I was told it was very unlikely I would get a Fulbright grant application sent in on time with only three weeks until the deadline. But I finally had my project figured out after brainstorming since I completed my undergrad degree 5 years ago, and I like challenges. I would merge my interest in education, specifically string pedagogy, and Nordic folk music, and compile a resource so American string educators and students could learn about this incredible music tradition more easily and accurately. I submitted my application with one day to spare in October 2019, and waited. 

As we know, then the pandemic hit in March 2020. My grant was postponed until January 2021, then deferred until August 2021 so I could align with the academic school year at Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, Finland. I finally arrived in Finland in August 2021 after much waiting and anticipation, and in reality had no idea what to expect.

Alyssa with luggage at the airport, just arrived in Finland. She is wearing a mask, but looks happy behind it.
The day Alyssa arrived in Finland, taken by her Fulbright Buddy Lilli-Lindblom.

It took a lot of courage to apply for my grant At-Large. It makes me feel like a villain to use that phrase, but it’s the phrase for applying for the grant without an affiliated host university in the U.S.

I am completing research for me, not for a thesis or degree. I have a mission to spread the beauty and accessibility of Nordic folk music and explore ways of teaching traditional music that don’t make it into a fossilized museum piece. I admired how Sibelius Academy believes in a living folk tradition, and incorporates free improvisation and avant-garde concepts like movement and visual art into its music program. It’s a place for free thinkers. I also severely underestimated how much Finnish I would need to know to study in the folk music department, since many classes are taught in Finnish. It’s been a trial by fire, and I feel as though I’ve been tested and forged into new gold. 

New perspectives on nyckelharpa

My project started out pretty broad. I was very optimistic and a bit naïve. I thought I could take Nordic Folk Masters classes and study many Nordic folk music traditions all at Sibelius, but it turns out that degree track studies at 4 different Nordic universities, and I am just based in Finland for my project. But I discovered several very interesting new ways of experiencing and creating folk music I wouldn’t have discovered had I not chosen Sibelius Academy in Finland. These pandemic years for me have always given me blessings in disguise. 

I have had the pleasure of studying the nyckelharpa with a Finnish nyckelharpa master teacher, and gotten a new perspective on this instrument that has mainly developed in Sweden and is Sweden’s national instrument. I have learned about a whole new tradition of music that is often overlooked in the United States and have discovered many new instruments and perspectives. I am really interested in how much improvisation and personal artistic style is important in the music culture here. There are no grades in the folk music department, so students can focus on self-expression and get really, really creative. I’ve seen some of the most fantastic student degree recitals I’ve ever experienced. 

Life and career changing experience

My Fulbright experience has challenged me more than any life experience I’ve ever had, but it also exposed me to new music, people, and concepts that have been life and career changing. I’ve been given a chance to pursue my dream of studying folk music at the university level, something that’s not available, especially in Nordic music, in the United States.

"I’ve never felt more inspired and like I’m exactly where I’m meant to be than this spring 2022."

I’ve had a chance to grow as a musical artist and as a person. I’ve made new friends and started musical collaborations with people I would never have had the chance to with, including my talented Estonian friend Maimu Jõgeda. It’s incredible to play music with another female composer versed in Nordic folk music. I’ve never felt more inspired and like I’m exactly where I’m meant to be than this spring 2022. 

Alyssa Rodriguez with her friend Maimu at a Shrovetide gathering at Seurasaari during sunny winter day.
Alyssa (on the right) and her friend Maimu at a Shrovetide gathering at Seurasaari, March 2022.

One of my favorite parts of living in Finland has been the sense of community and trust. There is a sense of citizenship and goodwill. People return items that are lost to their rightful owners in any way possible. It’s really a blessing to be able to count on your neighbors, and I am very grateful for the experience the Fulbright Finland Foundation has provided me. 

Headshot of Alyssa Rodriguez with her nyckelharpa
Alyssa Rodriguez
2021-22 U.S. Fulbright Fellow, University of the Arts, Helsinki, Sibelius Academy

Alyssa Rodriguez is a Rochester, New York based folk musician who is researching Nordic folk music and its applications to string pedagogy at Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, Finland. She holds a Bachelor of Music degree in music composition from Ithaca College, and plays violin, mountain dulcimer, and nyckelharpa. 

Blog: https://questfortheharpa.blogspot.com
Website: https://alyssafiddle.com/