Kantele in the eyes of musicians

On this page you can find information about kantele artists with whom we are actively working together nowadays and get to know their thoughts on the kantele as well as get an insider's look into the creative process they have been part of. With their different cultural and musical backgrounds they really have something to share.

We hope these materials will inspire you to start your journey with kantele too and explore the unique world of this instrument!

 

Olga Shishkina (BMus St.Petersburg Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory 2008, MMus Sibelius Academy 2012), Helsinki

olga

 

olgashishkina.me
youtube.com/olgagusli

myspace.com/olga.shishkina
facebook.com/olgashishkinaofficial

Becoming a Master of Music with kantele in 4 years

Three and half years ago my studies in concert kantele started at Sibelius Academy and here I am now waiting to get desired papers with the fancy "Master of Music" title on it. It is still a bit difficult to believe what I did when I decided to apply to Master's degree program at Sibelius Academy, without any previous studies or even real experience of playing this instrument. The jury apparently had a long conversation trying to decide whether they can accept me on this extraordinary ground or not - however, it was my lucky day then!
Speaking of kantele playing, I only once tried a big diatonic kantele when jamming with folk musicians in 2002 in Haapavesi but that wouldn't really count as something serious, we just had some fun. Moreover, even though my main instrument Gusli is a close relative of Finnish kantele, the technique of playing is still completely different.

Encouraging you to start to play kantele

The purpose of this story is to help professional musicians who are interested in kantele to understand that their different background can only support the process of mastering this instrument. Perhaps my story can encourage someone to leave their doubts and start playing from the scratch, perceiving their dream to become a kantele player. I also decided to attach some videos in order to make it easier to see what background I come from as well as give some additional information that is otherwise impossible to provide here. Please check them if you are interested - that could give you a clearer picture of what I'm talking about.

Why did I decide to study kantele?

It wasn't until 2004 that I would have considered studying this instrument in the future. I was at that time a 2nd year student at St. Petersburg Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory specializing in Gusli (Russian kantele) and in the meantime studying piano, organ and orchestral conducting as my secondary subjects. In spring 2004 I was invited to perform at the 9th Kokle International Music Festival in Riga, Latvia, where at one of the concerts first time in my life I heard concert kantele played by classically trained musicians. I felt completely overwhelmed by the sound of the instrument - crystal and brilliant in high registers and at the same time powerful and deep in bass, it was something heavenly beautiful and unforgettable! The effect was somewhat healing, magical, totally outside this world...That was the moment when a thought of learning to play kantele crossed my mind.

Challenging start of kantele studies

Straight after graduating from the Conservatory in May 2008 my Master's degree studies at Sibelius Academy started in autumn. Needless to say, it was far from being easy in the beginning. First of all, it took a while to adapt to the new environment since I had never lived outside my country before. Second, the idea of once again becoming a student after graduating with highest honors from the well-established Conservatory was a bit frustrating. And finally, I had to develop a totally new approach to my playing considering very specific nature of the kantele and its unique sensitive sound. Understanding ergonomics, learning new playing techniques and learning to listen carefully, developing touch - all that took a lot of time and patience.

My musical background

1. Gusli - Russian kantele

Gusli, or Russian kantele, is the oldest Russian string instrument that dates back to the 11th century. The ancient types had 5 strings which is also the case with the Finnish kanteles. As the centuries passed by the amount of strings on the instrument was increasing. The concert version of gusli - so called wing-shaped - was developed in the beginning of the 20th century. It is an instrument with strong bright sound that is suitable for a big concert hall and doesn't need to be amplified even when playing with the symphony orchestra.
Even though gusli is a close relative of kantele, there are more differences than similarities between these two instruments. The principle of playing is based on diverse plectrum techniques performed by the right hand while the left hand is used mainly to mute unwanted strings.

2. Chromatic gusli

Having always been interested in this very unique type of gusli, in 2004 I finally ordered a copy of the museum instrument from the 18th century. The chromatic (or clavichord) gusli was one of the most popular instruments in Russian imperial court in 1750s-1870s. This table-shaped instrument has 2 parallel rows of strings - lower and upper ones corresponding to white and black keys on piano keyboard, respectively - and is played by plucking. Since there was no teaching available, I had to master it completely myself. This was another important reason why I wanted to get proper training in kantele that would enable me to understand and develop the technique of playing the chromatic gusli.

3. Piano

However, what helped me most in the process of mastering kantele is my piano background. I've been playing classical piano since 8 years old, starting it as my secondary instrument at music school and later continuing studies at the Conservatory and Sibelius Academy where I later took up jazz piano as well. Lots of repertoire has been gone through and even though piano has never been my main instrument teachers were however trying to persuade me to become a professional pianist. They didn't really manage with it but piano still remains a big passion for me.

4. Classical guitar and other

I also studied some classical guitar and balalaika at music school that helped me widen understanding of playing techniques and tone producing. Despite the fact they are very different from kantele or gusli, it's still possible to use, for example, certain guitar techniques when playing both instruments.

How to master kantele for a professional musician

The purpose of this article is to answer the question what kind of process would be optimal one for a professional or a hobby musician with a long experience of playing to learn the basics of kantele playing and master this instrument? After 3,5 years at Sibelius Academy spent on learning to play kantele, incorporating all my previous instrumental experiences into the process and turning them into benefits that help me understand even more I would like to share some of my thoughts with you. I believe out there can be rather many musicians who are enchanted by the sound of kantele and would love to widen their musical knowledge by learning how to play this interesting instrument. It's never too late to start playing, no matter what background you have, it can only become a benefit for you!

Becoming a kantele player from piano background

It's a well known fact that those who come from piano background can easily pick up basics of harp technique. Piano skills can be very helpful when mastering other instruments as well since it has the most visual "interface". I can now truly say that in my case my long experience as a pianist helped me immensely in kantele playing. There IS really a lot in common between these 2 instruments. Here are the main points that I'd like to mention:

  1. Sitting position
  2. Posture of the hands, relaxed and curved fingers - imagine the feeling when you walk and hands freely hang.
  3. Equal functions of the both hands, unlike, for example, the guitar where the left hand is used to stop strings on frets and the right one plucks the strings. 
  4. Same role of the hands - right hand plays upper register/melody and left picks up bass and chords/accompaniment
  5. Playing with the weight of the arm vs pure finger technique (that of course is needed too), freedom of the whole arm, "air" between the arm and body enabling to use larger scale of movements. 
  6. Strings on kantele can be thought as white keys on the piano, while levers are the black ones. 
  7. The 5th finger shouldn't separate from the rest of the fingers, rise or curve too much. It should be as relaxed as other fingers (even though it's not widely used in kantele playing)
  8. Same principle of scale/arpeggio playing when the thumb plucks the lowest note (unlike harp where it will play the highest)

What are the main differences between kantele and piano playing aspects

  1. Touching the string vs. pressing the key. In the beginning the biggest challenge for a pianist will be to get used to this totally new sensation of producing the tone. String is extremely sensitive so different touch, attack and attitude are needed. It will take time and patience to develop it.
  2. Damping. Kantele has incredible sustaining power so damping is one of the most important techniques to learn. It can be finger, lower arm, palm side damping depending on music as well as using the damper that cuts entirely all the resonating strings. 
  3. Movement of the hands while playing in up/down direction on kantele vs. right/left on piano.
  4. Use of 4 fingers (5th finger is rarely used)

 

Transition between piano and kantele. Advice and tips.

Since I'd like to encourage you to start playing kantele (and your previous musical background can be of a big benefit) I'll write here some of my thoughts that can be helpful in the beginning.
  1. Think of your background as an advantage - that will keep you motivated.
  2. Be patient. It will take rather much time to really master a new instrument. 
  3. Get yourself familiar with the strings. All the Cs are marked with red color, Gs with black so it won't be difficult to orientate after a while.
  4. Get used to touch the string. The main technique is plucking against the lower string (compare apoyando or rest stroke on classical guitar) where after plucking comes instant relaxation. Thumb however mainly plucks up. 
  5. Analyze what aspects are similar and what physical movements are kantele specific and work on developing those. 
  6. Don't start playing lots of repertoire straight away, better concentrate on a couple of pieces. 
  7. Play scales, arpeggios and chords. 
  8. Work carefully on damping techniques.
  9. Focus on the differences rather than similarities. Remind yourself that you play kantele, otherwise you might start playing it like piano. 
  10. Listen to the best recordings and go to see concerts if available. Listening and watching are the best ways to get familiar with the instrument.
After half a year I already felt quite comfortable with kantele, even though my playing had a lot of "piano flavour" in it. In spring 2011 I had my first kantele recording where I played music by Bach as well as Finnish composers Jukka Linkola and Heikki Valpola, and my own composition "City morning." The CD also features music by two other impressive kantele musicians Ritva Koistinen and Anttu Koistinen.

Importance of a high quality instrument

Availability of a good quality instrument is a very important issue, especially for the beginners. People often think that they can start with a second-rate instrument since they don't anyway know yet how to play it properly. This opinion, however, can later lead to the loss of self-esteem or even a thought of quitting your musical activity simply because the instrument is unable to fulfil your expectations. Good quality instruments are always easier to play than low quality ones.
I've been playing instruments made by Koistinen Kantele from the very beginning, both acoustic and electric models. The reason why I do that is in unique sound of kantele that is so well preserved in Koistinen kanteles, not to mention its outstanding outlook. Each instrument is unique and beautifully handcrafted and made with a respect to the 55 year tradition that is executed in a modern vivid way. These instruments really give you an opportunity to make music on a serious level and express yourself in many different ways.

Becoming a kantele professional

I was also lucky to be able to join the team and take part into the process of developing new instruments as well as to create new pedagogical tutorials for the kantele lovers around the world.
Kantele is a very unique instrument that will bring you lots of joy once you start playing it. I hope this article helps you to begin your exciting journey! If you have some questions don't hesitate to contact me directly at olga.shishkina@koistinenkantele.com

Updates

In future we are planning to start internet-based kantele school at www.koistinenkantele.com that will cover the most important aspects on small and big kantele playing based on Finnish and Russian traditions. Please stay up-to-date to get further information from the website! New videos with my playing will be available very soon as well so make sure you aren't going to miss anything!
Here are some recent videos from 2012 spring just before the graduation. Hope you enjoy.

Experience the Kantele

Philippe Beer-Gabel, 30 years old / Paris

1139_C_fakepath__DUC6952web_jpg

 

plays guitar and sings in General Bye Bye (Paris, France)
http://www.reverbnation.com/generalbyebye

plays kantele and sings Feather Feather (Paris / Usa)
http://soundcloud.com/featherfeather

plays guitar and kantele in Cache Cache (Austin, Texas)
http://soundcloud.com/cachecache

 

Falling in Love with kantele

The kantele sounded so obvious to me the first time I heard it in a compilation CD of Baltic songs. "Pari Intervallo" by Arvo Part was the one track which made me fall in love with the instrument, and I spent a long
time poring through the accompanying leaflet and scouring the internet to find out more about it. Needless to say, doing so was pretty challenging as most of the information I could find was in Finnish, but I finally came across a link to a kantele workshop taking place close to a place called Joensuu, and that was it - I was hooked. The kantele has a very specific frequency in the mid treble range and has a unique sustain. I've always been looking for a sound which resonates for a long time and which can be either harmonious or dissonant at the same time. The kantele offers me endless possibilities in this respect and incarnates exactly what I'm looking for in music.

Timeless beauty of kantele sound

The kantele has something deeply spiritual, something almost religious (even to an atheist like me), and it produces a sound I would describe as timeless. That notion is very important to me in a world where everything moves so fast and in which everything has to be profitable. What I mean by timeless is that the length of the note, whether it is short or long, always provides the same impression. It's almost like flying - or falling in love. Time stops. A song like "Gymnopedie" by Erik Satie is, in my view, pure timeless music as I can imagine that song still being played in 200 years' time, just as it's been played for quite some time already. The music retains the same power over the ages. So does the Kantele. Composing with it, especially these days with the possibility to use overdubbing or re-recording, is almost like painting. The range of sounds produced by the kantele lets you work in layers. The nature of the sounds are very diverse and versatile.

Vision about kantele in my music

In the music of General Bye Bye and my other projects the kantele gives me the possibility to extend the notion of melody, thanks to its richness. To offer new climates. The kantele is often associated with landscapes - and with good reason. It's a very soothing sound that calls for reflexion and inner thoughts. When chords and melody are played in a "condensed way", it gives a magical power to what I'm trying to produce. I'm currently working on new materials based on the 38-string Koistinen concert kantele.
The instrument offers a very good response in most of the guitar amps I've used. A regular Fender Deluxe (also known in Europe as the Fender Hot Rod) provides some good results. Linked with a regular Direct Box (Samson or similar), you can keep the quality of the sound pretty much intact. At worst, there may be a bit too much low medium frequency. This is what I can tell from touring with a 38-string Koistinen concert kantele with a K221 preamp in Europe in September/October 2011. The most important thing is to not have too much level in the monitor in order to avoid feedback. Actually, what seems to work best is to place the monitor on the side, and it also seems best not to increase the gain of the amp too much as it can create a slight crunch which is not really appropriate. The low medium can make the sound very messy. Too much treble or presence can be aggressive too. For those who are interested in having distorsion, I rather recommend some guitar pedals of brands like Electro Harmonix or MTR. The best result so far is using a Fender Acoustasonic SFXII which has 2 speakers, one for the bass and mids and another one for the treble. It sounds perfect and it's possible to play really loud with it without to encounter any sort of feedback.

Becoming a kantele player from guitarist background

I'm initially a guitar player. I'm self-taught and the kantele constitutes a revolution in my world in the sense that I suddenly had a better understanding of the keyboard player of my band ! :-)
I have the understanding of the kantele as being a sort of more "visual" piano, if I may say so. Of course it's something new to me to be able to play chords and melody all at the same time on the same instrument. It's a very enjoyable sensation to be able to play both and the kantele produces an impression of fluidity of the movement and almost has a "logic of its own" that I personally find fascinating. It might sound silly but to me learning to play the kantele is like to learn how to be a wizard. This instrument, and I insist on that point, is like no others in the capacity for "reflexion" that it creates.

Processing... work to do

We often say that it's crucial to have a love for one's instrument in order to progress and reach goals. I never loved any instrument as much as I love the kantele, not even my main instrument which is the electric guitar. I truly enjoy practicing because it's like continuously telling story. The way I proceed is different now and in a paradoxical way. Usually I compose based on a couple of arpeggios on the guitar and on a couple of arrangement ideas. The kantele offers me more logic and at the same time is made for improvisation. All the glissando feels very natural and it's kind of easy to put some emotions and feeling in it. So far I came up with a lot of beginnings of composition and parts simply by having fun with it and letting my mind wander. It's a more obvious process. The notion of improvisation has never been so concrete for me. It's a game. In playing music, let's not forget that there is the word "play". Kantele is fun. The positions, though, are still difficult and the big challenge for me is more to manage to put some energy in the rhythm with the left hand than to be fluid in the melody with the right hand which seemed to be easier for me. Of course, certainly this could be because I'm right handed as well. The body position is essential and every part of it is involved.

From vision to concrete

The breath, the body. I want the kantele to be central in the music. I think that instruments like glockenspiel, synthesizer, accordion, and trumpet are great and compliment well the timber of the kantele, as is the violin which I also tried working with as well. To summarize, I would say that it's a very instinctive instrument even though there are a lot of features to go through. The way to mute the chords, the way to position hands and body. Inclination of the fingers. How to hit the string in order to produce a certain effect. It's also by essence a flat instrument that offers in itself a great vision. Not many hidden parts. The work of the lever is actually really cool and almost entertaining. I had no notion of music theory before and I felt that I had a need to get a slightly better understanding of some basic before confronting myself with the instrument in order to visualize what I'm doing.

Kantele in pop-rock music, some thoughts & vision

The kantele, with its large range of timbres and octaves seems perfect to integrate some more popular music as there's a wide range of possibility in the bass sound, which varies between double bass and the high note of the electric bass, the medium of an acoustic guitar and the treble of a harpsichord and a harp. I like to describe it as five instruments in one! I was surprised how easily the kantele fits with drums without producing much feedback. It can be fussy with an electric guitar around though. The success of an harpist like Joanna Newsom make me think that the kantele will soon be able to integrate the "indie" scene and I truly hope to be able to be one of the initiators of that revolution.

Where does the kantele comes from?

The kantele is the Finnish national instrument. Its sounds truly have some unique Nordic tones. Although the kantele still has a strong image of an traditional instrument, it is in fact a fully usable modern instrument ready to go on stage and in the studio after Koistinen Kantele development. I really feel myself to be something of a pioneer kantele enthusiast because outside Finland it's actually hard to describe the kantele without giving some facts about Finland and telling some stories of Kalevala, as the instrument seems to be bound very tightly to all of that. And I've noticed that only few people know about Finland, as silly as it sounds.

Mysterious beauty from the cold and dark country

Most of the time I feel that it inspires some mystery and the image of the snow and the dark. A lot of people think that it's cold and dark all year long. There's definitely an air of mystique about the country that fits very well with the instrument itself. It's hard not assimilate it with some fairy tales. I think that it's a great opportunity to help people discover the whole country through the instrument. Old traditional instruments tend not to be as popular as modern instruments like guitars and drums. I feel sad about that as what is interesting is to have a wide offer in music. The truth seems to be that we have more and more music but more and more of the same kind of music. The range of possibility which should expand, thanks to the Internet, seems to offer a counter effect. The market is very regulated.

Many different types of Kantele

Kantele has different forms. I started more or less for 3 years ago with a 16 strings kantele, which was a cheaper version of a modern Koistinen W15 kantele. Soon I felt that it wasn't for me as I felt limited mainly because the system of switches didn't let me use it properly both live and in the studio. So here I am now working hard with a Koistinen Concert 38 with a very good KK-221 pick up system. And now it works much better! It stays in tune and I didn't encounter problems with the lever system.

Updates

I hope soon there will be already some new stuff and if you find this interesting please follow my process here. Hope I can encourage you also to take an interesting trip with kantele.

 

Introduction: Yuko Fukuhara

Yuko Fukuhara is a great harpist from Japan who mastered kantele in a short period of time. She wants to share her unique experience with us to tell about the similarities & differences between harp and kantele, and how effortless it is to learn to play kantele for a harpist. 

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I got to know fantastic sound of Kantele at Finnish

cultural event

In May 2010 I went to an Art gallery in Nagano prefecture in Japan.
There was an exhibition about the culture of Finland and a kantele concert at the gallery. Finland is one of my favorite countries so the concert was a wonderful event for me to see.



Falling in love with Concert Kantele


It was a kantele ensemble concert where the musicians played both 15-string and concert kanteles. That was the first time in my life that I heard kantele - I had never heard such brilliant and clear mysterious sound before. I felt very strange sensation from its fantastic and delicate tone. "I want to play the concert kantele", I thought at that moment. I was fascinated by the concert kantele and, since my main instrument was the harp, I saw a lot in common between these two instruments.

Kantele has a unique sound and a character


Kantele sound has a long reverb and resonance which is one of the unique features and beautiful appeals of this instrument. The sound is created by the marvelous balance between the steel strings and the body structure making the instrument simply incomparable to others.
You can also "bend" the sound by using the semi-tone lever to change the tone of the long reverb sound (think of bending technique on electric guitars)
. On the other hand, it is very important to practice the damping technique in order to mute the unnecessary reverb. On harp it is notated Etouffe [damp] but it isn't used as frequently as on the kantele.



Comparing sound of Concert Harp and Concert Kantele 


There are various types of the harp and each has its own unique history. 
I play the pedal harp which is used in orchestras because of its loud sound so we can play it without microphones even in big concert halls. 
The kantele sound is very delicate and "small" because originally it was a folk music instrument which people used to play and listen in small rooms. It sounds really unique and clear.
 In these days, the kantele is constantly developing as there are now semi-acoustic and electric kanteles too. This progress opens many new opportunities for kantele such as playing in an ensemble with other instruments and performing also contemporary music.



Concert Kantele levers and Grand Harp pedals - much in common


Harp semi-tone pedals and kantele semi-tone levers have exactly the same function. As well as the pedals on the harp, levers of the kantele make it possible to switch each tone into sharp and flat. That's why it is not difficult for the harpists to understand how the kantele levers work.
 


Kantele levers are operated by hands


While the harp semi-tone pedals are switched by feet, the kantele levers are operated by hands. The difference between switching technique on concert kantele and grand harp is that while on the kantele one hand is involved in switching semi-tone levers it is impossible at the same time to pluck the strings. In the meantime, on the grand harp both hands are free since the pedals are operated by feet.




 

Harp&Kantele

Comparing the order of the levers and pedals on Kantele

And harp 

Another good thing to know is the layout of the kantele levers which is CDEFGAH in a straight line, while the harp has DCH pedals on the left side of the instrument and EFGA on the right side where players cannot see them while playing. It is very difficult to remember all the pedals' positions, especially for the beginners.



It's good to plan the lever switches on Concert kantele


One important technique to use kantele levers is that you have to be very careful with timing of switching. When switching a lever either left or right hand is unable to pluck the strings so one must know in advance when is the best moment for switching, same way as all the harpists do. Sometimes you have to arrange the original music in order to be able to play it on the harp or the kantele. Because of the switching feature, playing melodies with a lot of accidentals is quite demanding for both harpists and kantelists. In addition to that, the harp is quite a big instrument so you have to use all the physical power of your body in order to play it. With kantele the physical strength is less needed. 



Different color marks on Harp and Kantele


Harp and kantele strings are marked with red and black. 
On the kantele the red is C and the black G, while the red stands for C and the black for F on harp. This can be quite confusing when you just start playing the kantele. However, Koistinen Kantele promised to make special marks for the harp players when asked.



Playing posture differs on Concert Kantele and Concert Harp


The kantele player's sitting position and the posture is quite different from the one of the harpist. Since Kantele strings are placed parallel to the body, you look down the strings when playing. In this case it's possible to release both arm and fingers power when you pluck the strings. The harp strings, on the other hand, are situated perpendicularly to the body and that's why the direction of the hands movements is opposite in comparison with the kantele. What is common between the two instruments is the essential idea to balance tension and relaxation. For that you need to learn how much strength to apply when plucking the strings and when to release and relax fingers, hands, wrists, elbows and shoulders.



Music for kantele


If centuries ago the kantele was purely a folk instrument, now it has spread to various musical styles with amazing modern flexibility. Apart from Finnish contemporary and folk music it is now also included into visual art, pop and jazz. Besides, many harp pieces are also suitable to play on the kantele. Sometimes it's needed to arrange the original music in order to play them on the kantele, but arranging is not a difficult work for the harpists.



Kantele is much easier to transport than the Grand Harp


Currently Koistinen kantele cases are equipped with wheels so you can easily carry these heavy instruments on your own. In the meantime, one always needs a car to transport the harp which is not an easy job, especially for a woman. Recently Koistinen have also developed gig bags which make carrying the kantele even easier.



Kantele opens the door to a new stage for a harpist


As I mentioned above, the kantele is a very attractive instrument with clear and delicate sound. If you want to discover something really new I highly recommend the kantele because of its very distinctive sound. Nowadays it's possible to find concert kanteles with 38 or 39 strings which are of a very high quality. I have Koistinen Concert 39 which is a professional instrument with brilliant acoustic sound. Since the electric kantele had its debut on the music scene, the kantele has evolved into the multifaceted instrument suitable for various genres of music.



Could kantele be a suitable instrument for you?


Maybe you would like to start playing the kantele too? I can warmly recommend it as a harpist. I hope my article will give some useful advice for you.



Yuko Fukuda
English translation: Hiromi Hokkanen

Editing in English: Olga Shishkina