Kari Uusikylä & Jane Piirto



Why has Finland with a population of only five million people been able to train its conductors to compete at such a level?  The present study interviewed seven Finnish students, ages 25 to 30,  in the conductor’s class of the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki.  All were male.  Admission to the conductor’s class is highly competitive.  All students must be professional-level musicians to qualify. Interviews with the young Finnish conductors used a semi-structured interview scheme.  Questions covered family background, childhood, schooling, and the creative process of conducting. This study has shown that the young conductors in training are similar to their older and established peers.  They possess the drive and personality and talent to become conductors.   



Kari Uusikylä University of  Helsinki, Finland &

Jane Piirto, Ashland University, Ohio, U.S.A

 In recent years, the small country of Finland has produced several world-class orchestra conductors, most notably Esa-Pekka Salonen in Los Angeles, and Juha-Pekka Saraste in Toronto.  Salonen and Saraste studied together at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki.  Saraste made his conducting debut in 1979 at the age of 23 with the Helsinki Philharmonic and in 1987 was named the principal conductor of both the Edinburgh Scottish Chamber Orchestra and of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra.  He was raised near Lahti, Finland, about 100 km. from Helsinki, and as a child he studied violin and piano.  He rebelled against the path of music and at age 13 told his parents he wanted to study to become a doctor or a lawyer.  Saraste said, “I was against everything.  I was against this destiny of mine to be a musician” (Young, 1994, p. 56). 

                      Salonen began as a composer and conducted the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and small avant-garde groups in Helsinki before becoming principal guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1984, and its conductor in 1991.  Stearns (1993) said that Salonen “has already survived near-impossible odds by rising to the top of the conducting world with little training” (p. 62).  Salonen had his first major success in 1983, when he took over for Michael Tilson Thomas who was ill.  Salonen conducted Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 and the next day he found the world at his feet, and guest conducting offers coming in.  Like the understudy who gets her big break in the Broadway show when the star takes ill, Salonen found himself in Los Angeles as principal guest conductor.  With only a few years’ experience as a French horn player, and with only a few conducting experiences with contemporary music, he found himself compared to Leonard Bernstein, who became noticed when he took over the New York Philharmonic in 1943 when Bruno Walter was ill.  When Salonen took over the Los Angeles Philharmonic, he said, “I saw myself as a ski jumper in the Sahara–somebody who is undoubtedly a professional but in the wrong place” (Stearns, 1994, p. 62).

                      Such career leaps for young conductors are not common in the world of conducting.  When the word passed that a 25-year-old Finn would, with five days notice, conduct the Mahler Third, the “world’s leading managers and record producers” gathered to watch, for the “orchestra was taking a serious risk, of a kind that had all but vanished from the music businessd (Lebrecht, 1991, p. 286).  Salonen had stepped in at a concert in Gothenberg and had caught the attention of a London agent, Joeske Van Walsum, sight-reading Luciano Berio’s work.  The London concert likewise went well: “Salonen directed the six-movement, ninety-minute symphony without turning a hair or missing a tempo change” (p. 287).  Lebrecht (1991) listed both Salonen and Saraste in his short list of new conductors, which also included Myung Wha Chung from South Korea, Riccardo Chailly from Italy, Simon Rattle from the United Kingdom, Franz Welser-Möst from Austria,  Claus Peter Flor from Germany, Andrew Litton from the U.S., and one woman, Sian Edwards from the United Kingdom.

                      Why has this remote northern country with a population of only five million people been able to train its conductors to compete at such a level?  The present study interviewed seven Finnish students, ages 25 to 30,  in the conductor’s class of the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki.  All were male.  Admission to the conductor’s class is highly competitive.  All students must be professional-level musicians to qualify.  The head of the conductor’s class at the time of the study was Jorma Panula, the creator of the world-famous conductors’ class.  In 1995 the Sibelius Academy was ranked by an international committee as one of the foremost schools in the world for preparing professional musicians.

                      For the conductors’ class, there are annually 40 to 50 applicants ranging in age from 17 to 30 years.  About half come from outside Finland.  Their mastery of a musical instrument is first evaluated by qualifications on paper.  In this phase, only a few applicants are rejected.  The others come to Helsinki for a two-day entrance examination.  On the first day the applicants take a musical ability test, an instrumental music test, and submit to an interview.  On the second day the applicants conduct two musical productions, one from the classical period and one from the romantic period.  Each year only one to three applicants are admitted.

Review of the literature

                      The profession of conductor requires certain skills.  Among these are a deep knowledge of music and the social skills of being able to be perceived as a leader.    The conductor Georges Solti was quoted as saying, “A first-class conductor is a combination of intelligence, psychology, and intuition, or knowing how to ride the possibilities of the oment–being able to feel the hearts and minds of your players” (Polkow, p. 9).  Solti wanted to be a conductor since as a child prodigy musician in Hungary, he heard Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.  “That concert made my life,” he said.  This crystallizing experience sealed his fate.  Solti said that determination and drive are key personality characteristics: class=WordSection2>

You must have talent and determination, or endurance.  The really first-class conductors have these qualities.  You must be able to suffer through all of the obstacles, and work very hard.  You have to pursue conducting as your single ambition and know that somebody, somewhere, someday, will give you a chance.  And when you get that damn chance, you must be ready.  Go and do it.  Go and pester people.  I did the same.  And get whatever experienced you can get, however you can get it.  I am quite certain that true talent does not go unnoticed.  I don’t believe this for a minute. (Polkow, p. 9)

Lebrecht (1991) said that exceptional conductors must have

C         a  keen ear                                    

C         the charisma to motivate musicians from the very first time they meet

C         the determination to get their own way

C         high organizational ability

C         physical and mental fitness

C         unswerving ambition

C         a forceful intelligence

C         an instinctive sense of order which helps them to organize scattered notes to the artistic core. 

C         the ability to interpret a score and convey it to the musicians and audience   class=WordSection3>

                      Rudolf (1987) said that conductors need older mentors who will initiate them into the requirements of the conductor’s world :  “Young conductors usually need the approval of older colleagues” ( p. 100).  He noted that the initial success of a conductor is “rarely the result of publicity but rather word-of-mouth communication within the profession.”  Dennis Russell Davies (Wagar, 1991) commented that when he was a piano major at the Juilliard School he met Luciano Berio, and “through Luciano I got to meet some very important musicians and composers” (p. 37). 

                      Conductors often discover that their talents on their musical instruments are not enough to propel them to the top levels of instrumental performance, and that their conducting talents are greater than their musical talents.  Davies said, “I began to see that though I was a good pianist I wasn’t ever going to be winning the Moscow Tchaikovsky Competition.  Some of the gifts I had were much more suited to conducting” (Wagar, 1991, p. 37).   In fact, the conductor often has to bear the resentment of both the musicians who play the music and the composers who write it.  Rudolf (1987) commented that the musicians often resent “the dictator on the podium” (p. 102). The composer Igor Stravinsky (1990) said, “Conducting, like politics, does not attract original minds . . . it is more a field for the making of careers and the exploitation of personalities . . . than a profession for the application of exact and standardized disciplines” (p. 19).  Stravinsky likened conductors to politicians and diplomats: class=WordSection4>

A conductor may actually be less well equipped for his work than the best of his players, but no one except the players need know it, and his career is not dependent on them in any case, but on the society women to whom he must toady and to whom his musical qualities are of secondary importance . . . his first skill has to be in the game of power politics. (p. 19) class=WordSection5>

Because so much of the work of conductors is repetitive, Stravinsky thought that they often “develop an occupational indifference to music” (p. 20).  He called them “intermediaries” and “social parasites living on the creations of others,” and said conductors are delinquents, “too quickly rusticated and lost to the new musical ideas” of their time.  In fact, Solti said that he was unable to understand contemporary composers and said that he was too old to learn (Polkow, 1988).  Rudolf (1987) emphasized that the social and organizational talents of the conductor often take precedence, for the conductor must get to know “the right people in order to induce  them to further the orchestra’s interests” (p. 104). 

                      On the importance of chance and seizing the chance when it comes, several conductors emphasized that often, as in the case of Salonen and Bernstein, the opportunity, if not taken, may not come again.  Catherine Comet, one of the few women conductors, said: class=WordSection6>

I don’t know how a conductor makes it . . . that has always been something of a mystery to me.  You have to study a lot and be ready because somehow everybody gets chances.  But you have to be ready for it when it comes . . . these chances never happen at the perfect moment with six months notice.  They just sort of happen suddenly and you really have to be ready for them . . . chances come like a big bang . . . so study as much as you can even though it can be frustrating . . . conducting is a crazy profession.  Don’t do it unless you are really crazy also . . . to be a conductor you have to be obsessed with music. (Wagar, 1991, p. 31) class=WordSection7>

Salonen’s chance came when he was very young, and within a year he had memorized thirty symphonies (Stearn, 1994). 

                      The conductor must be able to inspire the often recalcitrant musicians by “taking charge” as Victoria Bond noted (“The women’s issue,” 1988, p. 45).  Rudolf said that musicians appreciate “an inspirational impulse from the podium” that can give them, after the concert, a feeling that the whole orchestra has shared the accomplishment.  When Saraste guest conducted with the Toronto Symphony, the musicians rated him highest of all the guest conductors that year, saying that he was laid-back and mesmerizing (Young, 1994).  Solti said that the conductor must always remember that “music is a totally abstract art” and the conductor must have such force of personality that he “can take his abstract image and put it above other people’s” (Polkow, 1988, p. 9).  The conductor Herbert Blomstedt, who studied at the RoyalCollege of Music in Sweden, said that the conductor must have “psychic energy” in order to convey the composer’s intent (Wagar, 1991, p. 9).  Some conductors have photographic memories, and study the scores with grave intent.  Others even conduct without the scores in front of them, having memorized entire compositions.  The conductor Charles Dutoit said that “conducting should always be controlled by the brain in a way which enables you to put the shape of a movement into context” (Wagar, 1991, p. 71). 

                      Few conductors, unlike Salonen,  are composers themselves.  In fact, he is the only conductor of a major American orchestra who is an active composer.   When Salonen heard one of his compositions performed on the radio, he reacted like a composer, berating the conductor for not understanding the piece (Stearns, 1994).  His wife reminded him that composers were doing the same to him, and he realized that the profession of conductor carried a great responsibility to the intent of the composer.  Salonen said that when he was studying composing, “I looked at conductors as the main enemies of music,” but he turned to conducting after “feeling the pull of Bruckner and Beethoven, not to mention the 20th century classics, and they just took over” (Ross, 1994, p. 31).   

                      In other words, the conductor must have what Lebrecht (1991)  described as “an aspiration to compose, conduct and instruct, an irresistable charisma” and a formidable intellect that can range “across the warp and woof of western thought” (p. 184).   The conductor’s  ability to interpret must awaken the audience from “musical sleep” so that “spiritual enrichment” takes place (Ewen, 1936/1968, p. 15).  The conductor is a cross between a “high priest” and a “chief executive” (Jacobson, 1979, p. 18).  And most importantly, the conductor must love music deeply.  As Herbert Blomstedt put it, “After a concert I feel exhilarated and want to do it again.  I never get tired of making music” (Wagar, 1991, p. 9); and as Esa-Pekka Salonen said, “Sometimes I have these funny moments of joy.  I’m studying the score and I suddenly realize how great the music is, and I’m overcome by very powerful feelings of euphoria” (Ross, 1994, p. 31).     


                      Interviews with the young Finnish conductors used a semi-structured interview scheme.  Questions covered family background, childhood, schooling, and the creative process of conducting.  Interviews were conducted by Raisa Hartikainen and Katriina Hietala-Rantanen.   Finland has an active program of support for the arts, and a generous grant system for artists.  Ross (1994) called Finland “an aberrant musical culture that treats composer with respect” (p. 1), and Salonen called his country’s support for his musical education “a bloody greenhouse.”

                      Every student had started his musical career by studying music and playing some musical instrument in one of the hundreds of music institutions in Finland.  The tuition fees at these institutions are minimal, about two hundred dollars per year, as, like the schools, the universities, and the Sibelius Academy, the government supports education for its citizens.  Every conductor had studied in the Academy, and two had also studied abroad.  There were four pianists, two violinists, and one clarinetist.  One of the pianists also played the cello.  Biographies of famous conductors show that most conductors have as their main instruments either the piano or the violin, and they often began study of these instruments at a very early age.  Perhaps such study leads to a profound theoretical understanding of music which helped these individuals choose conducting as a career.

                      Environmental catalysts: Family and school

                      A) Social background.  The social background of the student conductors varied.  Their parents’ occupations varied: among them were a physicist, a professor, a housewife, a school counselor, a clerk, a technician, and a minister.  However, despite the differences in parents’ occupations, it seems that the cultural and mental atmospheres of their homes were similar; every conductor as a child had been offered a lot of mental stimulation; the families were very supportive and valued cultural pursuits. 


                      The young conductors’ families were encouraging in providing musical instruments and opportunities for regular practice.  Every family offered the talented child the best resources it could afford, so that he could become expert.

                      The conductors’ mothers were viewed as caring, warm, and loving, but there was much more variation in father-child relationships.  Their relationship to their mothers is similar to that of 146 other talented Finnish creators Uusikylä has studied (Uusikylä, 1996).  There was much more variation in their relationships to their fathers.  Some viewed their fathers as friendly and loving, and others as distant and authoritarian: class=WordSection8>

“My father has always been both an educator and my friend.”

“Um . . . my father . . . I have nothing to tell . . . He is like me.  We don’t have very much to talk about but we each know what the other one is thinking.”

“My father is a severe authoritarian person, demanding order.  He gave me a sense of safety when I was younger, but he rejected me after I made the decision to become a musician.  He is unable to share my artistic interests.”

“My mother is like love, very profound love!” class=WordSection9>

There was no pattern of birth order.  Two of the conductors were oldest, two were middle children, and three were youngest children.  The average number of children in their families was three.  Likewise, Salonen is an only child, and Saraste is the oldest of three. The families did not have strong feelings about the conductors’ decisions to become musicians and conductors.  No one was pressed to fulfill his parents’ dreams.  All said that it was very important for them to live normal lives as children, with friends of different interests, playing freely with neighborhood friends, not staying at home and practicing music.   The children were not programmed to train too much or too early.  One told about a crystallizing experience (Gardner, 1983; Piirto, 1995a; b) at age five: “Playing violin was totally my own idea. I was watching TV when I was five and got very inspired by the string instruments.  I told my parents that I wanted to play violin.  I got a violin as a Christmas present and just started playing.” Another one said, “ I did not obsessively practice all the time during childhood.  My parents didn’t isolate me from the other kids.  I think it was very good for my imagination and creativity to be with other kids both older and younger than I.”

                       The parents were authoritative; that is, they were not rigid nor too lackadaisacal; they established limits and were consistent in discipline.  The children got more and more freedom and responsibility as they grew older.  They were taught the difference between right and wrong.  Only one student conductor told about his parents having conflicts about raising him and his siblings.  The father tried order and discipline while the mother protested that sensitivity and creativity would be destroyed with too much order and discipline. 

                      Four of the conductors said their homes were warm and caring even though negative feelings were expressed.  For the other three families, the conflicts created an atmosphere of tension and anxiety.  Many artists come from homes that have conflict (Goertzel & Goertzel, 1962; Goertzel, Goertzel, & Goertzel, 1978; Goertzel, Goertzel, Goertzel & Hansen, 2004; Piirto, 1992; 1995c; 1995d; 1998; 2000; 2002; 2004).  Only one of these conductors expressed that his childhood home life was traumatic, however: “My childhood was a whole bunch of problems.  I can’t remember a wonderful childhood–only small incidents that were hard to bear.  My childhood seems mostly a distant neurosis.” 

                      These young artists seemed to feel as if they were loners born among strangers, even if these strangers called themselves their family members. Several expressed their love of solitude.

                      C.  School experiences

                      Some studies have shown that creative people have disliked school (Piirto, 1978; 1992; 1995; 2002; 2004).  They are often considered deviant loners or rebels against the teachers and the whole school system.  This seemed to hold true for these Finnish conducting students.  Five of the seven were very critical when remembering school.  Most of the criticisms were directed toward the undifferentiated teaching methods which gave students few opportunities to present their own ideas.  All of the conductors were very good students, supporting the idea that conductors must be intelligent and have good memories.  They tried to resist the boredom they experienced by mentally sleeping during lessons or by simply not going to school.  They felt that the school had not understood or supported the development of their special talents.

                      The Finnish school system is homogeneous, as there is little immigration and the mother tongues are 94% Finnish-language and 6% Swedish-language.  The standard of living is high, though the current economic depression is lowering it.  The average income has been stable and evenly distributed, and among the most stable in the world.  The Scandinavian ideal of equality for everyone seeks to guarantee the best for all, especially for the weakest.  Special education according to talents and intellect has been discussed in Finland only for the past few years.  More and more people are questioning the idea that teaching the same thing to everyone using the same methods does not promote the goal of equality and democracy.

                      The opinions of the conductors about their schooling illustrates that they, among the brightest in the nation, did not feel that they had been treated equally.  While all human beings are equally valuable, all do not learn at the same rate seemed to be their feeling.  One conductor remembered: class=WordSection10>

I hated school.  I could survive with my best friends by ridiculing the school and the teachers.  The worst thing is that you had to deny your individuality; you had to be a part of the same impersonal mass. My friends and I, all of us, earned the best possible grades in school.  There were a couple of excellent teachers who helped us survive. class=WordSection11>

                      Again, the last sentence is typical of the stories of many talented individuals.  Many tell of one or two teachers who made a difference, giving them support, understanding, and meaningful work while the system tried to demolish every bit of individual thinking and creativity (Piirto, 1994, 1995b; 2004; Torrance, 1979).

Intrapersonal Catalysts and Characteristics

                      As to the personalities of the conductors, all possessed independence, strong self-esteem, and even a certain autocratic attitude.   They all believed that a conductor had to be very assertive, dominant, and courageous in order to be able to take charge and give tough orders to sensitive and talented musicians.  Every conductor had fallen in love with music at a very young age, and every one had demonstrated his talents early.  Piirto (1994; 1995a; 1998; 1999; 2000; 2002; 2004) in her Pyramid of Talent Development noted that the core of the person who realizes his/her talent is that there are certain strong personality characteristics necessary, intelligence necessary to function in the chosen domain, and specific talent in this domain.  These conductors seemed to fulfill the dimensions of the Pyramid.  The young conductors were very motivated and perseverant in developing their musical talent.  They had had the assistance of the “suns” in the Pyramid of Talent Development also;  the special schooling and lessons, home and family, community and culture, gender (few conductors are women), and genes (several had come from musical families).  Whether chance would continue to work for them, as it has for their predecessors Salonen and Saraste, is in the future.  As Rudolf (1987) said: “Crystal balls that foretell a young conductor’s future have always been in short supply” (p. 101).  

                      Here are composite thumbnail sketches of the conductors.

1.  A furious, energetic artist.

                      He lives fully and totally every moment of his life.  He is known for his energy and vitality.  He tries again and again even when others are exhausted.  He never gives up when working with a project; sometimes the exhaustion comes afterwards.  He works so hard he is barely able to take care of himself and do his daily duties such as cleaning the house and buying groceries.  Because music and life are the same to him, there is not space for others, except for those who are in his circle of musicians.  He admits that he loves being the star of the group.  He said that he developed his very independent personality and strong drive after a childhood incident.  He said that his childhood ended early because of the death of a very close friend.  It had an impact on his character, on his relations with other people, on his creativity and his giftedness.  He believes that he can thu connect music and live more intensely than others because of this experience because he grew up much earlier than other boys.  He also believed that this crystallizing experience also caused him to fear falling in love because he is so afraid of losing her.   After this he came to understand that he can trust only his own self, his power, and his actions.

2.  A rational intellectual

                      This conductor is very sensitive, intelligent, and painstaking, and not at all spontaneous.  His main characteristic has to do with being rational and with his ability to be analytical.  He is not sociable; rather he is introverted.  He does not need many people around him.  He is very attached to his lover.   On the other hand, he said that his hobby is observing people and their behavior–but from afar.  He is brilliant in many fields–linguistically, logical/mathematically, musically, and intrapersonally (Gardner, 1983).  He has always felt that he is different from those in his age group; he was never intgerested in cars or in rough male sports; he was shy, sensitive, and androgynous, loving music and thinking.

3.  A humble family man.

                      This young conductor said that he loves and cherishes life.  He embraces life as a great entity and he doesn’t sweat the small stuff.  He understands that he is talented but he also sees that he has many weaknesses.  He is happy, empathetic, and social as well as very self-confident.  His family, his wife, and his children, are very important to him.  He has goals but he is not very career-oriented, feeling that it is most important that he can express his own ideas through the music he conducts.  He is driven to do well in everything.  It is very hard work to conduct an orchestra, he says, and he feels happiest when he feels a sense of balance.  This balance is not always self-evident, because the world is very cruel.  “You must have a very strong ego to survive,” he said.

4.  A lonely actor

                      This young conductor seemed less stable than the others.  He said he plays roles all the time; that he is shy, self-seeking, and wavering.  His moodiness was also evident and he said he could change instantly from happiness to depression when somebody says anything to set him off.  He likes to be alone, because then a person can be what he really is, without playing roles.  He has a few good friends, but music is more important to him than friends.  All other aspects of life are unimportant compared to music.  He said that he knows why he has these feelings; in his family there was no place for genuine feelings; everybody in the family was like an actor in a play.  Though his family was a good family, and not overtly abusive, there was a lack of authenticity in their actions toward each other.

The creative process in conducting

                      The creative process has been widely discussed (Csikszentmihalyi, 1983; Ghiselin, 1961; Piirto, 1992/1998; 2002; 2004; Uusikylä & Piirto, 1999).  The creator has been said to enter a state of “flow” or “oceanic consciousness” or “a trance state.”  Conducting and preparing for concerts are the essential creative core of the profession of conductor; while leadership in fund-raising and in designing the programs for concerts as well as appealing to the community are also important these necessarily follow the skills acquired in learning the scores and interpreting the composers.  The whole process, the preparation and training period, the concert and the post-concert phases are physically and mentally exhausting.  When the time comes, the conductor must be as ready as an athlete, ready to react immediately to tiny details and nuances.  These young conductors thrived on such complexities and went through rituals of preparation.  One said class=WordSection12>

Before a concert I am very anxious.  The best way for me to master my anxiety is to close everything outside my consciousness.  I go for a walk.  I see nothing.  I touch nothing.  I think about nothing.  The last thing I will think about is how to conduct a symphony orchestra.  When the time comes I am ready.  I feel pure and clear; all my senses are ready to concentrate on the main task.  The anxiety has disappeared. class=WordSection13>

Another said: “It is wonderful and magnificent.  It is like a strange bath.  You don’t understand how it can be over so fast.”   The young conductors said that they give up and let the music take the responsibility; that the music gives an immense surge of emotion both to the conductor and hopefully to the audience.  The young conductors said they feel a very deep feeling of togetherness with the audience and with the musicians.


                      This study has shown that the young conductors in training are similar to their older and established peers.  They possess the drive and personality and talent to become conductors.  This study, however, has not addressed why the nation of Finland has produced these talented conductors.  One of the young conductors stated that class=WordSection14>

A guy from the Finnish wilderness knows how to reach his goals, how to implement his views.  A typical conductor has an enormously strong will, very clear goals, and the ability to implement them very efficiently.  Conducting a symphony orchestra is a very lonesome job.  All of us are somehow strange, mad individuals.

Another postulated that the Finnish collective unconscious is one of runes and ballads and soulful melodies, as in the national epic poem, The Kalevala, and as in the works of the nation’s most famous composer, Jean Sibelius.  Perhaps this is why the Finns love the Argentine tango, with its passionate and haunting melodies and  poetic truths.  Does living in small settlements in  northern forests and meditating upon the beauty of music have something to do with the international success of the Finnish conductor?


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