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Interview with Miina Virtanen

img  Tobias Fischer

What kind of people will typically come to you in your position as a music therapist?
Music therapy can be used in the traditional fields of psychotherapy, sometimes also in case of physical functional problems, for example after a stroke. Typical music therapy clients here are young people under twenty five with psychological issues or developmental disorders, since the therapy of this particular age group is financed by the Finnish social security system. I also offer music therapy for elderly people, especially in dementia care, and have developed a concept called „music therapy and nature“ for people with burnout-symptoms.

What will a day in your job typically look like?
I have my own practise and also do ambulant care, for example going to homes for elderly people. Depending on the clients, there are different approaches. While with elderly people, especially in dementia care, the therapy bases very much on the music of the times when they were younger, with other age groups the approach will often tend to be more improvisational and may include more talking.
Besides the actual music therapy, there is, especially when working as an independent entrepreneur, a lot of planning and office work which needs to be done. The therapeutic work is very intensive, so it is important to prepare well and concentrate on each client individually; therefore it’s not recommended to have more than four clients a day. 

In which way can sounds and music really help with something as profound as a burnout?
In music therapy, the music „heals“ mainly in terms of interaction. Musically supported interaction, especially so-called music-therapeutic improvisation helps in gaining a more profound insight into the client’s situation and opens up new perspectives. Music therapy contains both revealing and balancing elements which are beneficial for recovery; these, combined with a supporting therapeutic environment, expedite psychological insight and integration as well as providing essential balancing experiences. Basically, it is necessary to understand that music is not a panacea - therapy is always a process and requires a lot of reflection. Arts therapies are especially helpful, however, since they enable treatment not only by talking but also in a nonverbal way. Besides that, music surely has also some direct effects on the body. Slow music, for example, also makes people breath more slowly and in this way listening to music can help patients to relax.

In which way can someone who hasn't learned to play an instrument nonetheless express something meaningful through it?
Music therapy includes both active (playing) and receptive (listening to music) methods. These are usually combined with reflections about the feelings and thoughts caused by the music. In music therapy, it can actually be a benefit if someone hasn’t played an instrument before, since through training an instrument we are also always preconditioned with expectations of how to play it “properly“. In music therapy, the instruments allows for a chance through self-expression and dialogue in a musical, nonverbal stage and attending music therapy doesn’t require any previous musical training. The point in music therapy is not to create something aesthetically beautiful in the traditional sense, but to be able to share something important about one’s feelings and essence. The way the character of the improvised music gradually changes and transforms can be related to the development during the therapeutic process. There's no external pressure to express something meaningful; the meaning rather unfolds itself during the therapy. The therapist’s work is to listen to the client very carefully in a supporting, not judging way and to hear what the client may be saying through the music on an unconscious level. 

Are you feeling resistance against this kind of therapy from the corner of school medicine?
Not really. I think that each form of therapy has its place, even though sometimes it's a problem that people are given medicine to satisfy needs which would rather be on the psychological side. I consider it necessary to have therapy not only for the body but also in psychological terms – it would be ideal if different forms of therapy were better integrated in the health care system to provide more holistic services for all age groups.

You're currently working on a concept which involves music and nature. What is it about?
In my diploma thesis, I planned a concept called „music therapy and nature“ - involving a period in the summertime which will be spent with a group of patients surrounded by the Finnish nature at the beautiful lake Saimaa. This is an approach combining ecopsychology and music therapy. The basic idea is to use the psychologically beneficial and relaxing natural environment as a frame in the therapy setting. In my concept, the music therapy sessions are held in the midst of nature … in a forest, on a deserted island, at a lakeside,  on a terrace listening to raindrops falling or, when the weather is not that good, inside at the fireplace. Besides that, there are many activities that can be done in the Finnish nature like swimming - which can be combined with a sauna - walking in the forest, picking berries, canoeing or just relaxing at the lakeside. According to many studies, being in nature is extremely beneficial in psychological terms. It helps people to slow down and to listen to themselves. The beautiful surroundings without city noise offer an ideal basis for a balancing experience. Nature is also continuously in a process of change and transformation, in this way it also reflects something essential about the human psyche and supports the recovery in symbolic dimensions. I have also experienced that the group-integration in such an environment can be much deeper than in a therapy-group in a city practise.

In which way has your own music been influenced by these therapeutic concepts?

Since my music therapy studies I really see music more and more in communicational terms, since in my occupation music is used in a therapeutic dialogue. I think that is something you may see on my next CD. Maybe I now think more analytically about music and I’m not sure if that’s really good for composing and improvisation in artistic terms.

Nature is an important element in your photography. Is it also important with regards to your music?
For me, making music is akin to a meditative state. When playing in an improvisational way, I don’t generally think about anything special like „now I would like to improvise a forest scene“. I basically just play the music; here my unconscious thinking is also faster than the logical one and the ideal state of improvising for me is something as self-evident as breathing. But I feel that, indirectly, nature has a very deep meaning in my music, since I've had the privilege to live surrounded by very beautiful landscapes which have become, in a way, a part of my soul. I also love to be in nature, so it keeps inspiring my music indirectly.

How important has your move to Finland been in this regard?

When I was living abroad I was also rather often in Finland, so the change is not really huge. I think in middle-Europe the rhythm of life is a bit faster, here I sometimes have the feeling that I’d like to play slower and in a more minimalistic way.

Your new record has a concept running through the different tracks. What made autumn an interesting season to write an album about?
Actually, the name comes more from the time I was finishing my record. It relates to the vivid colors of autumn, the rainy evenings when coming back from the studio... kind of an autumn-feeling. But it is also one of my favorite seasons. In my CD-booklet there is a passage in the text which states that „inside every autumn there is a small summer“. I’m always happy about  autumn and also love the winter, when there is snow and it’s fresh and cold. In autumn, the nature prepares to rest, similarly showing a lot of colorful beauty. I appreciate that we have four seasons in the north, these keep inspiring me also in symbolic dimensions.  

I take it your improvisations are not entirely free. So how much will you prepare them before entering the studio?
On Autumn Stories, most pieces are free improvisations, but I had written down and refined some of the themes before. Free improvisations often just need one take but sometimes I will then start refining the theme and it might take a couple more. The so-called guided improvisations mean for me that I have written down the main idea of the theme and maybe some parts before. These sometimes take very many takes since I will occasionally get a kind of stage fright and start to make mistakes.
The improvisation should have some touching idea, also it should not just be something superficial - and of course, should meet some of my pianistic standards. I’m very much a melody person - harmonic ideas and images are surely an inspirational background. But mainly it is a feeling of inspiration on the first hand that makes me to create a melody that has something I find moving.

Tell me about how technical aspects play into the music.

When I recorded Autumn Stories, I had only just started to take classical piano lessons, so probably most of my technical improvements will not be heard until I record again. Of course at that time I had been improvising a lot and it can be also also seen in that my pieces are much shorter than on my first CD. Perhaps I am improvising in a more structured fashion now. Which has both positive and negative aspects to it.

What, to you, makes the piano such a perfect tool for expressing your own unspoken emotions?
I like the sound of piano generally very much and also the fact that one can play both melody and harmony with it. The vast scale also offers many possibilities for improvisation. Playing the piano, even though I sometimes find it a rather static instrument compared to the violin for example, is at its best a kind of meditative experience. It's like being „inside“ the music - especially when you're playing spontaneously.

By Tobias Fischer

Autumn Stories is available directly from Miina Virtanen or on iTunes.

Miina Virtanen Discography:
Piano music! (Self-released) 2004
Nordic Flowers (Self-Released) 2005
Finnish Folk Music/ w. Pia Repo (Self-Released) 2006
The Icicle Lectures Vol. 1/ w. Feu Follet (Ex Ovo) 2007
Autumn Stories (Self-Released) 2010


Miina Virtanen
Miina Virtanen Music Therapy Website

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