Our Man in Finland
Posted by Chase Sanborn

McCormickGreetings from Finland! My name is Mike McCormick. I’m a guitarist in my final year of the undergraduate program at U of T Jazz, currently spending this year as an exchange student at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki. In this blog post I’ll provide regular updates on my experiences here.

October 12, 2012
I’ve been here for about five weeks now, and I’ll be in and around Finland until the end of May 2015. The opportunity to go abroad was first advertised in an email from the Registrar’s office at the end of February, shortly after the University of Toronto signed a bilateral agreement with the Sibelius Academy. In order to apply, I had to submit a CV, two reference letters, and a statement outlining the anticipated benefits of the exchange. The applications were due on Monday, March 10th, and by March 14th I was informed that I had been selected to participate in the exchange. In order to complete the application, I had to send a few things to the administration at the Sibelius Academy: they needed a copy of my transcript, CV, and some recordings before I was officially accepted to the Academy.

Once the application process with the school was completed, I had to take care of some of the practical details of living abroad. This included purchasing a plane ticket to Helsinki, purchasing travel insurance for the year, searching for an apartment in Helsinki, and applying for a temporary residence permit. This last detail proved to be a bit more involved than I expected; after submitting many documents online (including a €300 application fee), I had to travel to the Embassy in Ottawa to present the original documents and give my fingerprints. Months before I was scheduled to leave for one of the most expensive countries in the world, I’d already spent thousands of dollars!

MusiikkitaloThe Sibelius Academy welcomes around 75 exchange students a year, and they make it very easy to get accustomed to the city and school life. They have three buildings centrally located in Helsinki, including the Musiikkitalo (pictured). Half of this building houses performance venues of various sizes, including the concert hall that is home to the Helsinki Philharmonic and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. The other half of the building contains seven floors of practice rooms, classrooms, a library, recording studios, and an extensive music technology department. On the dedicated jazz floor, each practice room contains (at least) a piano, drum kit with cymbals, stereo with CD/aux inputs, and all the rooms are completely sound proof. The two main rehearsal spaces also each have a Rhodes electric piano, a Hammond organ, and a PA.

The Sibelius Academy attracts students from all over the world, and the level of musicianship among students and teachers is quite high, though perhaps my judgement is limited to the jazz department. Higher education is provided by the government free of charge, and the Sibelius Academy is incredibly well funded. Each jazz student is welcome to 50 hours a year of private lesson time, and most classes aren’t more than 8 students. I’m currently enrolled in guitar lessons, drum lessons, composition lessons, music business (specifically for jazz students), an ensemble, a Finnish language course, and a course in the music technology department working with the audio processing software SuperCollider.

For a city of around a million people, there are a few dedicated venues and festivals that attract touring artists regularly – in the last five weeks, we’ve had workshops with the Sam Yahel Trio, journalist Larry Appelbaum, Peter Erskine, Lars Danielsson, Joey Calderazzo, Jeff “Tain” Watts, Kalle Kalima, and Boris Koslov. Also, when certain artists have the time, the school arranges private lessons for all the students of the same instrument; I had a lesson with Berlin-based Finnish guitarist Kalle Kalima, for example.

While it sounds like I’m painting a picture of jazz school utopia, I’ll admit that not everything is ideal. Aside from tuition and the costs associated with getting myself here, the cost of living here is incredibly high, even compared to many other places in Europe. The first pint I had after landing in Finland was a local brew…and I paid €8 ($11CAN–granted, I unknowingly picked a pricey pub!) Musically speaking, the jazz program at the Sibelius Academy is quite small–around 30 students–which is nice and intimate, but it means that they don’t have any large ensembles, and they currently have a surplus of pianists and drummers, so not everyone is guaranteed a small ensemble either. There are actually no trombonists and only one trumpeter and one other guitarist enrolled in the program at the moment (excluding other exchange students).

Also, the jam session culture seems to be very different than what I am accustomed to. At U of T, it is never an issue to knock on the door of another practice room and play a few tunes as a duo or trio. Here it seems more common that people only get together to play when they’ve decided on it in advance, and when an entire group has been put together. I set up a session with two German exchange students (trombone and 5-string upright bass, no big deal), and was met with surprise from some Finnish musicians when I mentioned that we played tunes without a drummer. There aren’t nearly as many performance opportunities here through the school either, which I think I maybe took for granted at U of T. I feel that performing for and playing with your peers is really important in order to build a supportive community, and those are perhaps a few aspects that are lacking in this school environment. Perhaps it’s too early to say.

I’ll do my best to send updates periodically to report on musical happenings at the Academy and in Helsinki, but please feel free to contact me with any questions about Finland, going on exchange, or if you want some more information about the Sibelius Academy. You can find me on Facebook, or keep an ear on my SoundCloud page to hear any new music I make here. All the best in the meantime!


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