A Postcard from Finland: How Studying Abroad Saved Me

By Chris Wong

Like any other ambitious classical musician, I have always wanted to travel to Europe. I saw Europe as the ‘home of classical music’, the birthplace of so many composers whose works we still perform today. This triggered my idea of studying abroad, which my friends and family greatly encouraged. I wanted to hone my musical skills, but I also wanted to gain inspiration from a greater understanding of the world and most importantly, of myself.

During my previous five years of tertiary education, I constantly viewed myself as inferior to many of my talented friends, colleagues and teachers at the University of Melbourne. I was reluctant to give in to the music fully whenever I performed, afraid of disappointing the audience or my teachers. And I convinced myself I would be unsuccessful in gaining a career in music. After receiving an acceptance to study at the Sibelius Academy for a semester, I knew this would be my only opportunity to travel abroad in my final year of Masters. So, I took a leap of faith and hopped on the plane to Helsinki, Finland.

While I braced myself for challenges, and the idea of living far away from my family and close friends, I could hardly contain my excitement to arrive in Finland. Getting to set foot in the homeland of Jean Sibelius and see the sight of falling snow fired up my imagination. I would be in Finland for four months.

To say that I was fortunate enough to break out of my shell during my time in Finland would be putting it mildly. Despite the personal hardships I experienced during my time overseas, each day at the Sibelius Academy felt like I was living a dream. I found the process of settling into a foreign country daunting, but I was lucky enough to study with the best Helsinki has to offer. And I found that I made new friends very quickly. Not to mention the whole staff at the Sibelius Academy (including my wonderful teacher Hui-Ying-Liu Tawatstsjerna) were super friendly and down-to-earth! They brought out the very best in their students with their open-minded approach: to experiment with your own ideas and not apologise for reveling in the moment.

Every time I walked through the campus, I could not stop marvelling at the superb sights at the Sibelius Academy: from the sheer scale of the practice facilities to the grandeur of the concert halls, including the Helsinki Music Centre (Musiikkitalo), where the students and staff shared the stage with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra. I was blown away by the level of quality, presentation and energy present in the Finnish music scene, where you could really feel their genuine love of music.

A snapshot taken inside Helsinki Music Centre, Musiikkitalo

I could not think of anything more rewarding than this experience. During the semester, I focused on making the most of my studies by spending hours in a practice room honing my solo works and collaborating with amazing musicians, including Lizzie Stewart, Laura Leena-Pauni, Vivian Neff and Yu-chuen Huang. I was no longer the insecure bloke who fished for everyone’s approval.

It’s not only my artistic skills and knowledge which developed greatly through the process. In Finland I started to embrace the idea of staying true to who you are as an artist and a person. This has enabled me to express myself freely in more ways than I could imagine. I still have a long way to go, but I believe as long as you maintain an open mind to those who perceive music differently from the way you do, and you do not stop clinging to your hunger to gain knowledge and learn about different cultural experiences, this sense of inspiration will pave the way to greater success.

Fever Pitch Magazine enquiries can be sent to Stella Joseph-Jarecki through stellamusicwriter.wordpress.com

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