Written by Janet English

12. Saddle Shoes and a Pink Ukulele

12. Saddle Shoes and a Pink Ukulele by Janet English

“If you don’t struggle you don’t learn anything.”


Chapter 12


Flowers6A month later, temperatures are warmer, the piles of snow are melting and spring leaves and flowers are starting to appear. I’m able to find the bus stop in front of Terhi’s school without asking for help and I don’t have to sit in the front seat. The “Old Sky” is showing, which is what some Finns call the blue sky.  Perhaps after a long and dark winter it’s like seeing an old friend.

Screen Shot 2014-09-07 at 11.36.24 AMTerhi has set a new challenge for the music students. Their target is to work in groups and write the lyrics and music to a new song that they will perform for their parents at the end of the semester.  Terhi has given them a theme and possible chord progressions but other than that they have to create the music themselves.  Of course, she doesn’t leave them alone, but the challenge is substantial and they must succeed in this challenge together. The theme is, “Traveler” but one group is still stuck – they don’t think they have anything interesting to say. Terhi suggests to the girls, “Pretend your boyfriend dumps you by text message while you are traveling on a train.” That’s all they need!

Screen Shot 2014-09-07 at 11.39.40 AMTerhi coaches, suggests, and nurtures, but she does not give the answers away.  Not all students are happy. The struggle of the creative process makes many frustrated and irritable and some students take that frustration out on Terhi. But she listens, she coaches, she nurtures, and the students carry on. On the piano behind me, a group practices at the keyboard and another student group practices in the storeroom.  Still another student group practices in the library with a portable keyboard.  

One student works alone.

Screen Shot 2014-09-07 at 11.41.09 AMShe’s tall and thin and wears her blue hair in a bob.  In her short black dress and black tights, black and white saddle shoes and blue scarf, she looks like she’s stepped out of a storybook.  She holds and strums a pink ukulele. She asks Terhi if she can play her song for her in another room because she’s concerned that her work is not good enough for the others to hear. They walk down the hallway (with me trailing behind) to perhaps the quietest room in this part of the building – a very large wash closet.   The girl with the blue hair and the pink ukulele hesitates to perform but with Terhi’s encouragement, she begins. Carefully.  Cautiously. It must be difficult for her.

Terhi  sits next to her and looks down, not saying a word as she plays but nodding in encouragement. When the girl finishes, Terhi and the girl translate the lyrics into English and speak to me about the intent of the story.  It has something to do with all of us being on a journey, that no two journeys are the same and that each of us have  many different stops along the way.  Don’t look back and don’t be sorry for things that have already happened! Her  words are like poetry! I look at the girl, she looks at me, and my eyes start to tear.  She says the destination is not as important as the journey so enjoy, look up, and keep going! The girl with the blue hair and the pink ukulele sits up straighter, her smile broadens, and she acts amazed that she is the one who created this lovely piece of music. Terhi asks her to sing again only this time the girl does so with very little hesitation. Terhi leans in, hums, and then does something so very lovely – she sings harmony with the girl’s melody. The resulting music is stunning.  And it happened in music class.

“With the 9th grade group we had the task to compose a song. The group has a task and they have to make a song and we’ve been already making ready songs so they don’t play from the notes. The songs that I use in schools are ones we can memorize by listening – by heart … by learning really old thing – oral -which I also think …makes the connection more deep to the music – to memorize – it really is also really effective to train the brains. Of course, there is the making the music. But in the task of making a song, then, I give them simple tools that they can start. We talk about how you can make lyrics but I give them chord options that they can choose … and they have to find the ways that sounds the best and then we go to the basic …tonal … basic architectural points in music that majority of music uses; the three chords. But they can choose the direction … how they use it  - in which order they use it. And then they can also start by making a melody or they can start by writing the lyrics. And they work in a group, which is sometimes difficult, but I think for them because it’s the first time they start it I think it is good they can talk with other students. And then it slowly comes in the process that they find the lyrics, they work with the lyrics, they have to go to the process many times again and they want to improve it and the final result is that there is a song they sing and play.”
“But they fought you on it!” I said.

“In the beginning we had difficulties because they didn’t believe they are able to do it… It didn’t start easy because they didn’t have the experience and it was difficult to find the idea. To find the idea it’s really difficult. They thought that, ‘There is nothing interesting in my life! I don’t find any ideas.’”

Terhi continued, “That’s why I gave the basic support. It took several weeks before it started to go and of course I didn’t leave them alone. I went and I tried to help them to give them support. I guided them in the direction I think might be helpful for them and then after 3 weeks it started. They understood where the process was going and it changed the whole thinking in their attitude, of course. And that’s how they took the responsibility of song writing.”

“In the beginning it’s so wonderful to see how the process is going on so that at first they struggle, of course. If you don’t struggle you don’t learn anything you have to struggle – there has to be the chaos so that something happens and I try to teach the children to love that moment when they are out and they don’t understand anything because that is the moment where the learning starts. And if you want to get it, if you have the motivation, you will then figure it out. You just work with it. We have to work, of course, and at the end with music it’s something when you see students performing that song you think, “What is the difficulty?” It looks so easy.”
Because it looks so easy.
“That is how music should be. I don’t want to take the students to show to the audience how they struggle because then the audience also struggles.”

“I’m using the genius tool of music that there are phrases; there are shorter phrases, there are longer phrases. So I’m training their brains to hear to listen to feel to use all different senses they have: listening, the visual, the kinesthetic, the body, in the mind, maybe the language – all the things at the same time. So I hope a lot of lights … going here but also in the whole personality.”
You had a comment earlier about you don’t give tests.
“No, I don’t give tests. No. I say to students that I don’t need to give tests. Of course, I would maybe see more … personal information but for me there is enough information when I see students working in the classroom. So my eyes have to be open to observe what they do (in) the lesson. I say that in music every lesson is a test – every lesson is a test because how you work here, how you are involved, how you take part, how you try to study the things that we are doing that is the test every lesson. So if you have problems of concentrating you can see on their behavior – how they work. If you have problems in coordination … you can see it in your behavior but that is not the task of evaluation. It’s how you work, how you take part to the work, how you try, how you are involved in the music making – that is the test results. That is my main focus on what I try to evaluate.”
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
“Teaching is lovely. No, learning is lovely. It’s my passion.”
 Kiitos. (Thank you.)

To listen to some professionally-composed Finnish music titled, “Salaissus” by Soili Perkiö and Liisa Kallio, click here: