Nea Meriranta, Robert Cowles and Jarkko Pajunen

Spreading the word about American choir music

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Robert Cowles has spent the Academic year 2014-2015 as a Fulbright Scholar at the Sibelius Academy. He came to Finland to learn more about the language and Finnish choral music but has ended up spending more time educating Sibelius Academy students and Finnish choirs about American contemporary choral music, as well as the nuances of English pronunciation for singing. 

So the Fulbright year has turned out to be totally different from what the Fulbright grantee anticipated. Cowles has found out that Finnish choirs have not tended to include many US works in their standard repertoire, but the conductors are very eager to know about American choral music.

- My initial idea as a Fulbright recipient was to come here to learn more about Finnish choral music and culture – and indeed I’ve learned a great deal about these things – but a majority of my time has been spent quite differently. In many instances I have found myself telling my students as well as my Finnish colleagues about American choral repertoire, says Cowles.

Cowles has conducted workshops, taught a half-credit course in American choral music and worked with several Finnish choirs. He has indeed been an active ambassador.

- For instance, I noticed that there is not much American choral music available in the SibA library. After having talked to the faculty dean, I will be compiling a list of American choral music that I’d like to recommend the library add to their collection. I have been pleased that a number of Finnish choirs have in recent times ordered a good deal more American repertoire as the result of my time working with them. My hope is that Finnish choirs will explore American repertoire to a greater extent after I am gone as well.

Cowles hasn’t forgotten his initial idea, though; he definitely aims at getting to learn as much new Finnish choral repertoire as possible. He says has already found some gems.

- For instance, there is Jaakko Mäntyjärvi’s Canticum Calamitatis Maritimae. This is a work I had only passing familiarity with previously. During my time in Finland I have heard the work performed a few times; I intend to perform it with my own chamber choir upon return to the US. It is a deeply moving piece and one to which I am certain American audiences will respond favorably. In addition to arriving in Finland I was entirely unfamiliar with the music of classic Finnish composers like Toivo Kuula and Leevi Madetoja; I have discovered a number of beautiful choral works by these and other composers, and various of my choirs will benefit from exploring this repertoire upon my return. My general unfamiliarity with this music previously is a sad indicator of how little known it is in the USA. I hope to do my part to change that reality over time.

Attention to details through private instruction

A deep knowledge of American choral idioms is not the only thing Cowles has brought with him. At the Sibelius Academy he has given the church music students and the choral conducting major students individual lessons in choral conducting. This is an approach not widely used in Finland – partly for resource reasons, due to individual tuition costs.

- At first the SibA students were a bit confused with this ”strange American man” who is eager to help them one on one. But then a couple of them decided to give it a go, word spread, and little by little I started to get more student contacts.

Although the strong tradition is that a conducting student has to have a choir or an orchestra to work with, the SibA students testify that there are also many benefits in teaching conducting individually through private lessons.

- Cowles’ approach is very practical and different from what I’ve been used to, states first-year church music student Jarkko Pajunen. It reflects a straightforward, open state of mind. Through private conducting lessons I have learned more than in the group lessons - it offers an opportunity to pay attention to details. Cowles has a lot of faith in the choir itself. He also keeps the kinetic element present so that the singers are alert and awake all the time.

Nea Meriranta, second-year church music student, has also been pleased with the new horizons Cowles has brought with him.

- He teaches in a very nice way. If the student doesn’t seem to get the idea the first time, Cowles continues until he can be sure that the student has learned. I first took individual lessons with him in November and since then we’ve met almost weekly. He has brought many new things to my choral conducting studies, and he has increased my motivation. My musical perspectives have widened, and I’ve noticed that this has also improved my skills as an organist and accompanist.