Lighting a Candle at Finland's Top Musical Academy

One young Finnish woman wants artists to know Jesus and discover hope.

By Jennifer Grant   |  05 . November . 2008
pauliina-polonen-tm-465x280.jpg At Sibelius Academy, Finland's top music school, Pauliina looks for ways to influence the other top-notch musicians for Christ. Photo by Tom Mills

The young Pauliina Pölönen was at a crossroads.

The cello player had already auditioned 3 different times for one of the coveted spots at Sibelius Academy, Finland's top music school, and had failed every time.

Although it required significant effort to audition, and she felt pressure each time from her parents and teachers, Pauliina sensed at age 19 that God was prompting her to try out again.

So the Finnish woman, who began playing the cello on her 6th birthday, auditioned once more at the Academy (comparable to The Juilliard School in the United States), but this time she no longer felt pressure.

"I was there because God wanted me there and no one else," she says.

Playing for Jesus Instead of 7 Judges

While in the try-out room, she even pictured being in there alone with Jesus instead of the 7 intimidating judges. Afterward, her own cello teacher told her she had played her best ever.

The morning of the results, she woke up to her phone ringing. When she answered, her friend shouted, "You got in! You got in!"

Through the auditioning experience, Pauliina learned a lesson that would carry over into all parts of her life: she performs for an audience of One, living only for God.

The lesson would become especially important at the Academy as Pauliina began looking for ways to influence the other top-notch musicians for Christ.

The Loneliness of Musicians

"Music students tend to be so lonely and live through their instrument," says Pauliina. She knows, because she used to exist like that and became depressed.

But at age 14 or 15, Pauliina got to know Christ on a deeper level through the influence of a group of Christians who perform plays based on Bible stories.

Because of their words and example, Pauliina began reading her Bible regularly and seeking the Lord in prayer and taking small steps of faith.

"I'm saved to a healthier life that's more balanced socially, and in all other aspects as well," the now-22-year-old says. "Because the center of my world is not music, it's Jesus Christ, and music is in the position it is supposed to be."

The Challenge to Break Through at Sibelius Academy

She wanted to help her musical classmates understand this lesson, but she found the focused, secluded environment, where students practice their instruments 4 to 5 hours a day, a challenge.

She wasn't the first.

Decades ago, staff members with Campus Crusade for Christ had tried to bring Crescendo, a unique branch of the ministry, to the prestigious school, and they had failed.

The ministry, aiming to help professional musicians and music students to know God personally, had flourished in other parts of Europe, but it never got off the ground at the Academy.

Then, after attending a Crescendo conference in Estonia with some of her friends, Pauliina decided to try again to start a Crescendo ministry in Finland.

She had learned that one failure wasn't always the end, and she sensed that God once again wanted her to take a step of faith for Him.

They began by praying for God to revive their campus of approximately 1,700 students, and she started hosting events to draw musicians to find out more about the Lord.

An Answer to a Prayer of 5 Years

During her first year at Sibelius Academy, on a typically cold Finnish day, Pauliina was eating lunch with a friend in one of the many small cafeterias.

A mild-mannered brunette walked up to her and admired the cross necklace that she wears daily.

Right away, Pauliina recognized the brunette as Saana, the violinist she had met when the two were in a summer music program together 5 years ago, shortly after she began following Christ.

Back then, Pauliina added Saana's name to her list of people to pray for, and had been praying for her consistently although they had not seen each other during that time.

So when they met on campus Pauliina knew that this moment was divine, and she invited Saana to Crescendo.

Many Finns Acknowledge God but Not Much More

Like most Finns, Saana believed in God, but she wasn't sure about much beyond that. Saana had been seeking out spiritual truth, asking others about God, Christ and theology, and still wanted to know more.

She came to some Crescendo events, and she and Pauliina became friends. Saana noticed Pauliina prayed a lot and often spoke about answers to prayer.

"I love to hear when Pauliina prays," says Saana. So one day, she sent her bubbly friend a text message to her cell phone: "What is prayer? What do you think about it?" she asked.

Pauliina used 5 text messages to fully respond. Her last line read, "Is there something you'd like to pray about?"


Another Answer to Prayer: The Baroque Violin

Saana replied that she was disappointed because she hadn't had many opportunities to play her second instrument, the baroque violin, which was her favorite, and she thought maybe praying would help.

The two prayed together over the phone.

At 8:50 the next morning, a man called Saana and asked if she'd want to play in a small ensemble -- with her baroque violin.

She immediately text-messaged Pauliina with her great news.

"It's so obvious to me, looking back at the last 2 years, my faith has been growing much faster," says Saana, who now participates in Crescendo.

Pauliina delighted in the noticeable changes in Saana, and in an effort to help more of her peers find out about God, Pauliina organized a special Crescendo event in a freshman residence hall to attract young musicians.

"I hope to connect with people and get to know them," she said before it started. She predicted that at least 8 music students would come, and hoped for 20.

Before 7 p.m., a few friends involved in Crescendo came to help Pauliina set up. Students whom they recognized -- and often knew -- from music classes together began trickling in, including Markus Kaarto, who helped her start Crescendo in Finland.

"It's Pauliina's enthusiam and heart for God that I believe is one of the driving forces here," says Markus. "She has wild enthusiasm and a bubbly personality, and I love it! It's so non-Finnish," he jokes.
The evening began with food as Pauliina welcomed the guests.

Choosing a Language for the Diverse Event

Because the Academy is renowned all over Europe and the world for its music, students are diverse. Tonight, at least 4 countries are represented.

"How many of you don't understand Finnish?" asks Pauliina in English, most people's second language.

Five people raise their hands.

"How many of you don't understand English?" she asks.

One jokingly raises his hand. The group laughs. On the spot, she decides to hold the event in English.

After the students mingle and snack, she explains a little about Crescendo.

As the night goes on, more than 25 music students explore Crescendo. Saana showed up too and chatted with the students she plays music with in the daytime.

"Why are you doing this?" a young woman asks Pauliina while grabbing snacks from the table of food.

"Because we're Christians and we want to serve musicians," the dyed-redhead replies.

Numerous students asked her the same question throughout the night. She always gave the same answer.

At around 9:30 p.m., while it was still light outside -- Finland is as far north as Alaska -- Pauliina spontaneously told her own story of how she developed a relationship with God, and also about how she tried and failed multiple times to get into the Academy.

Afterward, she passed out songbooks and the group began to sing hymns.

A young man with dreadlocks walked to the piano and played. Although known for their instrumental talent, the students sounded like a professional choir.

Lighting a Candle

It started to get dark, and the lights inside officially went off at 10 p.m., so they lit candles that Pauliina had brought and continued singing.

"I think she's really brave doing the meeting she did," says French student Remi Moingeon. "It's good to know people that you can have a relationship with. In the musical field, it is hard to talk with people."

She always looks for ways to connect people with God. He's her Number One.

Pauliina believes He placed her at the Academy after so many failures so she would live in order to only bring Him glory and influence others for Him.