Our Man in Finland-Part 2
Posted by Mike McCormick

McCormickUndergraduate guitarist Mike McCormick is spending his final year as an exchange student at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki. This is his second blog post on his experiences there.
Hey gang,

Sorry for not writing in such a long time…here’s a bit of an update on things here:

I’ve tried to take advantage of the short distances between countries in Europe in the past month: I spent a weekend in Tallinn, Estonia and another day in Stockholm, Sweden. It’s really amazing for me how much of a cultural difference can be found only a few hours away – Tallinn is a two hour ferry ride across the Gulf of Finland, and it becomes quickly apparent that Estonia is distinctly different from Finland. Both Tallinn and Stockholm are really beautiful, and I’d definitely like to spend more time in Stockholm – I’ve heard great things about the jazz scene in the city, and I only had eight hours to explore. Instead of coming home to Canada for the holidays, I’m very excited to be spending 10 days in Berlin (including Christmas & NYE), a week in Belgium with my sister (who happens to be travelling in Europe for a few months), and then five days in Amsterdam before I head back to Helsinki.

Recently, many conversations have been held between myself and the other exchange students in the jazz department (from Denmark, Switzerland, and Germany) over our surprise at how conservative the program is. Both students and faculty are primarily concerned with playing bebop/hardbop/whateverbop and little else. Those of you who are familiar with my tendency to share recordings in the jazz lounge at 90W probably won’t be surprised to hear that I’ve emptied rooms on more than one occasion by playing Messiaen, Monder, or anything else that was produced after 1965.

I’ve come to realize how fortunate the program at U of T is in that it provides the guidance necessary to learn the “jazz” tradition while at the same time encouraging the development of a personal voice. Looking at the recital requirements, for example: U of T asks that Master’s recitals are at least %50 original material, while a student at SibA can get a master’s degree playing nothing but standards for their entire degree, and it seems that many of them are content in doing so.

I realize I’m making pretty big generalizations, though all of the other exchange students seem to agree with my sentiments. Many of them have been on other exchanges within Europe, and it seems that very few schools in the Nordic countries focus so heavily on the tradition the way this school does. I also realize I might be painting a negative picture of the program; for students looking to be immersed in the ’50s jazz tradition, this is an ideal place to study, and I’ve learned much more about bebop in the last few months than I ever expected to. Personally, I’m much more interested in learning from the various jazz traditions in order to create music that speaks to a contemporary audience, and I’m having to do a bit of legwork to find others with similar perspectives.

Outside of the jazz department, however, things seem very explorative and forward-thinking. Last month, I saw the premiere of a student opera by Finnish composer Kalevi Aho that was commissioned by the Sibelius Academy, and it was super modern! The opera was based on the life of Frida Kalho and Diego Rivera, and the music attempted to compliment their surrealist art (including a prominent theremin part in the score). Also, last week SibA was host to a Music Technology festival, and some of the concerts were unlike anything I’d ever seen before – an entire concert was dedicated to new music composed for Disklavier (a grand player-piano), for example.

I noticed that the registrar’s office has recently opened the applications for next year’s exchange. I would encourage you to consider applying, and feel free to send me any questions you have about the application process or life here or whatever. U of T’s Ryan McClelland (Associate Professor of Music Theory, Associate Dean of Academic & Student Affairs) was actually in Helsinki for a few days in November, so he’s had a chance to see the school and he and I chatted about my impressions of the program. I’m sure he’d also be happy to answer any questions you have.

Happy holidays! Perhaps I’ll be in touch again in the beginning of the new year.

Hope all is well in TO as the semester winds down. It’s barely dropped below 0C here – I’m feeling very snow-deprived!

-Mike

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