Photo: Kalle Kallio

Alumna of the week Katja Thomson: Working as a musician in multicultural communities


Katja Thomson, Master of Music, began her studies at the Sibelius Academy’s music education department in 1990. Already during her time as a student, she became most interested in improvisation and composing in a group out of all the areas of music making and pedagogy. In 1996, Katja moved to London to study improvisation and instruction of participatory music projects at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. After her study year, she started playing in a band of 25 musicians that was founded by a group of Guildhall’s teachers. The musicians, all with their own distinct backgrounds in different musical genres, composed and arranged their own music together and developed a collective musical language for themselves. The band was a combination of many things that still comprise an important part of Katja’s identity as a musician and her pedagogical approach: composing in a group, improvisation, interactive work method and shared leadership in a group. As the leader of the string section, Katja found it musically inspiring to get lost in the groove and different rhythmic traditions and then mix them up with the sounds of the string instruments. The community that she became part of after joining the band was a big factor in Katja’s decision to stay in London and try her luck in starting her professional career in the metropolis.
In London, Katja was especially fascinated by the multicultural atmosphere that spurred creative cooperation. She worked as a teacher and instructor for improvisation and composition workshops in schools where most of the students spoke English as a second language. In 2000, Katja started teaching in Guildhall and also worked as an instructor and artistic coordinator for a Guildhall’s project named Connect. The goal of the project was to establish bands for children and young people in Eastern and Southern London in an effort to create more opportunities for young people to get involved in music. Another important aspect of the project was providing education for Guildhall’s students. The workshops and performances took place during the weekends and school vacations, and as a result, the bands all found their own identity and way of making music that was built around their members’ own specific strengths. Katja’s responsibility was to instruct a children’s band called World in Motion South, and eventually, the rhythm section and the strings began to gel. Over the years, the project led to collaborations with a musician from Zimbabwe, a string quartet, and a hip-hop artist, among many others. 
Connect also had a five-year sister project called Creative Factory, which gathered teenage music enthusiasts and professional musicians in the area to participate in intensive camps several times a year. Creative Factory Big Band had various line-ups and sometimes included up to five drum sets and everything from saxophones to cellos. Katja was actively learning new things through her work as planner and director of different freelance projects. In England, art institutions are obligated to take part in outreach programmes due to their public funding, and they’re therefore an integral part of institutions’ activities. Katja directed projects that allowed school children to compose music in collaboration with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s professional musicians. She also worked as a musician and composer herself for different theatre productions. One fabulous memory of Katja’s time in England was when she had a gig with an Algerian band in the WOMAD music and arts festival and the crowd went completely wild during her viola solo. The reaction was actually prompted by a talented belly dancer, but it’s always good to live it up when you’ve got the chance! Later on it was time for Katja to begin her maternity leave, but during that period she was a mentor for Guildhall’s students and even developed a musical playschool with the focus on world music for a multicultural family centre.
Katja moved back to Finland in 2011, and after defeating a bout of reverse culture shock, she continued working in the field of improvisation and participatory, creative projects. The sea shores, cosy cafés and the Finnish salty liquorice called salmiakki make the dark winter periods bearable! In Finland, Katja has become more and more involved in multidisciplinary art through various inspiring collaboration partners and projects. Katja is an instructor for a musical theatre group for teens in the Finnish National Opera’s department of audience development and works in cooperation with an actor/director and dancer/choreographer. Multidisciplinary and multicultural projects in collaboration with the Stoa Culture Centre in Helsinki have introduced Katja to new inspiring perspectives, work methods and networks. Katja is currently working on her doctoral thesis with the theme “mutual learning in artistic work environments involving asylum seekers” at the Sibelius Academy’s MuTri Doctoral School.

Text: Tytti Arola
The writer is a student participating in the Sibelius Academy mentoring programme.

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