for auditions with top orchestras, and for professorships or teaching positions at the best music colleges. The same is true of international competitions, despite their proliferation. One contender at a time will succeed, hundreds of others will not. That is why so much is demanded from professional education: students need expert and direct feedback all the time, especially when considering their career choice.
But our society is in great need of practitioners of music and those who enjoy it in its various forms. There are countless studies on the benefits of playing music, both for the individual and for communities. Simply listening to music on a regular basis improves brain performance and our psychophysical well-being. (Actual structural changes have been observed in the brains of professional musicians.) For communities, the provision of musical performances – with all their accompanying activities – is a significant source of income, not to mention their intangible and culture-building aspects. So we should make the base of the pyramid as broad as possible, and the top sharp and narrow. Being a musician is a ruthlessly tough and demanding job, and it is certainly not for everyone, even if they meet many or all of the requirements. If their inhibitions don’t hold them back, if a child’s or young person’s own desire to make music is overwhelming, then: welcome, go ahead.
Inner motivation is the basis of everything in this field. I myself am a good example of this: I forced my way into music as a teenager, and a little later, without any discernible evidence that it suited me; irrationally, ignoring the voices of reason around me. Passion prevailed over reason, as is demonstrably often the case in life. For me, things worked out well in the end, although at many points in my life it could have been otherwise.
In cases where it is not possible to prevent someone from turning professional, they should try to become as proficient as possible. If they do not start early, the road to potential future success is usually blocked. As one grows older, in one’s late teens, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to make up for any shortcomings that have arisen.
The cream of future professional musicians, currently being educated at the best institutions in Europe and the USA, deserve a chapter to themselves. I have been following the situation at a top American institution from within while teaching at the Juilliard School from 2007 until 2021. Anyone who passes the Juilliard piano entrance exam is already a virtuoso. Future studies at the college will (hopefully) deepen their understanding and skills even further, but if accepted by Juilliard, they will already have the ability to perform at demanding international venues, if their studies allow them to do. The bar is set high. The proverbial 10,000 hours of practice will have already been completed by then, or perhaps exceeded by fifty or a hundred per cent.
It is inevitable that the sharp divisions in American society and many other extra-musical cultural and intercultural factors are also reflected in the education of elite musicians there.
Firstly, the ethnically dominant majority in the USA, people who are white and of American birth, is already a minority among the Juilliard School’s piano students. International students, that is to say immigrants (at least on a temporary basis), are in the majority. American-born minorities, i.e. African Americans and Hispanics, are even less well represented than the overall demographic distribution would suggest. This, of course, has no other reason than the ignominious 400-year history of inequality in the USA, which still affects the entire lives of minorities, including their opportunities to study. During my 14-year teaching career at the Juilliard School, I had just one African-American student, who was then all the more dazzling. Incidentally, he eventually changed his field of study and, after graduating from Juilliard, went on to study economics – a further testimony to his extraordinary intelligence and iron will. But exceptions prove the rule, and the rule is that many potentially exceptional talents are still being denied the education as top Classical musicians, as happened in the case of Nina Simone. The few American-born students who do get into the best music universities in the USA are usually not only white, but often also either ‘home-schooled’, i.e. privately educated at home, or from elite schools with very expensive fees, offering them the flexibility to combine the practice of music with the very high demands of their schoolwork.
The impact of ethnic background and habitat is striking. In many ordinary inner-city schools in the USA, typically in areas populated by minorities, there are no music courses, and sometimes no music lessons at all. African-Americans also have a much harder time in this respect than WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants). In the end it is very much a question of money. Tuition fees at Juilliard, including incidental expenses, run to more than $50,000; at Oberlin, where I also taught, the cost is more than $80,000. There are scholarships for the best applicants, but there are not enough of them, and they are often too small.
But even WASPs can often struggle at the Juilliard entrance exam stage compared to Asian students; the Chinese, South Koreans and Japanese. I have seen this myself: I taught at Juilliard not only at college level, but also in the youth education department, the so-called Pre-College. My class there was at one point 100% of Asian origin. About half of my college-level students came from the Far East. The difference between then and their Western colleagues was seen and heard above all in their work ethic, and was based on systematic training that started early and was constantly maintained.
To give just one example, the youngest student I heard in the Juilliard pre-college audition played all 24 of Chopin’s Études, Op. 10 and Op. 25, as the Romantic piece in his program. Not at all badly, too. And the student’s age? 10 years old.. This boy, Leo, was a special case, of course, but in general, in all the entrance exams to the Juilliard School and other top conservatories and music colleges in the USA, Asian candidates outshine Western ones because of their mastery of the basics. Scales and arpeggios have been learned, virtuoso etudes too; focused practice is familiar from their early childhood since the time they started to learn all the Chinese ideograms. The results speak for themselves..
How does all this apply to Finland? It doesn’t, as such. In Chinese society, the lot of musically gifted children is often a harsh one: parents sometimes put undue pressure on their little prince or princess, and competition between children and, above all, parents is fierce. To us, this seems a very alien approach. As mentioned above, inner motivation is decisive. It is the child, or the young person, who shows us which way the wind is blowing, and rightly so. But it would be essential for our eager primary school and nursery school children to have access to plenty of pleasant music and a good circle of friends, all sharing an enthusiasm for playing and singing, and for those few who are particularly enthusiastic about music to be able to keep on taking it further.
The recent debate in Finland on the subject of music courses has been rather alarming. For a while, it even seemed as if ideas were being developed as a bureaucratic strategy that could have had regrettable consequences. The officials’ initiative was probably motivated by constructive and well-meaning egalitarianism, but it risked being counterproductive.
The closure of music courses, an idea that fortunately seems to be on the way out, would have led directly to polarisation, increased social inequality and the idea that you can get what you want if you’re willing to pay for it. The children of wealthy parents would ultimately have been able to afford all the music education that the child or parent was interested in anyway. It is worth noting that the children who would then have had access to music education would have associated with children from similar backgrounds. Less privileged children who were interested in making new friends through music, especially those from homes where Finnish is not the first language, would have been left out in the cold. This ghettoisation would have had long-lasting and negative effects on society, while the opposite approach, music-oriented inclusion, would of course have had positive effects. Through music, one can learn Western ideas in their most original, pre-verbal form. In this way, one becomes acquainted with a new culture, perhaps even fond of it, even before fully mastering the language. In conclusion: cultivating music education in schools is essential for both the bottom and the sharp tip of the pyramid, for example by retaining and promoting music classes.
Students of all age groups must be given the opportunity to try to enjoy music by making it themselves. Music education should be an integral part of the school curriculum, as it has long been in the old, civilised European countries. Participation should, in my view, remain entirely voluntary, perhaps even without tests or other barriers. And then: within the education system there should be a small offshoot with entrance exams, diplomas and systematic requirements for those few who really want to try their hand. This path should be challenging but as rewarding as possible, gradually becoming more difficult. It should be advertised as a difficult option, which is true, and there should be a direct link to even more systematic activities (music schools, colleges, etc.), where young people in their late teens can then realistically decide for themselves what direction they want to take. If, from childhood, someone’s inclinations and desires have suggested the possibility of a career in music, that fateful decision – the young person’s own – would not then be thwarted by a lack of basic education when the time came. Thus, in time, not only some professional performers but perhaps a few world-class musicians might emerge.
Rondo Classic is a magazine published in Finland and in Finnish language focuses on classical music, but also naturally ventures in to musical theatre, ethnic music, jazz, and popular music. The content consists of interviews, profiles, music-related feature stories, background articles that analyse phenomena in the world of music, and articles that explore the history, composition, and performance of music. The magazine also includes columns, CD and performance reviews, and TV and streaming listings for music programmes.