A change that resonates

A music school for disabled learners promotes artistic equality in Finland. Time to listen!


Resonaari rehearsal from Elm Magazine on Vimeo.

Watch Resonaari rehearse for its spring concert!


He’s not a real cowboy, if he can’t get a girl out of his head.” The last chord of a well-known Finnish ballad, The Three Cowboys, slowly diminishes and then vanishes. I put the electric bass down. The other member of the spontaneous music duo lifts the guitar off his shoulder and smiles approvingly.

-If you had played like that in a professional orchestra, nobody would have batted an eye, compliments Kaarlo Uusitalo, from behind his Fender guitar.

Rather well done, then, from a person with absolutely no experience in bass playing. The glory for surviving til the end of the song without slaughtering the bass line does not lie with the aspiring bassist reporter.

The credit goes to the small, colourful geographic symbols called Figurenotes on the music stand in front of the two players. These Figurenotes guide even the absolute beginner’s fingers to find the right strings at the right time. They contain the same information about pitch and duration as ordinary musical notation but are much easier to grasp, do not require previous musical education and enable the learner to start playing music instantly.

The Figurenotes are a main part of the pedagogy of Resonaari, the Finnish music school for learners with special needs. The Helsinki-based school is a pioneer in teaching music to disabled learners – its methods are globally unique.


Figurenotes enable even the absolute beginner to make music. Photo: Markus Palmén

A versatile centre of music

Resonaari is more than a music school. Its official name “The special music centre” betrays a much broader mandate. Established in 1995, Resonaari offers music tuition for people with mental disabilities. Learners are of all ages, from first-graders to pensioners. The students’ disabilities range from mild to more severe.

Besides teaching, Resonaari carries out research into special music pedagogy, consults music education and trains teachers working with diverse learners. Resonaari also acts as the primary research environment of the Music for All research network consisting of three Finnish universities and the University of Bern in Switzerland.  The research group focuses on multidisciplinary study of special music pedagogy (see recent bibliography at the end of the article) with a practice-oriented angle. The group also acts as awareness raiser by arranging seminars and researcher meetings.

The music school is supported from public funds, from the City of Helsinki, as well as tuition fees. Project funding and charity are other welcome sources of income for the centre.

Management is shared by the duo Kaarlo Uusitalo and Markku Kaikkonen. Both experienced musicians, Uusitalo has had a long career both as performer and therapist, Kaikkonen’s background is in music pedagogy.

Kaarlo Uusitalo (l.) and Markku Kaikkonen are both seasoned musicians and performers. Photo: Markus Palmén

Shortcut into music-making

The pedagogy of Resonaari is practice-oriented. The aim is to start real music making from very early on. Figurenotes offer this possibility: conventional notes can replace them later on if needed.

As with all music practice, repetition and a good practice regime are key. With disabled learners the speed of learning varies individually. For Markku Kaikkonen and Kaarlo Uusitalo everything ultimately rests on the teacher’s faith in the learner’s ability to improve. And improve they do.

-My task as pedagogue is not to wonder whether a person can learn music. My task is to figure out how this individual could learn music. This is the ethical promise I, as the teacher, make to the student, says Markku Kaikkonen. Uusitalo continues in the same vein:

-We still sometimes hear talk of “Resonaari, the music activity center”. However, this is neither therapy nor rehabilitative activity. This is a place of goal-oriented study of music.

Virtuous circle of learning

The process of learning music is particularly beneficial to the disabled learner. Kaikkonen and Uusitalo paint a mental image of the student, entering his or her first music class. Depending on the disability the student may feel disoriented: what is this place, this situation? What is expected of me? This initial bewilderment may feel downright chaotic.

The first practical, repetitive music exercises start to break up this chaos into manageable bits of experience.

-Remember that music itself is a world of order, organized into precise forms of time and pitch. What is special, however, is that in music emotion is just as important, Kaikkonen explains.

Learning music, then, brings a sense of order into the disabled learner’s life. Consequently, this sense of control gives him or her the willingness to try new things and learn more.

-The sense of achievement when you’ve learnt something is the beginning of the virtuous circle of learning. This sense of pride leads to practice motivation and more learning, Kaikkonen describes.

Resonaari’s teachers witness every day the many beneficial side effects flowing from this circle: the learners become more active and independent, their social and life skills improve.

-It is a great moment when a player says that he wants a better guitar. It means he is actively engaging and reflecting on his environment, Kaikkonen smiles.

Music learning seems to be a particularly good route to an all-round development of mental faculties. To illustrate this, Kaikkonen and Uusitalo refer to Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences. The theory argues against a view of “general intelligence”, taking the view that there is a wide range of separate cognitive abilities that can be described as intelligence, e.g. spatial, linguistic and musical intelligences.

-Studying musical notation engages the logical-mathematical intelligence. Music combined with dance develops the bodily-kinesthetic intelligence. Band playing affects both the spatial and social dimensions, Kaikkonen and Uusitalo describe.

A positive cultural revolution

A further challenge in Resonaari’s work are the still prevailing, out-dated attitudes about disabled musicians. Resonaari’s team sometimes face prejudice even in professional music pedagogy circles: people doubt whether a mentally disabled person can be a musician.

-Our experience and many study results point to the affirmative: a disabled person can well be a musician, Uusitalo says.

In fact, Resonaari employs two of its students as full-time teaching assistants. They work a six-hour day, acting as peer teachers to students learning the Figurenote system and rhythmics. They also make music in Resonaarigroup, a professional orchestra made up of diverse learners.

The vision of Resonaari is that of an inclusive music education, bringing marginal groups such as the disabled, into music. Uusitalo and Kaikkonen refer to this vision as a “positive cultural revolution”. For example, the Resonaarigroup is a trailblazer for this revolution.

-We want to see disabled people as active forces in cultural life, and to some extent they are starting to be that. For instance, a movie about a Finnish punk group –our past students- is taking the world by storm.

Spreading the word

The methods of Resonaari are shared in various ways: Resonaari staff and the Music for All research group publish research and popularized articles. Resonaari hosts research seminars, study visits and researcher exchange visits.

Figurenotes books have been so far translated into Estonian, Italian and Japanese and individual music schools use the notation in their work.

Special pedagogy works for everyone

But let’s return once more to the bassline of The Three Cowboys and the Figurenotes. If anyone, including this author, can experience the thrill of ensemble playing at the drop of a hat, why are we talking about special pedagogy for the disabled? Isn’t this just very well functioning general pedagogy?

-Indeed we use tools that can be employed in any learning context. Special education is often an innovation generator because learners with special needs often have easily discernible problems, Kaikkonen recounts.

If a pedagogical method works in a special needs group, it is bound to work in mainstream education too.


“From victory to victory!” -eavesdropping at Resonaari’s concert rehearsal

The theatre auditorium is half-full, the rows strewn with lounging musicians waiting for their turn at the soundcheck. Lights are tested and amplifiers fine-tuned as band after band climbs onstage for the general rehearsal.

Music centre Resonaari is preparing for its annual May 2013 spring concert at the Theatre Savoy in central Helsinki. The sold-out concert showcases the skill and energy of Resonaari’s students to the wider public, friends and family. The concert is supported by well-known established musicians who “guest star” with Resonaari’s in-house talent onstage.

It is clear that the concert will be a musical tour-de-force of different styles and tastes, with numbers ranging from death metal to subtle ballads, reggae and hearty rock’n’ roll. The show stopper is a piece where all the performers join forces with Resonaarigroup, a professional orchestra made up of the centre’s students and assistant teachers. The refrain of the last song, “From victory to victory”, is sung with such conviction that the roof very nearly flies off – and listeners are likely to find a considerable lump in their throats.

From students to teachers

Marlo Paumo and Jaakko Lahtinen are preparing backstage. Marlo is a drummer and singer, Jaakko plays keyboard. Both men, well over thirty, work at Resonaari as musicians and assistant teachers. Both are also diverse learners and started out as students in the music centre. Jaakko started with music in 2005 while Marlo enrolled in Resonaari only quite recently.

In fact, Marlo’s interest in music-making was sparked by a spring concert similar to the one that is about to start.

-My mother saw an ad of the concert and asked me to join her. I thought, “what do I have to lose”.

Marlo was impressed and soon became a student at Resonaari in 2011. Progress has been fast: from beginner to professional musician in two years. Both men studied using Figurenotes and endorse the method wholeheartedly.

-It simply works and works well! Jaakko states.

Teachers’ virtues: versatility and patience

Jaakko and Marlo work full time at Resonaari dividing their time between two activities.  They play in Resonaarigroup, a six-member professional band of diverse learner players. They also act as assistant peer teachers at the music school.

Both men regard patience as the ultimate virtue of a teacher.

-It may take a year of practice and repetition for someone to learn a skill. You just have to keep going at it, Marlo describes.

Another must is the constant musical development of the teacher himself.  Multi-instrumentalism is a common goal for Marlo and Jaakko.

-It is good to learn other instruments than your own, to be able to teach our students who can be anything between seven and seventy! Jaakko says.

What does music mean to the men themselves?

The show is about to begin. The last answer is delivered in a haste, but with a smile.

-It relaxes. It gives so much, the men say almost simultaneously.

Watch a video of the rehearsal at the top of the page!

Selected Resonaari-related publications

Ruokonen I., Pollari S., Kaikkonen M. & Ruismäki H. (2012). The Resonaari Special Music Centre as the Developer of Special Music Education between 1995-2010. In Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences 45 ( 2012 ). 401 – 406.

Kivijärvi Sanna. 2012. Project Disabled People as Musicians: A Systemic Approach. Procedia. In Social and Behavioral Sciences, 45, 416-427.

Kaikkonen Markku & Laes Tuulikki. (2011). Special Music Education Creates Equality in Learning. In Kaikkonen M., Petraškevic?a A. & Väinsar S. (Eds.). Music for all! Teachers’ Manual for Special Music Education. Riga: Sia E-Forma.

Kaikkonen Markku. (2011). Special Music Education as a Positive Cultural Revolution. In Ruismäki H. & Ruokonen I. (Eds.). Design Learning and Well-Being 4th International Journal of Intercultural Arts Education. Helsinki University.

Kaikkonen Markku. (2009). Special music education creates learning equality. In Orff-Schulwerk Informationen, Music and Movement/Dance in Social Work and Inclusive Pedagogy. Summer 2009 / 81.

Kaikkonen Markku. (2008). Figurenotes Allows All to Make Music. In eNewsletter Doorway to Room 217 –julkaisussa. Issue 8, October 2008. www.room217.ca

Ferrari Gabriella & Kaikkonen Markku. 2005. Fare musica con Figurenotes: nuove prospettive in educazione e per l`insegnamento. In Comploi Franz (Ed..). Musikalische Bildung Educazione musicale. Brixen: Opuscula Brixinensia 2. Italy

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