Photo: Heikki Tuuli

Sean Holt inspires young music makers to find the essence of a successful song

In the framework of the Sibelius Academy’s new International Visitor Programme, music producer, musician, professor Sean Holt visited the Sibelius Academy in the first week of June. During the week he gave 8 lectures to approximately 15 students from the music education and jazz departments. The students also collaborated in smaller groups to create totally new music in only a few day’s time.

- I realised very quickly that the Sibelius Academy students were very eager to learn the norms of the modern music industry; They want to know that if they compose/produce a new song, can they be sure that it is any good? I offered some time-tested examples for them to compare their work and evaluate whether they are using effective contemporary techniques in their songwriting and production.

Stylistically, the five new songs that were composed during the first week range from neo-soul to rock, pop and country. Holt says that he hasn’t’ given the students a lot of stylistic limitations for their first assignments.

- The students were responding to a publishing call sheet I handed out, where current European artists are looking for new material. For their choice of artist and thematic directions, they were allowed to make their own decisions. I wasn’t surprised to find them writing age appropriate themes that revolved around love and relationships, he smiles.

The new pieces will be performed during the Sibafest festival in January 2020, where Holt himself will also be performing on stage with the students. This accompanies the idea of the International Visitor Programme, that the invited teachers get to meet and work with the students not only once but several times, so that they can embark on a more long-term collaboration. Holt currently works as Assistant Professor of Popular Music and Music Technology in the Thornton School of Music, University of Southern California – an American University that the Sibelius Academy currently also has other collaboration projects with, such as a large-scale opera production due to premiere in 2021.

- Based on these first assignments, I’d say that the Sibelius Academy students have responded beautifully, while also facing their fears within the craft. They are focused, driven and ready to meet the challenges of this curriculum head on! All of which, I have been accustomed to also within the Thornton community. It’s refreshing and encouraging to find the challenges and outcomes are quite similar between our student populations. 

Passion and curiosity needed for a successful arts career

Producing popular music has become very international these days. It is not related to time or space, and over the net anyone can purchase the necessary tools for it.

- The world is indeed so small today! What I hope the students understand through my class is, while the technical tools are critical, their humanity and individuality are paramount to their future success. While a portion of our responsibility as educators is to introduce our students to the latest of these digital tools, success is only possible when it centers around a great song!

Holt knows what he’s talking about. Not only being a producer, he has also worked as a musician in the accompanying ensembles on TV shows with some of the biggest names you can think of – for example Bruno Mars and Justin Bieber among others.

- What I noticed from these two men very early in their careers was that they were driven, with a singularity of purpose. I had the pleasure to accompany both of those artists for their debut late night performances. They were asking the house band all kinds of questions and were just as curious as your students are. At that point in their careers, there were no guarantees of the massive success that they now both enjoy. They, like the students at Sibelius Academy, were passionate, curious and driven - all things necessary for a career in the arts.

After years and years of successful career Holt says that he enjoys helping the younger artists to discover the elements of what makes a great song.

- Every time I think I have something figured out, a Freshman comes into the classroom and blows my mind. I’m so grateful that in many ways, I remain a student of the craft.  I also love the humanity of the process – the aspects that have nothing to do with music. I tend to be very anecdotal in my teaching. I’m as enamored with the “Why and When” of the process as I am with the “What and How.” 


The International Visitor Programme complements the regular bachelor’s and master’s studies offered by Uniarts Helsinki’s Sibelius Academy by inviting artists who represent the highest talent level of their respective fields to come and teach in Finland. The distinguished visiting artists work alongside students and teachers at the Sibelius Academy mainly in periods of one year or two years at a time. The programme is realised for the first time in 2019. The programme has been supported by the Jane and Aatos Erkko foundation and Jenny and Antti Wihuri foundation.

More about the International Visitor Programme