Becoming a master: Shafeeq Alsadi and Nathan Riki Thomson

“He isn’t just a teacher; he’s a guide who leads us to profound realizations about the world, the universe, and ourselves.”

Nathan Riki Thomson and Shafeeq Alsadi Photo: Petri Summanen

In this interview series an art student and teacher discuss their shared learning journey.

Tell us who you are and what you do at Uniarts Helsinki! 

Shafeeq: I’m Shafeeq Alsadi, originally from Palestine, and currently pursuing my second master’s studies at the Global Music Department of the Sibelius Academy in my second year. Singing and playing the Qanun are my primary instruments, but what keeps me intrigued is the continuous exploration and experimentation over electronics and sound-based music creation. Improvisation and the fusion of various music expressions allow me to harness the impulse of the moment, creating music directly  connected to the present and the interactions it brings. 

Nathan: My name is Nathan Riki Thomson and I work as professor of Global Music and Community Engagement at Sibelius Academy, Uniarts Helsinki. I was born and raised in Australia where I acknowledge the traditional owners and custodians of the region I was born in, the indigenous Yugambeh speaking peoples as part of the Aboriginal Bundjalung Nation, and I pay my respects to their elders’ past, present, and emerging. I am a double bass player, educator, and researcher with a core focus on intercultural dialogue and collaboration with different peoples, sonic environments, and places. 

What do you remember from the first class/lesson/lecture together? 

Shafeeq: My initial encounter with Nathan was during a Zoom audition, a remarkably joyful experience. I discovered so much about myself during that audition, and the support from the interviewers, including Nathan, was palpable. Subsequently, Nathan became my mentor and I have been taking courses under him. These courses covered artistic identity, artistic research, and various projects that delved into the complexities of cultural identities and human expressions. Nathan’s knowledge transcends the personal; it extends to the holistic realm of music and human connection. His support has been like that of a fatherly figure, emanating from an unconditional place.  

Nathan: In our first classes together, I remember feeling inspired by Shafeeq’s focussed presence, openness, and depth of musical expression. I felt very grateful to have the opportunity of working with him and our other global music students as part of an intercultural community. Shafeeq’s audition was held online at his family home in Palestine, and I also remember feeling deeply moved not only by his playing, but by the extreme hardships he and his family have had to endure. 

How would you describe your student-teacher relationship today?

Shafeeq: My student-teacher relationship has been a journey, especially considering my background in Palestine, where education had a top-down structure, influenced by the challenges of the occupation. In Helsinki, it’s been a refreshing departure, emphasizing student autonomy and selfdiscovery. This shift in perspective has been incredibly positive. The key here is the fostering of individuality while creating music that reflects our authentic selves. On a global scale, the teacher-student dynamic is influenced by the diversity of geographical locations, educational systems, societal factors, and the complex interplay of political and economic realities. Education, for me, is inherently political, reflecting the power structures in place. As we move into an era marked by artificial intelligence and new technologies, the teacher-student relationship evolves into one marked by empathy, support, active learning, and interconnected human consciousness. 

Nathan: I would say that our student-teacher relationship is based on a willingness to listen deeply to one another. This is intertwined with empathy, mutual respect, openness, and an understanding that we are both in a constant state of learning, which is an ongoing life-long process. These are qualities I find to be crucial in all student-teacher interactions. 

How do you give each other feedback? 

Shafeeq: Feedback between Nathan and me occurs naturally. Nathan understands not only my words but also the energy behind them. His ability to connect on a profound level allows us to share our thoughts and feelings openly. I’ve never hesitated to express my emotions, whether it be about the community, challenges, or personal doubts. Nathan and the global music team are exceptionally receptive, acknowledging both my achievements and my struggles. 

Nathan: Feedback is given through open, constructive discussion and working together collaboratively. Shafeeq has the great ability to be able to reflect deeply and honestly on all aspects of his work and life, and this helps me to do the same. 

Describe a usual study meeting between you two. What happens there, what do you usually do? 

Shafeeq: My interactions with Nathan take various forms, whether he’s my mentor, the head of the department, or a lecturer. In all these settings, there’s a magical thread connecting them. During mentoring sessions, we delve deeper into plans, challenges, and aspirations. Whenever I share my uncertainties or hardships, Nathan has a unique insight for seeing the potential even in what I  consider unimportant. He invests in my ideas, reminding me of the value of my efforts, even when I forget to appreciate them myself. 

Nathan: We usually spend time reflecting together on different topics that feel important to Shafeeq at the time. These starting point topics often lead to bigger discussions about the connections between music, life, and the wider world, ending with trying to identify concrete steps forward to realize Shafeeq’s unique musical and personal visions. Although much of our work together involves verbal discussions, we have recently also combined this with musical improvisations. 

How do you think your relationship is going to be like in five years? 

Shafeeq: Predicting the future isn’t easy, but I believe that some relationships transcend time and space. Nathan has touched my heart profoundly, and I’m confident that in five years, he’ll still hold a special place in my life. He isn’t just a teacher; he’s a guide who leads us to profound realizations about the world, the universe, and ourselves. 

Nathan: I hope we will remain connected far beyond the framework of the studies, and I will be able to continue to witness the positive, long-term impacts of Shafeeq’s work in the wider world. 

What is special in your teacher/student relationship as an artist? 

Shafeeq: Nathan’s openness to everyone and everything. This openness, combined with our shared journey, reminds me that we are all strands in the web of life, each part of the greater whole. 

Nathan: Shafeeq has a depth of musical expression that feels both very personal and outward looking, always seeking for ways to connect with others from diverse musical, social, and cultural backgrounds, both musically and personally. Shafeeq has the unique ability to listen deeply and be fully present in all his musical and personal interactions, which creates as sense of profound musical expression, empathy, and beauty. 

What kind of things have you learned from each other? 

Shafeeq: I’ve learned immeasurable wisdom from Nathan and everyone I’ve met during my journey in Finland. The most profound lesson is that human potential knows no bounds. When I look into Nathan’s eyes, I see the potential in all of us. 

Nathan: I have further learnt about the great power of kindness, listening deeply, and viewing things from diverse perspectives. Furthermore, the great importance and unique ability of music to enable working together across borders and boundaries in our world. 

How have you grown as an artist during this student-teacher relationship? 

Shafeeq: Describing my growth as an artist during our student-teacher relationship is much like capturing the profound transformation that occurs when we challenge our cultural narratives and embrace the interconnectedness of all things. My journey with Nathan and the Global Music Department echoes the idea that our beliefs shape our actions. This journey has helped me recognize that we are not separate but part of a greater whole, and in understanding this, we find the path to unity, peace, and the creation of a harmonious world. 

Nathan: Working with Shafeeq has given me new personal and musical insights, increasing my belief in the importance of music and the arts not only as a vehicle for expression, but as a catalyst for increasing connection, empathy, kindness, collaboration, and understanding in our world.