The Mänttä Music Festival 2014 ended last week with a wonderful Beethoven recital by Paul Lewis. Other highlights this year were the piano recitals by Anna Vinnitskaya and Laura Mikkola and the concert by Slawomir Zubrzycki with his Viola organista, a unique Renaissance instrument that he built over four years based on Leonardo da Vinci’s 500-year-old sketches.

One of the novelties at Mänttä was the collaboration concert of the Youth Piano Academy (YPA) and the Sibelius Academy’s junior department. Five youngsters gave stunning performances of an extremely demanding repertoire, including pieces such as Liszt´s Spanish Rhapsody, Vallee D’Obermann and many more. In addition, the summer session of the YPA took place during the festival, and the ten students took lessons with Juhani Lagerspetz, Jussi Siirala, and Risto-Matti Marin. Also the German hyper-virtuoso Severin von Eckardstein joined our faculty to give some lessons.

The Youth Piano Academy is an educational project founded last year by Teppo Koivisto, Antti Siirala, and me with 100.000 euros grant from the Finnish Cultural Foundation, Suomen Kulttuurirahasto. The idea was to form a coaching group of ten exceptionally talented youngsters from all over Finland and periodically offer them special training while they continue their weekly work with their regular teachers at the music schools. The project is all about boosting the learning environment. We started by imagining ourselves as 13-year-old, enthusiastic piano students, asking ourselves: What would be the most inspiring, motivating and fruitful education that could be offered to us?

As a result of this brainstorming, the YPA came into existence. The coaching group consists of five girls and five boys, aged 12-17, who meet five times a year to study, each time with different professors. The individual lessons are accompanied by workshops on practicing, piano technique, history of piano music, sight reading, and various lectures.

This year the five-day summer period was held during the piano festival in Mänttä. The intensive concert schedule of the festival created rather tight time frames for the lessons and practice; on the other hand, the youngsters had the chance to attend world-class piano recitals, socialize with renowned pianists from Finland and abroad, and to be a part of an international piano festival.

I remember from my own teen years how uplifting and inspiring it was to get acquainted with wonderful pianists, great teachers, and brilliant student colleagues. Some of these encounters really changed my musical thinking and started a new learning process. One of the most impressive experiences for me was the Tel Hai Master Classes in Israel, led by Emanuel Krasovsky, which already then was an important meeting point for some of the best piano teachers and students in the world.

Inspiring encounters with artists, professors, or student colleagues can change young musician’s whole life — at least that is what happened to me in Tel Hai. The challenge is that there is no way to control how and when the magic happens. But, there is something that can be done: We can try to encourage such conditions so they might lead to these personal-world-shaking encounters. The YPA tries to heighten the probabilities for these lucky coincidences.

The first-year results of the Academy are remarkable: the students have won prizes in national and international competitions – two of them even in our biggest national competition, which is actually meant for adults. Several students have played as soloists of various orchestras and received grants from the cultural foundations.

The measurable success mentioned above is, of course, important for the future of the project. The more important success, however, is the immeasurable. We have witnessed a personal growth, improving self-confidence, inspiring huge devotion, and a tremendous burst of creativity among the youngsters.

One heart-warming example of such creativity found its manifestation in a surprise number by YPA students Tarmo and Samuel in our Friday Night Gala in Mänttä. Their performance was prepared in total secrecy from me, which surely made the practicing process very exciting for them. The boys performed with great success a charming new piece called “What the pianists do before the concert” composed by Tarmo and dedicated to me! The composer himself played the piano and and Samuel showed his remarkable virtuoso skills this time as a clarinetist.

The wonderful thing here is this: these kids do not make music, practice their etudes, and sonatas just because someone tells them to do so. They do all that, and much more, because they live their lives inside the music.

It is crucial to have the best possible teachers, but the talented youngsters also teach themselves and learn from each other. They will develop their artistic identity and improve their pianistic skills and repertoire in a very natural way if we adults trust their talent and succeed in creating an environment that allows them to prosper.