Tervetuloa Suomeen / Welcome to Finland

Fulbright Year

August - September 2018

Every now and then I attempt to write a post about my musical on-goings only to grow increasingly frustrated with the quantity of what I want to say, not to mention the time it takes to convey it. I also know that most people aren’t going to scroll through my excessive rambling. However, I think there is something valuable in documenting a process, not only for my friends at home, but for myself years down the road. As an American Fulbrighter in Finland, I am well-positioned to discuss the Fulbright process, my project, my year abroad, and living as an American on a continent that largely despises American politics, culture, and people. In this era of social media and advanced technology, if you don’t document your experience, it’s almost as if it never happened. Of course, I am writing this post retroactively; September 2nd completed my first full month in Finland and now it is already mid-October. During this time, I traveled to Estonia, Russia, and Lapland, took an intensive Finnish language course at the University of Helsinki, had a full week of Fulbright Finland orientation, began my research and studies at the Sibelius Academy, and presented on “American Identity in Classical Music” at the 2018 American Voices Seminar in Turku, Finland. This post will cover events through the end of Fulbright Orientation.

My Fulbright project focuses on musicians’ injuries and methods of preventing and overcoming musculoskeletal disorders. I think we are all familiar with the realm of athletes’ injuries but performing arts’ injuries are less well-known, though can be equally debilitating. Of course, if you overuse and misuse your body in any way, you are at risk of injuring yourself. I’ve heard cases of authors getting focal dystonia (a neurological disorder, which you can read more about here), but one would never think of writing as being a particularly physically taxing profession. Musicians suffer frequently from repetitive stress injuries; by performing in the same position for 4+ hours per day, every day, for years, certain muscles become fatigued. This is exacerbated by the mental pressure musicians’ experience in a world that continuously fails to realize the importance of art, and the added physical stress of laptops and cellphones. My own journey with injury and recovery prompted an interest in understanding musculoskeletal disorders. I attended a rigorously academic public university and one of the world’s best conservatories - and at every level, young musicians (and professionals) are susceptible to repetitive stress injuries.

Why Finland, you might ask?

Finland has one of the best education systems in the world and is a society that highly values the importance of art. This means there are many resources available for music research Their medical field is making incredible progress in performing arts medicine and medical doctors are required to be trained in this field. This means if you get tendinitis or trigger finger or tennis elbow, your doctor probably isn’t going to tell you to have surgery and “rest until it gets better” (which is a common “remedy” in America). The music education curriculum is also designed to set students up for better physical and mental health. Finnish education is much less rigorous than it is in the States, but this does not mean that the academics are of poorer quality. Grades, if given, are a lot more flexible and failing a test often is followed by a makeup test, or several if you so choose. The idea isn’t to measure you against your peers but to measure you against yourself. A migraine on a particular day or a death in the family won’t be the sole reason to punish your transcript and, consequently, future career opportunities. Not all systems are perfect and this one is set up to benefit those who already have developed a lot of intrinsic motivation. School is also entirely free in Finland (with exceptions if you come from outside the EU or EEA) and the lack of financial stress alone is enough to improve student wellbeing and output. While I have not yet been in Finland for long, I already understand how Finnish society values the health of its members. This is based on the idea that the next generation will contribute to society, so it is in the nation’s best interest to set everyone up for success. This is exemplified by the following photo:

I’m spending a year of study at the Sibelius Academy, one of Europe’s premier music conservatories. I am granted nearly all the benefits of a degree student, which means I can fully immerse myself in Finnish music education curriculum. The Sibelius Academy particularly attracted me due to its heavy emphasis on physical and emotional/mental wellbeing; a glimpse at the course catalog reveals classes in Feldenkrais, Body Mapping, Alexander Technique, and Performing Learning and Coaching (addressing the mental aspect of performing). My undergraduate school didn’t offer any somatic methods and my graduate studies only offered one course, Body Mapping, and it was a recent addition. Additionally, there are many workshops on yoga for musicians, Pilates, and the Alexander Technique, and my own professor is coordinating a session on ergonomics specifically for flutists. Though I have not been here long, I already feel spoiled by the wealth of resources I have at my disposal. My current teacher, Petri Alanko, has also had a long and tedious journey with injuries and I am excited by the prospect of studying with one who has built an excellent career despite it all.

My first month, however, was mainly spent settling in. I had an immediate welcome to Finnish bureaucracy. For example, when one moves to Finland, one must register with the maistraatti (local register office). Not only is this a requirement of the Fulbright program, it must be done if you are living in Finland for 6+ months. Visiting maistraatti was the first thing I did, and I was promptly told that I could not be registered because I am not a permanent resident (obviously, one cannot be a permanent resident unless they register with maistraatti so I was pretty impressed by this lack of logic). If I do not register with maistraatti, however, then I cannot really function in Finland at all – I need this to open a bank, to get a bus pass, to get a library card, etc. After much negotiating, I was able to convince maistraatti to register me (note: by this point, I had already received a residence permit with a Finnish personal identity number or henkilötunnus so I was already in the system to a certain extent). I then went to the bank, Nordea, bringing 3 forms of identification (my two passports and the residence permit), along with bank statements, and all necessary Fulbright documents. The bank informed me that I was not registered with maistraatti and therefore, could not open an account. I tried to use my Norwegian passport (since Nordea is a Nordic region wide bank), but even then, I still needed maistraatti to populate my information in the system before I could open a bank in Finland. There was a lot of back and forth between maistraatti and Nordea that day, but Nordea finally agreed to open a bank account for me and the whole process took over 1.5 hours. On top of that, because I am not a Finnish citizen, I don’t get the benefits of real banking – like having a credit card or getting to deposit or withdraw cash, and the Visa Electron card I received can’t be used for online purchases, really, so for the most part I was stuck using my American cards anyway. Additionally, it costs extra to access online banking and if I ever want to withdraw or deposit cash, I need an officially signed form saying I am receiving money into my account every month. The most incredible part about this is that I have a signed Fulbright grant saying I “earn” money each month but as the bank attendant generously mansplained to me, “that is not an income.” I learned that my situation with Nordea was not uncommon, but the actual experience differs per person. Three former Fulbrighters went into Nordea at the same time and all came out with slightly different account benefits. I quickly learned that this is simply the way official business is conducted here.

Getting a phone plan is also equally tedious business. I had been using the prepaid card for a while but wanted to upgrade to the student discount plan with Telia Finland which offers unlimited data throughout the Nordic and Baltic regions and 10G of roaming elsewhere in the EU/EEA for 23 euros per month. This is a wonderful deal but getting a phone plan is only available to residents of 2+ years. Perhaps because of my status as a Norwegian citizen, they allowed me a phone plan…for a meager deposit of 500 euros, which they informed me only AFTER I had signed several legally binding documents. Nothing could be done because it is just the way it is. After speaking with several friends, I realized I “lucked out” in this situation and most foreigners are turned down flat when they try to get a real phone plan. My bank account is still reeling from this experience.

My first three weeks in Finland were characterized by the intensive “Finnish for Foreigners” course at the University of Helsinki. This is a “Finnish taught in Finnish” course so the teacher’s explanations of grammar were in Finnish (or suomi), which I didn’t find particularly helpful but encouraged me to study independently to master the grammar and vocabulary. I think there is a misconception about the difficulty of the Finnish language simply because it is largely unrelated to most other languages. English has a blend of Germanic and Romantic linguistic properties, so as native-English speakers, learning many other languages is not incredibly difficult. Finnish is a Finnic language within the Uralic language group and is most similar to Estonian (interestingly, Estonians can understand Finnish, but Finns cannot understand Estonian. My friend Mikko has a theory regarding Finnish radio waves reaching Estonia during the Soviet Era but not vice versa, hence the comprehension only going one way). I could write extensively about Finnish, since this has undoubtedly been the best part of my time so far, but I’ll leave with you with some key ideas which, I hope, highlights the practicality of Finnish.

Like Spanish, Finnish verbs have personal pronoun endings. The infinitive form of “to love” is rakastaa. “I love” is rakastan, “you love” is rakastat, “he/she loves” is rakastaa, “we love” is rakastamme, “you (pl.) love” is rakastatte, and “they love” is rakastavat. You’ll see that the ending of the verb takes the form of its’ personal pronoun. Everything is consistent and logical; there are only three conjugation exceptions among all verbs. I think if you can get over the length of many Finnish words (and the speed at which it is spoken), you’ll find it is actually quite manageable. There are 6 different verb types and they all conjugate differently, but the general principle is the same. Finnish also has many case endings which create larger, compound words. In fact, words can be very long:

Koiran Meme.jpg

However, this means there are fewer distinct words overall in Finnish. Some examples include derivations involving the word kirja or book. From this word alone, you can get kirjasto, kirjata, kirjautua, kirjallinen, and many more (library, record, log in, written, and various other things involving writing or books). The pronunciation is also entirely phonetic. This doesn’t seem particularly impressive considering the plethora of phonetic languages throughout the world, but native-English speakers (and ESL learners) will appreciate this. The stress of the word is always on the first syllable and the inflection of words and sentences falls. Even when asking a question, the intonation falls instead of rises. This is important because there are many compound words in Finnish, and if you stress them incorrectly, Finns will have a hard time determining where the word begins.

Finland is a bilingual country, with Swedish being an official second language. You’ll hear many people say that it’s better to learn Swedish than to bother with Finnish since “Finnish isn’t useful elsewhere in the world”. My response to this is: “Swedish isn’t really either?”. I’ve found that most Finns speak English much better than they do Swedish. Swedish is a mother tongue to small communities of Swedish-speaking Finns, but these Finns also speak Finnish and English. Finnish isn’t really spoken much outside of Finland and Swedish isn’t really spoken much outside of Sweden, and since you can get by in Finland AND Sweden with English, it might be best to simply learn Finnish if only to have a gateway into Finnish culture. Prioritizing Swedish over Finnish is likely due to the accessibility of Swedish to English (both Germanic languages).

On weekends, I took several trips abroad, knowing my schedule would be too busy once the academic year began. Below you will find three sets of photos with brief descriptions of my travels.

 

Tallinn, Estonia

I became interested in Estonia after watching a documentary called “The Singing Revolution”, which examined how Estonians resisted Soviet occupation through song. This is a topic worth investigating since we generally only learn another country’s history if said country is large, rich, or impacts our politics directly. Estonia was (and is) a gateway from Eastern Europe to Western Europe, which made them a strategically placed and highly-coveted country. Though small, their grit and resilience in the face of a foreign superpower is admirable and their history is a testament to the power of art as the means of creating a cohesive identity to further generate resistance. Estonia today is known as “the Silicon Valley” of Europe (they created Skype) and Tallinn (the capital) is a popular destination for Finns and Russians alike due to proximity, affordability, and the beauty of the town. It is one of the best-preserved medieval cities in the world and was recently declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Just a hop, skip, and jump from Helsinki, I do recommend paying this little country a visit if you’re ever in the region.

 

St. Petersburg, Russia

I kept this trip on the “down-low”, for a variety of reasons. With the current state of US-Russia relations, I think there is a lot of fear about Russia and Russians throughout the world. I’ve found, especially as an American in Europe, other people will think of you as a direct extension of your country’s governmental policies. Hence the belief in Europe that all Americans lack class and the perception in America that all Russians must be shady. This is more a testament to the ignorance and pride of humans in general and says almost nothing about the way a cultural group is. From a purely artistic standpoint, there is so much to be admired about Russia. You can’t talk about literature, music, or art without coming across Russian legends and how they have shaped the course of artistic history. Even considering a trip to Russia wasn’t realistic until I moved to Finland (if you look at a world map, you’ll see that Helsinki is much closer to St. Petersburg than it is to many other European countries). An NEC friend and St. Petersburg native helped coordinate my trip. I stayed with her dear friends Tanya and Igor for a long weekend and was floored by Russian hospitality. If I had any expectations about Russia or Russian culture, my experience exceeded them greatly.

 

Lapland, Finland

If you tell someone you are going to Lapland, they’re likely going to reply with “where is that?!”, which is unsurprising considering most people thought I was going to Norway or Sweden for my Fulbright project; Finland is somehow off the maps. Lapland is the northernmost region of Finland and is home to Santa Claus (he lives in Rovaniemi) and the Sami, the indigenous people in this Arctic region. Sami territory is called Sápmi and encompasses the northern regions of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia (Murmansk area). Lapland typically refers to the area of Sápmi within Finland’s political borders. Like every other indigenous group in the world, they have been treated poorly, even by the Finnish government, which is generally well-known for its positive approach to human rights. As an American, this is largely unsurprising to me considering my own country’s indigenous rights’ history. Even our friendly Canadian neighbors, despite their overall goodwill and happiness, have a dark and persistent history with indigenous injustice. Another Fulbrighter, Harrison, and I made the trip out to the Arctic via two trains and one rental car, and after nearly 12 hours of travel, we were well rewarded for our efforts. We spent three days and two nights in Lapland and had a brief glimpse of the aurora borealis. The pictures speak for themselves and I hope you are as impressed by the diverse and fragile landscape as I am. I also want to impart the urgency in climate justice and protecting this delicate region of the world and that what you see today may not exist in 5 or 10 years.

September wrapped up with a week of Fulbright Orientation, which was filled with some "Very Finnish Things", including saunas, swimming in the Baltic Sea, touring the city, experiencing Finnish art, as well as attending lectures about Finnish history and politics. The Fulbright Finland Foundation is comprised of some of the most positive and friendliest people I have ever met. They have certainly set a high bar for my Finnish experience. After spending a month with minimal human contact (Finns are very reserved people and I am generally a homebody), I was shocked back into healthy doses of social interaction. Despite my introverted tendencies, I found myself quickly making friends with the other Fulbrighters and the term “Fulbright Family”, though cliché, is quite apt in this situation. Perhaps part of it has to do with this shared experience of living abroad in the same country (which is how I made some great friends from volunteering in India), but more likely has to do with the fact that Fulbrighters are some very high-quality people overall (“compost humans” as I call them) and could not be otherwise if they wanted to make it this far. I felt (and still feel) incredibly proud, humbled, and dare I say it – deserving - to be part of this wonderful group of compost humans. Onward!

Shanti Bhavan: Empowering Lives Through Music (Week 1)

Welcome to India

ASTEP Camp through Graduation (June 1 – June 9)

I begin my journey aboard a Bangalore-bound plane from Seattle, WA - with a brief layover in Paris. I know nothing about what I will find once I arrive on the Indian subcontinent. Books, research, stories from friends, a vision to help the world with music are all I have – that and a small dream to one day visit the birthplace of my grandmother. For the entire trip, I am filled with excitement and a little bit of fear. This project was 9-months in the making – from my initial discovery of the program in September to pitching and defending a grant for funding in April/May –  and at times it felt like it was just a dream that would not come true. And by the time I left, I wasn’t entirely sure if I was ready to go. I wondered if this would be another one of those “biting off more than you can chew” situations to which I am prone. Friends who have gone to Shanti Bhavan before told me how wonderful the children are and I hoped my experience would be as positive and impactful as theirs was.

I landed in Bangalore around midnight on June 2nd to find that my luggage – including all of the instruments I brought for the children – were still in Paris. I flew with Air France, which a dear Italian friend nicknamed “Air Chance” because they are bound to lose your luggage. Indeed, there were about 15 other passengers waiting in line to file a baggage claim and all received a pre-made toiletry container. Apparently, they lose enough luggage to prepare plenty of toiletries in advance. Two hours later, I am in a taxi headed for Shanti Bhavan (lit. “Haven of Peace”). The trip from Bangalore to Shanti Bhavan is about 1.5 hours and I battle sleep in order to see what little I can of the city. Those who say New York City never sleeps definitely haven’t seen Bangalore. At 2 in the morning, traffic is horrendous and the driving even more alarming. “Lane discipline results in long life”, the signs warn us as my taxi driver squeezes between two other cars in a questionably 2-lane road. Yet somehow there is order among the sheer chaos and I have complete faith in my driver to take me to my destination in one piece. Once we leave the outskirts of Bangalore, we drive on small, winding, dirt roads, ravaged with potholes from the unforgiving monsoon rains. Even in the little villages we pass, several individuals are active and stray dogs flee from our car at every turn. After an hour on these little roads, we pull up to the gates of Shanti Bhavan. I am greeted by one of the on-site administrators, who takes me to my little room and shares some of her toiletries with me after learning of my sad luggage situation. Having been awake for nearly 24 hours, I am happy to finish my travels and sleep.

 

I planned my trip to India so that I would arrive one week before Shanti Bhavan’s graduation ceremony. The summer term begins immediately following graduation and I hoped to use that entire week to adjust to Shanti Bhavan and a new lifestyle. The two weeks prior to graduation are consumed by ASTEP’s Summer Arts Camp. ASTEP (Artists Striving to End Poverty) is the organization that sent me to India to teach music and they also host two arts camps during the school holidays in May and September. Shanti Bhavan doesn’t have a music curriculum in the way that they have a math, science, or economics curriculum. Music teachers come when they can but they are few and far in between. ASTEP music teachers are required to stay for a minimum of 3 months but most don’t stay much longer than that, as it is a long period of time to take away from life back home. As devoted as many are to supporting underserved communities with art, after coming to Shanti Bhavan, I understand how hard it would be to stay here long-term as an artist. While the school itself is very idyllic and peaceful, most musical opportunities are 2 hours away in Bangalore and it is difficult to get in and out of the rural areas. The ASTEP Arts Camps provide children with a creative outlet they don’t normally have during the school year and I was fortunate to be able to witness all the wonderful things this organization does. The ASTEP camp crew consisted of Broadway musicians and directors, singers, dancers, and visual artists. From morning to evening, the children were involved in an immersive creative process which culminated in 3 nights of performances leading up to graduation on Sunday, June 9th. As for my leisurely adjustment period? It was absolutely non-existent. The day after I arrived in India, I was immediately roped into helping two other ASTEP musicians, Katy and Ben, with various rehearsals and productions, even transcribing instrumental parts and performing with many musical acts myself. ASTEP camp was the most chaotic thing I’ve ever probably ever experienced in my life and by the time I came, the ASTEP volunteers were already a little stressed, focusing intently on creating three nights of fabulous performances. I did my best to help where I could, all the while learning more about the ASTEP volunteers and the students at Shanti Bhavan. Katy sent me on a mission to interview students for Broadway’s Babies and through this task, I learned a lot about the students’ home lives and aspirations. I was shocked by the number of female students who either “had no father” or whose fathers had left their mothers. I realized then that I still didn’t understand anything about the severity of India’s caste system. Until this point, poverty was a thing I’d read about in a textbook and could intellectually conceptualize. However, after getting to know these modern, young female students (who could easily adjust to an American lifestyle, I’m sure), I wondered what lives they would be living had they not been selected to attend this institution. Many “untouchable” girls are forced into marriage, sex slavery, or begin work at a very young age due to circumstances (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/16/opinion/sex-trafficking-in-india.html). I was very grateful that these young women had escaped such a fate, but was disheartened at the thousands more who were not fortunate to attend a school like Shanti Bhavan.

Ben and Katy have a goal to “spruce up” the music room at Shanti Bhavan. They founded an organization called “Broadway’s Babies” which, through fundraising concerts, raises money specifically for the music program at Shanti Bhavan. Their ultimate goal is to fund a music teacher year-round at Shanti Bhavan which would be a fabulous opportunity for the students. Having a significant sum of funding, Ben and Katy planned a trip to Bangalore for the sole purpose of purchasing music supplies. They generously invited me along and I helped them pick out new drumheads, replacement guitar and violin strings, new drumsticks, guitar picks, resin, guitar tuners, and any miscellaneous music items we could find. This was my first time in Bangalore (in daylight) and it was a chaotic experience, as I have come to expect anything in India to be. Normally the school drivers speak English, but this one only spoke Kannada (a dialect generally spoken in Karnataka) and we had difficulties communicating to him that we wanted to go to 3 or 4 different music stores and to an art supply store to pick up paint to re-paint the music room. In the United States, we are used to our cab drivers having GPS systems to guide the way. In India, you tell the driver where to go or he asks for directions from passerby on the streets. We ended up using Google Maps on my phone to find the way (thank goodness for international cell phone plans but my monthly data allotment was used entirely after that trip). Despite our driver’s frustration with our incessant needs, we picked up most of the necessary supplies. During this shopping expedition, I was struck by the convenience of living in the United States. Back home, any of these supplies could be found in most music stores or could be ordered easily online and delivered within two days. While the prices of instruments in India were significantly cheaper, the stores we visited did not have nearly the same selection of products. For example, we never found violin chinrests anywhere but you rarely see aspiring or professional violinists play without them. I always knew American culture was materialistic but I never once felt the benefit of such a culture until now. It also made me view materialism in a new light; I always believed that American buying culture is negative and unhealthy but it also has benefits. I certainly wouldn’t have used most of the supplies we couldn’t get, but to be unable to fully equip a music room when the funding exists is a little unheard of. After a quick lunch break at a small restaurant called Suryawanshi (which served the best shrimp and fish I’ve ever had in my life), we continued with our adventures. I additionally used this trip to pick up my luggage at the airport; after four days of back and forth communication, frustration, drivers hanging up my phone calls when they were unable to deliver the suitcase, I finally told Air France to keep my luggage at the airport and I would go pick everything up myself. It was a successful day for all and I could finally stop wearing the same outfit.

As ASTEP camp became increasingly hectic with non-stop rehearsals, I spent most of my time organizing the music room and the supplies therein. Katy taught me how to restring a guitar, we both learned how to change drumheads (yay Google!), and 4-5 ASTEP volunteers helped us paint the music room ceiling white (one of the ASTEP visual artists even helped paint a mini mural in the music room). There were cabinets which contained guitars, cellos, violins, and ukuleles, but the glass sliding doors had jammed and most instruments were inaccessible. Ben and Katy broke the glass (with the help of ASTEP stagehand, Eric) and after repairing and polishing the instruments, we put them in their new, easily-accessible homes. I took inventory of the instruments, organized them, and added my two plastic flutes to the music collection. I was very content to be out of the way of the preparation-craze and quite amazed that coming to India would teach me a thing or two about instrument repair. It was very helpful to observe Ben’s and Katy’s classes – particularly the choir rehearsals – as it provided insight regarding the student’s musical skill level. Prior to leaving for India, I was most concerned about choir. I had minimal voice training and my piano skills have long deteriorated since quitting lessons nearly 15 years ago. I felt more confident once I heard them and knew I could still be useful to them and spent any free time formulating lesson plans for the various classes I would be teaching (2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th grades, choir, and private lessons).

The graduation festivities were lavish; each day we were served a special meal and witnessed an hour of artistic performances. These performances encompassed everything from Broadway musical numbers to classical Kathak dancing. Even teachers performed skits and former Shanti Bhavan graduates came back to sing and dance with their underclassmen. The graduation ceremony itself was short and sweet. Shanti Bhavan associates and supporters flew in from all over the world (as far away as Sweden) to give speeches and congratulate the graduates. One student’s father even gave a passionate speech in Tamil and the whole school smelled of jasmine and tuberose. Dinner was served outdoor under a canopy with both Western and Indian styles of food and it was the first (and likely last) time I ate paneer at Shanti Bhavan. Here, in rural India (of all places), cultures combined but never clashed. Parents who could only speak Tamil, Telugu, or other local dialects were able to enjoy the festivities with the help of their tri-lingual children. And no matter which religion people practiced or which dialect they spoke, everyone enjoyed the three nights of music, dance, and art. The week ended with everyone wishing the graduates a fond and tearful farewell; they loaded into a Bangalore-bound bus and everyone prepared to resume their typical school schedules. I had a wonderful introduction to Shanti Bhavan, ASTEP, and Indian culture, but I was exhausted from all the preparation and music-making and was happy to get into a less exciting routine.