The long road to Kaustinen

Last week I participated in a Näppärikurssi[1] in Kaustinen. As I have sat down many times in the attempt to write about what last week meant to me, I have very much struggled in deciding how and where to begin.

I have been literally all over the globe with my violin. It has moved with me, for long periods of time, to five different continents. Fresh out of high school in 2004, my violin lived with me in New Zealand for two years, where I busked on the streets as a hobby and played in a community orchestra, in addition to my au pair responsibilities with my host family. When I returned from this first major adventure abroad in 2006, I began my university studies back in Iowa—a double-major in music and international studies. But that was by no means the end to my violin and I’s travels to far-reaching corners of the earth.

Busking in New Zealand, 2005

Next, in 2007, we were off to Ecuador together—a 3-month summer trip to study Spanish and backpack from the high Andes to the lower Amazon, playing my violin along the way for anyone who was interested. In 2008 I left Iowa once again, this time for Morocco, where I spent 9 months in a study abroad program, living with a Moroccan family and studying Arabic. In the capital of Rabat, I somehow found myself integrated into the Moroccan Philharmonic Orchestra, rehearsing and playing concerts with Moroccan, Algerian, French, and Spanish musicians throughout the year. After returning to Iowa and eventually graduating from university in 2011, I moved to Cuzco, Peru, which sits at a measly 3,399 meters above sea level. I spent 12 months in Cuzco as the violin instructor at a music school: La Asociación Cultural de Qantu.  In the thin air of the Peruvian Andes, I learned about the school’s teaching method. La Asociación Cultural de Qantu  combines the Suzuki method with traditional Peruvian repertoire, arranged for students to play together with classical and traditional instruments. They sing in Spanish and in Quechua, and they come together in masses to do so.

In Ecuador, violin in tow, 2007


With the 3 female, Moroccan members of the Moroccan Philharmonic Orchestra, 2009


With a student in Cuzco, Peru, 2012


In 2013, I found myself back in Iowa, working on a Master’s degree in Spanish. Nevertheless, I continued to teach violin, this time to English-speaking students, and played with the Des Moines Symphony. When I finished this Master’s degree, I accepted a 12-month position to teach Spanish full-time at the same university, allowing me to stay in my great apartment in the same town, to teach the same violin students, and to continue to play with the Des Moines Symphony.

That was the 2015-2016 academic year, and it represents the most stability and grounded-ness I’ve ever had in my entire 14-year adult life. I had recently purchased an octave mandolin, and spent much of my free time exploring old and new American folk music, writing some of my own as well. As the year progressed, I sort of felt content, satisfied, even happy. And why wouldn’t I have? I was doing everything I loved (language and music), living in a town with a high quality of life, and making decent money. I had family nearby, a car that allowed me to travel with freedom, and an awesome apartment. I had many friends and I was doing work that was extremely fulfilling.

Teaching in Iowa, 2016


But I had made such a life for myself as a globetrotter—it had become an integral part of my identity. It felt very strange to think of giving that up, of not having that be the way I presented myself to the world. Was I ready to say that I “just” lived in Iowa? As I look back, I think that I felt that I was ready for that deep down. I was ready to say it to myself—but was I ready to say it to everyone else? It was, in many ways, an existential crisis. And there was the fact that I believed my bilingualism wasn’t enough. During university I had studied French, Portuguese and Arabic, and I couldn’t claim fluency in any yet. That was something I wanted, something I felt I needed. And then there was this folk music thing, which I had seen in Peru, and which I had experimented myself with in Iowa. And then—then, there was DYCLAM.

The program DYCLAM: Dynamics of Cultural Landscapes and Heritage Management, fell into my lap in some fateful way. Over coffee in Iowa City one Thursday morning in 2015, a friend mentioned some inter-mobile, inter-disciplinary Erasmus Mundus programs that were supported by the European Union. Upon immediately researching these dreamy sounding programs after the coffee date, I stumbled across a program which promised to give me everything I thought I wanted. Two years living in Europe, moving to five different locations during that time, including France and Portugal. Fluency in French and Portuguese? Check.  The program also promised to open the doors to this idea of intangible cultural heritage that I had become interested in, the possibility to study the musical traditions of other cultures. Folk music? Check.  And of course, it offered me further globetrotter status and experience—the whole wanderlust thing could continue to be a part of my life for two years, despite the fact that I had maybe begun to question its appeal. But anyway—globetrotter identity? Check.

So, in July 2016, my violin, my suitcase, and I headed off yet again, for an opportunity I felt was too good to be true. And if I had questioned that feeling for any amount of time, perhaps things might have been different. But I had always been a fearless traveler. And after all—this was my dream, right? So, I got rid of almost everything I owned, packed up a few boxes for my mom’s basement, and packed the necessities into one, large suitcase.

My empty apartment in Iowa and full suitcase—ready for Europe, 2016


Alas, they say, some things are too good to be true. And so it was. Just a few weeks into the program, I began feeling like a fish out of water in more ways than one. During the entirety of the program, I wondered why I had been chosen. As I refer back to my application essay, I see that I wrote only about intangible cultural heritage which was, for me, music and language. Yet, semester after semester, no one seemed to have any concern for or knowledge of the interests for which I had apparently been chosen. I considered, on numerous occasions, leaving the program. To put it politely, the deceptions I endured were many. Add to the mix all the logistics that go into moving to a new country every few months for two years. From France to Portugal, then back to a different region of France, and onto Italy before, finally, Finland. Even this jetsetter wasn’t prepared for all the complicated visa, accommodation, and healthcare concerns that would arise. And before you have it figured out in one place, you’re onto the next country to confront the same things. Most likely, in a new language.

But in the earliest miles of this very long road, I somehow started corresponding with someone named Matti Hakamäki, as I tried to plan the only self-designed semester of DYCLAM. Just a few months into my program, through a few e-mails with the director of the Kaustinen Folk Music Institute, I thought I might have found what could serve as the 5thand final semester of my program. And suspiciously (as I had learned to be), the opportunity seemed wonderful. It perhaps even resembled the exact reason I had decided to begin the program in the first place. And so, there was a dim light at the end of what seemed an endless tunnel. As the months of DYCLAM dragged on, I held on tight to that distant light. And on April 5th, 2018 I finally arrived.

Last week as I assisted in a Näppärit classroom full of Finnish teenage girls alongside Mauno Järvelä, one of the most important individuals involved in the Kaustinen folk fiddling tradition, I felt as much disbelief as I felt fulfillment. The random, English-speaking, American violinist was probably somewhat of a novelty for these adolescent girls. But oh, how I wish I could explain to those girls how much being with them meant to me. If I felt emotional in our small classroom early in the week, by the time we crammed 350 students and teachers of all ages into an auditorium built for half that, my cup runneth over.

Last week during Näppärit


As I stood there on stage enveloped by hundreds of Finnish musicians ages three to 70, I really did see my life flash before my eyes. Overwhelmed by the waves of gratitude that washed over me, I thought of the many paths I have tread all over the world that have, in some inexplicable way, brought me to this place and to that moment. To say that the Näppärikurssi in Kaustinen last week meant a lot to me explains nothing. To write a blog about it does little more. What last week meant to me? It is, simply, beyond words.

Final Näppärit concert

Suzanne Wedeking



What is a Näppärikurssi?

Näppärit[1] is a pedagogical method for teaching children music that was founded in Kaustinen, Finland. Its roots go back to the Kaustinen folk music groups for children and young adults that were initiated by Aaro Kentala in the 1970s. Mauno Järvelä took this well-planted seed and nurtured it, ambitious goals no less present on his mind than they are today. Järvelä didn’t believe students needed to pass entrance exams, as was the commonplace understanding in Finnish music education circles of the time, to be allowed into the world of music. Instead, he believed that “Music is the birthright of every child.” (A quote I fondly recall from Zoltán Kodály)

Järvelä believed music would be best understood and undertaken with the goal of practicing it as a hobby—by seeing it as something enjoyable in which everyone could join and share. Musical rehearsals and gatherings should not necessarily, then, be divided up, separating the “better” and the “worse” players. Rather, children who are less advanced, perhaps not yet even playing an instrument, could still join the Näppärit group as singers. In fact, such a diverse blend of ages verged on a multi-generational learning style. Järvelä might argue that this model resembles the master-apprentice approach that was typical during his own childhood in the Kaustinen village of Järvelä (yes, the name of the village also happens to be Mauno’s last name—that’s another story, for another blog). Järvelä himself picked up his first fiddle only after admiring his father and other older village fiddlers from birth and on through his toddler years. He watched and listened to them with such veneration that by the time he did pick up that fiddle, he just knew what to do. No one had to teach him the tunes. “I just began to play them,” he told me, as he played me a few of those earliest tunes, while sitting barefoot in his backyard during a recent interview I conducted with him and his wife, Maarit. If this master-apprentice model offered the younger Näppärit students an environment in which they found strong role models in their older peers, it in turn gave the older students the opportunity to practice their own leadership skills, as they learned what it means to pass along knowledge and share experience with younger peers. This same Näppärit model lives on today.

The Kaustinen Folk Music Festival[2] being in Näppärit’s “backyard”, and vice-versa of course, provided an immediate venue in which those first Näppärit players could share their new-found joy and hobby. The festival offered, similarly, a yearly goal in case motivation ever lagged when it came time for the young musicians to practice at home by themselves. Early on, with these large Näppärit gatherings serving as the archetype, Mauno Järvelä began to receive invitations to hold similar weekend workshops in other towns around Finland. These early Näppärit workshops were held in places with no previous Kaustinen connection—this unassuming phenomenon that was Näppärit was somehow spreading by word of mouth like wildfire, via the Kaustinen Folk Festival Festival audience and eventually the Finnish National Broadcasting Company (that made several documentaries within Näppärit’s first decade). And so, in addition to the weekly Näppärit gatherings in Kaustinen for the local kids, Näppärit began to expand its outreach, providing this same undiscriminating nature of musical education not only to a village, but to an entire country of children.[3] These workshops became known as Näppärikurssi.

Next week, Kaustinen will hold its 32ndNäppärikurssi. Näppärit still exists in Kaustinen in its original form, with a group of Kaustinen children meeting weekly throughout the long, dark winter, beckoning those light and lively Kaustinen summers and musical opportunities as they play jolly Kaustinen polkkas and other folk-based tunes from around Finland. The Näppärikurssi takes place in addition to these weekly meetings, though, and is based on those early weekend workshops with which Järvelä began to spread Näppärit values of all-inclusive music education all over the country. So, next week, although those same 30-40 young weekly Näppärit players from Kaustinen will be involved in the Näppärikurssi, they will be joining forces with a few hundred others—a total of 316 children. The population of Kaustinen is just over 4,000 so an extra 316 kids will not go unnoticed (or unheard!). And that’s without taking their parents into account. Of course, some aren’t traveling too far to attend the week-long workshop. But others may be coming from as far as Helsinki or even Spain, in the case of one Finnish-Spanish family.

I had the opportunity to travel to Eastern Finland a few weeks ago to assist Mauno and other Näppärit teachers with a Näppärikurssi in Joensuu, Finland. They expected that Näppärikurssi to be big, with around 100 children. The logistics of the Joensuu weekend workshop, which ran Friday evening to Sunday afternoon, were tricky for a group of 100, and that weekend workshop took place in a city of 75,000. This next week, Kaustinen (a tiny village in comparison to Joensuu) will see an increase in population and in musical activity (just when I didn’t think it was possible) for five days. This next week also represents the beginning of a new Näppärit year—the Kaustinen Näppärikurssi “sets the stage” so-to-speak for the Näppärikurssi workshops that will happen over the next 12 months. The repertoire the students learn next week in Kaustinen will be used all over Finland until Kaustinen hosts the 33rdannual Kaustinen Näppärikurssi a year from now. But repertoire aside, if I were Mauno, I’d be a bit more worried about the logistics. Notwithstanding my own preoccupations, often having heard him referred to as “a legend” or “the grand old man”, the notion of worry doesn’t seem to be in that fiddler’s bag of tricks. And a magician he just might be.

Are Mauno and the other teachers up to the task? Am I? Recently, Siiri Järvelä mentioned to me that Mauno had quadruple-booked himself during the month of June, with three obligations spread out across Finland and a fourth in Denmark—all within two days. As I turned to him upon hearing this, with a skeptical raise of my left eyebrow, he turned up his grin and said, “No problem!” chuckling to himself. With a record-breaking Napparikurssi registration of over 300 students for next week’s workshop, I expect there should be “No problem!” And I wouldn’t put a Mauno Järvelä disappearing/reappearing act out of the question, either…!


Suzanne Wedeking




[3]Mauno Järvelä: Näppäripedagogiikka