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!