Alumnus of the week, Verneri Pohjola: “My studies taught me to take responsibility.”

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Jazz and classical music united in November 2015, when the Turku Concert Hall hosted the premiere of two pieces composed and arranged by Verneri Pohjola and performed by the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra, Verneri Pohjola and drummer, Olavi Louhivuori. Over the years, Verneri has become well acquainted with classical music, and he compared this meeting of musical genres to a get-together with relatives.

For Verneri, getting accepted into the jazz department of the Sibelius Academy was a personal milestone that initially resulted in wild celebrations – which then gave way to growing trepidation about what lay ahead. And during the first few years of his studies, those fears never waned. “They are all so far ahead of me with their playing” is a common notion for students just starting out. You pretend to play above your level, and in a way that you’re not used to.

Verneri studied at the Sibelius Academy from 1999 to 2012. There were times during this period when he studied seriously, and times when he was completely absent. He did, however, manage to get a respectable number of things done during his student years. A day job at a fast-food restaurant taught him something too – to look somewhere else for a living! And working at a daycare centre for his non-military service broadened his outlook on life in general. Sometimes, Verneri took on all the gigs he could find, sometimes only those he truly wanted. He had numerous hobbies, yet somehow he also found the time to start a family.

The jazz courses were an important part of his studies, and he holds them in high regard. In hindsight, Verneri would now pick more composition and orchestration courses and take advantage of the opportunities to study with foreign trumpeters and teachers of other instruments. There are numerous Finnish teachers, such as Jukkis Uotila, Jarmo Savolainen, Jari Perkiömäki and Jukka Perko, as well as visiting international teachers, such as Tim Hagans and Per Jörgensen, who have all been important for his development. The early 2000s DIG Festival organised by the academy’s jazz department was an especially memorable event for him because he had the opportunity to take part in the festival arrangements and play together with the Jon Balke Magnetic Orchestra.

In Verneri’s opinion the jazz department was a supportive environment and his studies were suitably demanding. His years there taught him to take responsibility – studying an instrument and improvisation can be so time-consuming that planning and arranging your studies can easily be overlooked. He urges current and future students to “focus on studying music, and the rest will fall into place. And if you’re absent, find out what you missed.”

Starting life as a freelance musician came easily to Verneri: he was no stranger to working while studying, and in fact he continues to study and develop his skills in his work life. More than anything, graduation felt like a relief. It gave him renewed energy to practise, and the things he learned during his studies seemed to just fall into place. Furthermore, learning to play jazz standards suddenly felt meaningful.

Verneri has published four albums to date. He counts his latest album’s release concert at the Finnish National Theatre in March 2015 among the highlights of his career. It took a great deal of courage to plan and organise a show for the big stage, and it drew a sell-out crowd. On the other hand, the break-up of his band and parting ways with his record company, ACT, have proved to be some of the more difficult and challenging moments of his career. Even so, these challenges have served to push him forward. Music is a passion for Verneri and a major part of what gives his life meaning, so it’s not always easy to compromise.

In the years following graduation, Verneri has given a lot of thought to versatility, spiritual progress and having a more open and thankful outlook on life. He’s also been reflecting on how others perceive him. The passion, humility and maturity he has learned from his fellow musicians, along with a systematic approach to improving himself, is what has made Verneri one of the most sought-after and busiest jazz musicians in Finland.

By embracing spontaneity and presence of mind, a musician can get in the zone and detach himself from the piece. For Verneri, playing live to an audience is the most natural way of achieving this.

Other musicians have called Verneri ‘the Miles Davis of the North’, the ‘heir apparent to Miles’, and the ‘Ambrose Akinmusire of Finland’. These analogies ring true in that Verneri makes use of musical space and soundscapes, and doesn’t simply show off playing 32nd notes.

Before jazz became part of the curricula in musical education, jazz musicians used to have mentors who would teach them improvisation, passing their skills from one generation to the next. Even with the rise of academic jazz instruction, this tradition continues to be important today. Verneri considers the talented saxophonist Jukka Perko, a brilliant example of a mentor who teaches, gives encouragement and sets an example for what an ever-developing career can truly mean. In the same way, Verneri Pohjola sets an example to me, and I in turn hope to do the same for someone from a younger generation in the years ahead.

Text: Max Zegner
The writer is a student at the Sibelius Academy and is also involved in the alumnus mentoring programme.