A Singer’s Guide to Somnium

29.08.2018 Somnium Ensemble Kuorolaiset

In our dreams, we are only with ourselves. But often it seems that at precisely this moment, we feel even more intensely connected to the world around us than during the hours we are wide awake. This is basically how I felt during my year in Somnium Ensemble.

My Name is Jonathan and for the Academic Year 2017–2018 I studied as an exchange student at the Sibelius Academy in the department of Music Education. I will tell you now what might be expecting you if you want to join Somnium Ensemble.

The knowledge of the general situation in Helsinki made it clear for me that if I wanted to keep on singing on an advanced level, I could not find that within the Academy except for the training ensemble ”Vokis”. I asked the professor of choral conducting at the Academy, Nils Schweckendiek, if there were any choirs led by some of his pupils in order to make it easier for me to approach these people and hopefully to meet folks of my own age. Among his suggestions, ”Somnium Ensemble” was first in line to meet all these expectations, and so I mailed Tatu if it was possible to join the choir for the time of my exchange.

It soon became interesting for me how this choir worked as a group and how they would integrate me as a complete foreigner, not only to their specific habits, but mainly and very importantly to their language. But I will talk about that later.


First of all I must confess that even after almost a year, or rather until we went to France being the culminating climax of my time with Somnium Ensemble, I wasn’t sure about all the names of my choir colleagues, in particular in the female sections. This was because of some more or less understandable reasons: I learned during the Finnish course I took at the University that Finns are rather avoiding to call each other by their names unless it is very, very urgent or important to get someone’s attention. I was able to gather evidence for this hypothesis in real life with only a few and statistically irrelevant exceptions. These happened in a context of such a profound understanding of each other that minimized the urgency and importance of using names.

My point of view might be entirely biased because even at the end I could hardly follow any of the direct advice of the conductor, because Finnish was used. The basic vocabulary, namely numbers, the names of voice groups, basic formal positions and elementary descriptions like matala, korkea, kova, pehmeä etc. you will understand quite fast. But as I know from my own choir conducting experience, once you are in front of this horde of people, you slip immediately into a kind of more indirect, sophisticated mode of speech that really makes it a challenge to get an idea what the point is. This language barrier might have contributed to the fact that I simply didn’t understand when somebody was mentioned in specific.


In a way, when you sing in Somnium Ensemble, you feel like being part of a huge, repertoire devouring singing machine. The output in terms of concerts is immense, each time consisting of a full-length concert program of, at least for me, completely new pieces.

You could say that in Sominum rehearsals are just the necessary preliminaries to a concert. Not that they were boring – even as an experienced singer you have to keep your concentration high up, because it could happen that you have just missed the essential point in a piece and there are only… OK, there is no rehearsal left until we are performing it!

This is among the corner stones of Sominum Ensemble: Go for the concert! Or how it is said as an exclamation: “hoidetaan!” As far as I understand it, the verb hoitaa does not only mean to care for someone or something or to fix something, but in a larger perspective to just do something at your best with a positive recklessness towards the means you use to achieve the goal of an artistically convincing performance. I must say, the hoidetaan mentality is one of the things that makes the difference between my former life as a singer and now, when I have performed so much music with Somnium. It also means that there is a certain liberty for the singers as long as you “hoitaa” in concerts and that your choir mates can totally rely on you to give your best at any point there. So to say, Somnium only works under full steam in concerts, but this momentum is impressive.

And if I am allowed to continue with this image of a machine, the concert is the point, where Somnium reaches zero gravity. To be able to perform pieces like Friede auf Erden by A. Schönberg or some tricky parts from Poulenc’s major choral oeuvre like the Mass in G major, the rehearsing is no fun at all. But having rehearsed those ingenious and divinely crafted pieces for hours in our much less lovely rehearsal space and finally presenting them on stage is like being suddenly airborne. Even though it seems to be a public sport to criticize yourself in Finland after performances, I could never join in because the last hour seemed like a blur of trying as best as I could, so I could hardly apply any rational criticism at it.

I know few choirs where the concerts and the afterparties play such a crucial role for the personality of the choir and its mindset. Certainly, everyone is free to join these activities on their own behalf, but for me they were great opportunities to “live among Finns” and to get a glimpse of how celebrations in Finland are held.

Naturally, these observations stem from the origin of Somnium and the working methods that have established over the years. Because of this long period of almost the same people singing together for such a major part of their leisure time, the work flow within the choir is almost imperceptible and runs so smoothly that short-time members like me almost feel embarrassed that almost nothing in terms of concert advertising, social media activities, or event organisation require tiring discussions or desperate calls for helping hands.


Before I can close this post on my personal experience in Somnium Ensemble I need to examine one more topic that might have been the most crucial of what happened to me during the time I spent in Helsinki and with Somnium. This is also the most difficult to describe. It is about how I was integrated in this choir. One could ask why it is so important to me. We were all capable of talking and making agreements in a language that is understandable for everyone. So how could there be any difficulty in integrating somebody, even from a different country?

The rumours that Finns are rather introvert and shy when it comes to making an attempt to get to know you when you are entering their natural habitat are true as far as I have experienced it in Somnium. To put it differently: During the first rehearsals I participated in, at a point where I didnt yet know anybody personally, I wasnt cross-questioned about myself and introduced to everybody.

But the striking thing was that I was just accepted as a natural member of Somnium without these procedures of getting to know every singer one-by-one. It took quite a while until I had figured out which name belonged to whom and how to memorize people by some specific attributes and something I knew about them. It was singing, listening first and then singing along, that helped me to fully integrate into that group of fantastically singing Finns better than any talking in whatever language could have done.

So after a handful of concerts and some guesswork about the meaning of certain situations, you will surely manage as well and the reward is being part of an awesome, definitely very Finnish, and truly unique choir. Just remember: Hoidetaan!

Jonathan Brune