“You have to be active in your thoughts when you are involved in music making.”
To get to Kuitinmäki Lower Secondary School I have to take bus 122 in Helsinki and get off at Kuitinniitty. I can’t say the word, “Kuitinniitty,” I can’t see the sign on the bus stop in time to ring the bell, and I’m afraid I’ll miss my stop. I ask the bus driver if he’ll tell me where to get off and he motions for me to sit in the front seat. (I think to myself, “Hey, I saw a bus driver do this for a child last week!”)
He stops at Kuitinniitty, a bus stop in suburban Espoo about twenty minutes later and the school is a two-story brick building with students’ bicycles parked out front. I’m here to see Howard Sklar, a high school friend of mine from southern California, who invited me to observe some science teachers at his school. We’re sitting, having coffee in the teacher’s room, and he mentions to me on a whim, “You might want to visit Terhi Oksanen’s music class. I hear it’s great.” Terhi happens to be walking by and says, “Hey! Can you come by at 1:00?” (I think to myself, “I wonder if she teaches problem solving in music class, too? Is it possible?”)
At 1:00 I meet her in the teacher’s break room and we go down to her classroom where the students are waiting – laughing, lounging on the floor, texting on their phones. Most of them are in stocking feet, a very typical sight in Finnish schools. The music room is filled with instruments on all sides – bongo drums, snare drums, electric keyboards, ukuleles, tambourines, Boomwackers, guitars, and a piano. In the middle is an open area and around it are short sitting stools.
Terhi starts in silence and I find myself completely confused. She stands in front of us and without words motions for us to do so, as well. We stand. Using only eye and facial expressions, she invites us into a “conversation” with her, and that conversation is one without words. She positions one arm in front of her body and bends it at the elbow, and then twists her forearm vertically and makes a vocal sound. We do the same, hesitantly, and she waits for us to catch up. Terhi looks at each student and nods, acknowledging our ability to see, to understand, and to copy. Next she makes a horizontal circle with this same hand and creates a new vocal sound. We do the same. We seem to be building a sequence. She observes us for our progress. We observe her for instructions. Terhi continues with this sequence but this time she incorporates a beat and speeds up. She is teaching us the “words” to a new musical “sentence” and each time the sequence of motions and sounds gets longer. In essence, we are her echo. Our sentences become a musical and rhythmic “paragraph.” Terhi gives to us and we give it back. She proceeds by getting feedback from us and varies the difficulty to meet our needs. The story gets more and more difficult and I’m fascinated by the engagement of these mental calisthenics! Our brains and bodies have to coordinate body movements, rhythms and vocal sounds and we have to remember them in sequences. It isn’t easy but it sure is fun!
She assigns each of us either the number one or two and the ones make an inner circle and the twos make an outer circle. The groups face each other. With words, she now teaches us a new sequence of movements.
After about ten minutes of practice, she turns on the music. I had no idea we were learning a new dance!
I ask Terhi how she uses music to help develop their problem solving abilities, coordination, and thinking skills.