Folk High Schools in Norway. No exams, no diplomas.

John Robert Brown

Impressed by the flawless English of an Oslo teenager, I asked which language she found most comfortable.
'Do you dream in Norwegian, or English?'
'German,' she replied!

One regularly encounters Norwegians who can manage four or five languages. Composer Fartein Valen (of whom more later) is said to have spoken nine languages fluently. But although Norway is our neighbour, with an Anglophile population, we in Britain are neglectful of the country.
I admit that the weather has much to do with this. In Bergen a little boy was asked whether it always rained there. 'I don't know,' he said. 'I'm only seven.'
Cost also deters British visitors: With a GDP per head of more than US $40,000, Norway isn't cheap.

Among this neglect, it's common to encounter well-educated British musicians unaware of the strengths of Norwegian teaching. The Folk High School system is one of those strengths. Folk High Schools are said to be the single most original concept Scandinavia has contributed to education. So, what are Folk High Schools? Of what interest are Folk High Schools to music teachers in Britain?

Small, usually catering for 100-150 students aged between 18 and 25, Folk High Schools (Folgehøgskola or fhs) are distributed across Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Greenland, the Faroe Islands, the Åland Islands and Denmark. There are some 400 Folk High Schools serving the 23 million people of the five Nordic countries.

Providing a one-year residential course, a Folk High School is an option after completing upper secondary school. The name 'Folk High School' is unfortunate. Translated into English, it gives a misleading impression. Originally it meant a university or tertiary institution. 'Residential Adult College', Community College' or even 'People's University' would be an accurate modern description.

Courses, which run from May to September, offer a range of non-traditional subjects, including arts, crafts, philosophy, theatre and photography, history - and music. By law there are no formal examinations. No diplomas or degrees are issued. Each school is free to design its own curriculum. The Nordic Folk High Schools can claim to be pedagogically among the freest schools in the world. Students live on campus, in close contact with staff and other students. Meals are taken together. Students take turns to wait on table and clear away dishes. Accommodation is frequently in shared double rooms. In most respects teachers and pupils are regarded as equals - both learn from the teaching process. One school I visit states its aims: 'To nourish friendship, mutual respect, independence, global solidarity, knowledge and social awareness.'

Not all Folk High Schools offer music. The students I meet in Norway, who are applying to continue music studies in Britain, seem to have attended the same scattering of Folk High Schools, fewer than a dozen different institutions.

Some schools offer music alongside other subjects. At Sund, ninety minutes' train ride from Trondheim, in a school of 105 students, a select group of fifteen young musicians studies jazz under saxophonist Njål Ølnes. It takes me a whole day to visit Sund from Oslo. First a flight north to Trondheim, then the scenic rail journey along the Trondheim fjord towards the Swedish border, and the final ride is by rural taxi. This school is alongside the fjord, with sensational views across the peaceful water. The countryside is sparsely populated, the employment here mostly agricultural or nautical. It seems strange to hear contemporary jazz - an urban music if ever there was one - being expertly played and knowledgeably discussed in such a remote location. The students are impressive, they form cooperative bands within the school, and clearly thrive in an atmosphere where they explore the music together. Most go on to the major conservatories in Oslo, Trondheim and Bergen. Others study in Britain or America. Typical is Petter Fadnes, who came from the Norwegian Folk High School system to Britain to study jazz. Petter is now a member of the teaching staff at Leeds College of Music.

On the outskirts of Hamar, a125 km rail journey to the north of Oslo, the Toneheim Folk High School ('home of sound') specialises entirely in music - classical, jazz, and music technology. Sometimes the best teachers in Oslo travel out to Toneheim to give lessons. When I visited Toneheim, all 150 student musicians were preparing to depart for Budapest, a trip for which headmaster Jon Krognes had chartered a passenger jet. I was fortunate to hear the final rehearsal - involving the whole school - of a choral work by the aforementioned Fartein Valen (1887-1952), sometimes described as the fourth member of the Second Viennese School of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern. It was a graceful performance of a beautiful piece.

In Toneheim I truly understood the size of Norway. Chatting to a young guitarist from the north we both suddenly realised that Toneheim is nearer to where I live - Leeds - than to his home town above the arctic circle! Incidentally, their remoteness places no limitations on these students' awareness. I had a fascinating discussion with this young guitarist. Not only was he aware of Bream and Williams (as one might expect), but also knew of British guitar experts Graham Wade, John Mills and John Duarte.

Thus, the Folk High School system offers a valuable gap year before University. Because Norway still requires young men to do military service, when they enter University most Norwegian students are older than equivalent British students. It is noticeable that even outside the Folk High School system, Norwegian students at the end of their teenage years possess outstanding social skills, and have a well-developed sense of focus and purpose. In a word, they are mature.

I wonder, would such a system work in Britain?

This article first appeared in Music Teacher magazine. Used by permission.
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