Nordic network for music education

David G. Hebert and Torunn Bakken Hauge (eds.), 2019. Advancing music education in Northern Europe. London: Routledge. 292 pp. ISBN 978-11-3848-626-3.

The Nordic Network for Music Education (NNME) has been an important force in the regional development of music education in Northern Europe since its inception in 1997, organizing annual intensive Master courses and providing a forum for international cooperation between scholars from higher learning institutions. Now for the first time in its two-decade long history, the NNME has produced a collaborative publication mapping the field of music pedagogy in the Nordic and Baltic regions. Co-edited by NNME founder Torunn Bakken Hauge and current NNME manager David G. Hebert, Advancing music education in Northern Europe provides a unique bird’s eye view of how music education has developed across the diversity of the eight current member nations.

The book’s focus on the challenge of building and maintaining international cooperation in times of change and uncertainty could not be more relevant in light of the Covid pandemic, which has seen a sudden disruption in the usually busy travel schedule of the typical music education researcher. The cancelling of major international conferences such as this year’s International Society for Music Education (ISME) World Conference – which was to be held in Helsinki in August, 2020 – and the subsequent shift towards virtual spaces to replace them raises serious questions as to the sustainability of traditional forms of international collaboration. Central to the theme of Advancing music education is that successful networks are built slowly through the careful cultivation of professional friendships: ‘Relations matter!’, as the Danish music educationist Lars Brink succinctly puts it in his contributing chapter. What does the future hold for such collaborations, which have traditionally grown through travel and repeated face-to-face meetings between students and colleagues? The reflections contained in this volume serve as a timely consideration of this question and of what young academic disciplines like music education may have at stake in the new age of zoom.

The region covered by this book and the NNME organization is vast, offering a journey through music education practices readers will find at turns familiar and exotic. Contributions from the 18 authors – both established and emerging scholars ­– range from evolving Popular Music Education (PME) practices in Denmark and Sweden’s hybrid adaptation of the El Sistema program to teaching Estonian Runo, Lithuanian Sutartinės, and the novel Lithuanian Emotional Imitation Method (EIM). A unique aspect of the NNME and subsequently this publication is that it bridges the Nordic and Baltic countries, offering insight into the traditions of neighbouring nations that despite deep historical ties are still only beginning to rediscover each other after the collapse of the Soviet Union a generation ago. In this regard, the thumbnail histories of national music education programs provided by many of the contributors for their respective countries will prove an invaluable resource for readers of music education. Reading about Baltic traditions may prove most intriguing for Nordic readers, just as Baltic readers may be most interested in learning more about Nordic practices. In her chapter, Lithuanian music educationist Jolanta Lasauskienė recounts her own powerful first experience as a young professional of the ‘absolute contrast’ of the Finnish music educational system compared to that she had grown up in:

I was invited to see music lessons in a primary school, and was surprised to be shown a room completely full of musical instruments, plenty for all of the children, which seemed incredible at the time. Every child was able to play or improvise as s/he wanted, and had access to a wealth of instruments.

Editors Hebert and Hauge note in their summarizing chapter how little is known of Russian music education practices in the West, and it is fascinating to consider in these accounts to what degree the Soviet era continues to cast its shadow over the Baltic states. They offer insight into nations that have lived through Soviet occupation and managed to maintain distinct national musical traditions, often in fact preserving musical practices as a form of political resistance. Writing on Estonian music education, contributors Anu Sepp, Urve Läänemets and Kristii Kiilu recount how an important founder of modern Estonian music education, Riho Päts, was himself a victim of Soviet repression, held in a Siberian prison camp until 1955. They write that ‘the Soviet power exercised psychological and physical destruction of the cultural, political and economic elite’. On the other hand, some Soviet initiatives such as a children’s choral festival established in 1962 has persisted to the present day and is cited as a positive example of music education development from the occupation period.

While this book provides an interesting window through which to consider differences between East and West, taken as a whole it provides a strong impression of how each national tradition can be seen as unique and independent, with its own mix of historical connections to neighbouring nations within the regions. In her chapter, Icelandic music educationist Helga Rut Guðmundsdóttirsuggests that traditional music education in Iceland has rather more in common with Baltic educational programs than with other Nordic ones. In Estonia, Sepp, Läänemets and Kiilu conclude:

We are in a curious position between the Nordic and the Baltic countries: geographically and historically we share a lot with other Baltic countries, yet culturally and educationally we also have a lot in common with Germany and Scandinavia, especially with Finland, as we share a lot in language and music (we even have the same melody for both of our national anthems!).

Indeed, bridging differences between the founding Nordic countries was perhaps in some instances as significant as adapting to a wider organisation that now includes the former Soviet states (the Baltics were latecomers to the NNME, joining Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark in 2008). Politics, geography, and not least the region’s different languages have contributed to the isolation of national music education research and practice. The decision taken by the NNME in 2005 to adopt English rather than Scandinavian languages as its main language for communication and events has in this regard proven to be a difficult but ultimately rewarding one. It allowed the Nordic meetings to evolve from being a ‘linguistic stew that was hard to digest’ in Guðmundsdóttir’s formulation, leaving Finnish and Icelandic participants at a disadvantage, to being a level playing field that now provides students with useful training in academia’s lingua franca. On a lighter note, Guðmundsdóttir relates a hilarious instance of clashing Swedish and Norwegian national sensibilities, where a Norwegian Master student, fed up after a long afternoon of back-to-back sessions planned without coffee breaks by his ambitious Swedish NNME conference hosts, spontaneously stands up in the middle of the lecture hall, loudly announcing, ‘Jammen nå må jeg ha pause altså!’, prompting an exodus of relieved Finns and Danes to follow after him to the cafeteria.

Many of the book’s contributors note the NNME’s role as a hothouse for nurturing potential doctoral students, thereby encouraging the sustainable growth of music education research in the region. For small nations, international cooperation such as NNME is a resource without which music education could not continue to develop as an academic and research-based discipline. As the Swedish music educationists Eva Sæther and Adriana di Lorenzo Tillborg note in their contribution, music education as a research field is under threat just across the Öresund in Denmark:

The current situation for music teacher education in nearby Denmark is especially a concern... Music education is a small field of research; therefore, we need each other to produce and spread research that shows the importance of music education, especially in times of migration challenges and globalization, with the increasing need for intercultural competence.

In their concluding chapter, editors Hebert and Hauge take up and discuss the above-mentioned challenges of migration and globalization and add to this list the forces of rising nationalism and a region-wide wave of institutional restructuring and consolidation as potential threats to continued international cooperation and development. As the book was published in 2019, the authors could not have anticipated the massive new challenge of lockdown and virtual conferencing that was about to become the new normal of the Covid-era workplace. It is interesting nevertheless to look at their recommendations and suggestions in light of the current crisis, as they speak to some of the difficulties that international networks like the NNME may face in the current online meeting culture. Hebert and Hauge take up several concrete examples where personal contact, perseverance, and friendships born of shared experience have been integral to the network’s continued existence and development:

It is important in a network of this kind that the leader should stay in touch with people, speak with them frequently, meet face-to-face, and also have informal contact. It does not work to rely only on formal strategies through mail. Communication and empathy are generally very important.

As colleagues across the Nordic and Baltic regions and worldwide struggle to maintain vital international networks via email, zoom, and social media, the world of music education research waits to see what forms – old or new – will eventually emerge from this difficult period of limbo and improvised work routines. Advancing music education in Northern Europe makes a strong case for the benefits of regional collaboration as a tradition to nurture and sustain through these times of crisis.

David Johnson