From Iceland — Current Kids, Future Musicians – The Upbeat’s role in fostering children’s creativity

Current Kids, Future Musicians – The Upbeat’s role in fostering children’s creativity

Published April 25, 2023

Current Kids, Future Musicians – The Upbeat’s role in fostering children’s creativity
Photo by
Anna Fjóla Gísladóttir

Near Reykjavík harbour stands Harpa, the crown jewel of Icelandic culture and music. Concerts, conferences, parties – you name it, Harpa does it all. It’s a grand concert hall, home of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, the Icelandic Opera and various other musical endeavours, including the children’s creative prize Upptakturinn, or The Upbeat. 

Every year, in celebration of the Children’s Culture Festival of Reykjavík, about a dozen kids premiere a musical composition within Harpa’s opulent walls. Although, if you were to stumble into the concert without any prior knowledge of the festival, you’d probably think the pieces were composed by full-fledged, tax-paying adults. 

Kids in grades five through 10 are encouraged to apply with their own musical ideas. If shortlisted, they compose their piece in collaboration with professional musicians, who help polish and refine their work. Students from the Icelandic University of Arts (LHÍ) ultimately perform the pieces with an assist from some of the country’s most famous performing artists – think Bríet, GDRN or Jónas Sig. 

Bending the rules

As project manager of the Upbeat, Elfa Lilja Gísladóttir has worked diligently, developing the project since its inception in 2012. Upon meeting at her office, Elfa was preparing an evening of activities with this year’s young participants, which include a photo shoot. “You’re more than welcome to come,” she told me. I was grateful for the offer, but our in-house photographer was busy and I couldn’t operate a camera to save my life. 

“No child knocks at Harpa and asks, ‘Are you going to perform my music?’”

The Upbeat was originally the brainchild of opera director Steinunn Birna Ragnarsdóttir, who saw an opportunity to diversify the music landscape through encouraging collaboration between Harpa,  Reykjavík Music City, RÚV and the LHÍ. “I want to emphasise that it’s important to maintain this collaboration, not to be an island, because the more professionals that participate, the stronger and deeper roots these pieces acquire.”

In addition to this collaboration, the Upbeat also cooperates with cultural institutions in other parts of the country. “The northeastern region has their own Upbeat in Akureyri. The east region does activity programmes in the fall, which we then select one from to produce in the Reykjavík Upbeat. We’ve also had kids from the west, which is not an official partner. But Harpa is the cultural centre of all the country’s kids, so we’ve decided to not be fixed on the rules. [We] bend the rules so the child enjoys the benefit of the doubt. The other stuff is just formalities that the grown-ups need to figure out.” 

A child all grown up

Through the ongoing development of the project, the Upbeat has experienced a transformation of its status in the Icelandic music scene. “We started this project with very limited funds and by volunteering a lot of our time,” Elfa explains. “We decided very early to try something new each time, so little by little, the Upbeat has grown. We’ve stopped being the youngest child and have started directly affecting the Icelandic music scene.” 

“These kids have this amazing experience and many of them continue to do great things in the music industry,” Elfa says, emphasising the scope of the project’s supporters. “All of our collaborators are tremendously important, and Harpa manages the group beautifully. We’ve also enjoyed never-ending support from musicians.” 

Talking about the futures of the Upbeat’s participants, Elfa mentions that many of the past participants are now grown up and continue to help the project, either as performers, composers, or instrumentalists. “I call them our Upbeat kids.” 

Past participants include Guðlaug Sóley Höskuldsdóttir, stage name gugusar, who received the Best Performer of the Year Award at the Icelandic Music Awards last March. “Gugusar wrote one of her first musical works in the Upbeat. So it’s fun to experience this development. When we showed up we were the little kid, but now we have grown up and are following these individuals, proud to have been able to give them the support they needed,” Elfa says. 

The selection committee consists of a panel of renowned musicians Ragnhildur Gísladóttir, Unnsteinn Manuel, Tryggvi M. Baldvinsson, and Ása Dýradóttir. “They bring all their specialities and backgrounds to the table, with endless respect for the kids. That’s what I cherish,” Elfa adds.

Music that provokes

While Harpa seems like an intimidating venue in which to take your first steps in music, Elfa sees it as the kids’ right. “It’s often said that children inherit the land. Of course they will, but 25% of the Icelandic population are children aged 18 years old and below. It’s their right to be able to enjoy culture and arts, just like adults. At the same time, it’s the grown-ups who control this ship. We must be conscious of increasing accessibility for the kids. No child knocks at Harpa and asks, ‘Are you going to perform my music?’ So, with all our wisdom and experience, we need to open those doors and provide children with access.”

“[We] bend the rules so the child enjoys the benefit of the doubt. The other stuff is just formalities that the grown-ups need to figure out.”

Asked about participation, Elfa says that the number of applicants varies between years. This year, approximately 70 children applied. The most it’s seen is 90. “I’m certain that we are reaching the kids that are interested. Some are interested in sports, others in visual arts. Here we are giving a platform to children who are playing and working with music. A lot of them come from school bands and music schools, but we’re also reaching out to kids through afterschool programs and youth centres. We’ve even received applications from people who’ve never touched an instrument in their life. There’s no requirement for musical knowledge. Of course, children who come from a musical background have an edge in terms of tools and resources. But that’s not necessary for success. The committee is looking for something new, something creative. Music that provokes.”

Accessibility and opportunity

Speaking about accessibility, according to figures from Statistics Iceland, approximately 15% of students in Icelandic primary schools are not native Icelandic speakers. Going into the interview, I wanted to know more about what is done to encourage the participation of those children. “It’s something that we are aware of. Just today, I was figuring out how to arrange communications with a child’s family that speaks neither Icelandic nor English. It involves a great deal of cooperation between different parties. Children come in on their own terms, but it’s also imperative for teachers, after-school workers, music teachers and family members to participate in this journey with the child. We’ve had many children from an international background participate before, which is just fantastic.” 

Elfa reiterates that the whole selection process is anonymous, and judges select participants based on their musical and creative talents, as opposed to potential biassing factors. 

As a testament to the Upbeat’s success, right after our interview, Elfa was preparing to meet with the consul of Hong Kong. “We won the international YAM (Young Audiences Music) Awards last year. Subsequently, compositions from four Upbeat participants were chosen to be performed by the City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong,” she proudly told me as she opened up the orchestra’s webpage. “This is how the Upbeat projects are able to have a future of their own.”

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