Music education the Icelandic way

David Kettle
Sunday, October 1, 2023

David Kettle investigates how long winters, political will and a love of music have shaped music education in Iceland

A Iceland SO concert for deaf children or/and children that use hearing aids and sign language, organised with local schools and societies
A Iceland SO concert for deaf children or/and children that use hearing aids and sign language, organised with local schools and societies

Iceland Symphony Orchestra

It’s a bit of a conundrum. The rugged, volcanic island of Iceland, isolated in the North Atlantic, has a tiny population of not even 400,000 – smaller than many British cities – that’s spread out across a land mass five times the size of Wales. And yet it produces an astonishing richness of music, right across genres: just think of the fine musicians of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, or classical pianist Víkingur Ólafsson, or composers Anna Þorvaldsdóttir or Hildur Guðnadóttir; or Björk, Sigur Rós and many other pop pioneers; or figures like Ólafur Arnalds or Valgeir Sigurðsson who straddle musical worlds.

There’s something going on here. How come a country with such a miniscule number of inhabitants can produce such a wealth of music? And what role does music education play? According to figures working across music and education in the country, quite a big role – although a profound love and respect for music is also built into deeper, more general Icelandic values. And let’s not forget certain practical issues, too.

Indoor entertainment

‘We have such long winters,’ chuckles Hjördís Ástráðsdóttir, director of education at the Iceland Symphony Orchestra (and previously a primary school teacher). ‘And we can never trust the weather, because it’s constantly changing, so we have to have something to do in our homes.’ Add to that the unpredictability caused by not infrequent volcanic activity – there are minor earthquakes going on when I speak to Ástráðsdóttir – and you have an ideal setting for do-it-yourself indoor entertainment, especially of a musical kind.

‘We’re quite a craft-y people,’ agrees Eyjólfur Eyjólfsson, a professional tenor, flautist, and music teacher in Selfoss, near Reykjavík. ‘People like to have something to do with their hands during these long nights we have, so you can have a better life if you can play an instrument or sing a song.’

The choral tradition

Singing, specifically choral singing, indeed plays an important role in Iceland’s traditional musical culture. ‘Most of my friends sing in choirs,’ explains Þóra Marteinsdóttir, who has been teaching in primary education for 16 years. ‘I think proportionally a lot more people are active in singing here than in many other countries.’ The advantage of a strong choral culture, of course, is a sense of togetherness in otherwise far-flung, sparsely populated areas of the country. ‘It’s a wonderful community thing in both large and small settlements – and it makes people feel good,’ Ástráðsdóttir agrees.

Political factors and access

But in more practical terms, according to Eyjólfsson, the important role that music plays in Iceland also comes down to politics. ‘Gylfi Þorsteinsson Gíslason was minister of education from 1956 until 1971, and he had a huge influence on Icelandic cultural life. It was Gíslason who first established the system of specialist music schools that we still have, where a third of the school’s fees are paid by central government, a third by the local council, and a third as tuition fees.’ Most remarkably, this network of specialist music schools remains today, and is spread right across the country, even in some towns of just a few thousand people. Just because you might live in a small settlement that’s a few hours’ drive from a major city, the theory goes, you shouldn’t be deprived of a musical education (nor, it seems, a swimming pool – another Icelandic obsession).

‘That made it possible for almost everyone to apply and attend a specialist music school if they wanted to,’ Eyjólfsson continues. ‘Music has been a cornerstone in Icelandic education since the beginning of the modern educational system, which wasn’t very long ago,’ agrees Marteinsdóttir – indeed, the country has seen a rapid modernisation since the Second World War. ‘But also in the non-specialist music schools,’ Ástráðsdóttir adds, ‘even if there isn’t a specialist music teacher in every one, there’s still good music education, with choirs or other ensembles happening once a week or so, for example.’

But let’s go back to that question of cost for the specialist music schools. ‘Now, I’m not saying that absolutely everyone can afford to send their children to one,’ admits Ástráðsdóttir, ‘but I’d say it’s possible for almost everyone. And there’s additional state support that depends on where you live. Where I am, for example, you can apply for a grant to contribute towards after-school activities, which might be joining the Scouts or playing sports. We’re able to use that money to reduce the music schools’ fees.’

‘And there are waiting lists for these schools,’ continues Eyjólfsson. Whether that’s because Icelandic parents want their children to learn music for its own sake, or because of perceived advantages across educational achievement more generally, is up for discussion – Eyjólfsson thinks it’s probably a bit of both. But he’s clear about one explanation for the specialist schools’ popularity: ‘There are waiting lists because they’re affordable. People with fairly normal incomes will be able to send their children to them.’

A flexible curriculum

Within schools, too, teachers report a greater sense of freedom in what and how they teach than there is in, say, the UK. ‘We have a general national curriculum,’ explains Ástráðsdóttir, ‘but we don’t have standardised tests in early education, and there’s also quite a lot of freedom in the way the curriculum is taught. Since they don’t have the threat of tests hanging over them, teachers almost make their own curriculum, which becomes a speciality in a particular school.’

Marteinsdóttir provides an example from her own institution. ‘A new overall curriculum came out in 2000, which made things even freer than they had been – now, as a teacher, I feel like I can do pretty much whatever I want to. I studied classical composition, but with my pupils we work together on group creativity – in general terms, like how to work together and not being afraid to put forward your own ideas.’

The flipside to this freedom, as Eyjólfsson explains, can be additional stress. ‘When I taught music in a primary school, I sometimes felt very exposed. It’s a big undertaking to teach music at that level, because the expectations are so broad, so it’s entirely down to the individual teacher how certain things are done.’

Connected with the absence of early testing, Ástráðsdóttir feels, is the fact that students can keep options open until later in their school careers – perhaps encouraging more to maintain music as a subject. ‘You don’t necessarily need to choose your path from an early age,’ she explains. ‘If you finish an academic qualification at college, for example, but then decide you want to be an electrician or an engineer, say, then you might have to take some additional courses, but those doors are not closed to you.’ It’s all part of living in a country with a small population where people’s individual contributions are crucial: flexibility is key. ‘And having that small population means less bureaucracy, too – getting things done becomes simpler,’ she continues.

Adaptability and communication

Flexibility cuts both ways, however, and for musicians, that means adaptability over styles and genres. ‘If you’re a classical pianist, for example, you might also play in a rock band, or a jazz group,’ explains Marteinsdóttir. In such a small country, it’s simply practical that musicians are able to contribute across different ensembles and projects. Without that flexibility, they’re unlikely to be offered the opportunities they need to make a living. And there are clear implications for music education. ‘No musician in Iceland does just one thing: everyone does a little bit of everything. But schools teach classical music, jazz and lots of other styles to encourage that,’ explains Ástráðsdóttir.

In her work with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, Ástráðsdóttir faces challenges that reflect difficulties experienced by music educators in Iceland, just in microcosm. Nonetheless, she draws on Icelanders’ famous directness of communication by establishing effective relationships with the Icelandic Government and Reykjavík City Council, as well as individual musicians and fellow teachers (she’s collaborated with both Marteinsdóttir and Eyjólfsson – I said it was a small country).

She’s also established a youth council for the Orchestra, since, she says, young people expect their voices to be heard. It draws on the young players already involved in the Iceland Symphony Youth Orchestra, whose activities are carefully scheduled around easier times of year for travel, and also school terms. ‘The youth council is more than young people thinking they’d like to have a say in things,’ she explains. ‘It’s more a case of: it’s my right. I think there’s that sense of levelling in Iceland, where people are quite happy to be seen and heard, and they expect to be listened to.’

So it’s a complicated picture. The extent to which music is valued in Iceland clearly has a lot to do with geography, climate and tradition. Music education has also itself been shaped by those factors, in terms of ensuring its availability right across a far-flung country, and in allowing teachers the freedoms to exploit their own skills. Are there lessons to be learnt? Perhaps in being mindful of the ways in which a country’s individual geography and demographics can impact on its educational systems. But also, inevitably, that when there’s political will to support music education, the results can be long-lived and far-reaching.