Category Archives: Austria

Down Time

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I had the morning off a couple of days ago, so I went on another good hike on the mountain. This time instead of going straight up I went up and then over for a mile or so around the valley. The weather has been amazing here–mid seventies or lower during the day. It’s much easier to want to go out and walk around when it’s not a million degrees in the summer.

At the top of the ridge opposite our Schloss is an adorable Gasthaus, and a playground, which I will have to visit for beer and food some afternoon before we leave and take pictures… I wandered around on trails for about an hour and a half, then took a different route back across and down to the Schloss. On the way, I passed these statues by the path.

I also got a good picture of the Schloss on my way back to my room:

I spent an evening in Graz with some buddies from the program. We had a great Italian dinner (Austrian food is delicious, but we are ready for some variety), and walked around the city for awhile. We eventually found a live broadcast of The Bartered Bride happening in one of the courtyards off of the main drag. Despite the cold night, the rows and rows of chairs they had set up were totally full, and there were lots of Grazers standing against the walls to watch. It was a very European experience.

We didn’t stay long–we were pretty wiped out, and would have had to stand the whole time. We took a cab home again–this time with 5 of us crammed into a BMW being driven by a guy who puts Jo’s driving to shame. I was in the front seat, so I had an unobstructed view of my life flashing before my eyes. He was friendly, though, and we had a miraculously low fare thanks to his speeding.

The following night we had planned to return to the Gasthaus on top of the mountain for dinner. We hiked to the top…but were disappointed to find that their kitchen had closed. So we headed right back down, past the Schloss to a little place that we had visited before. It was a pretty walk, at least, with the sun setting behind us and some truly spectacular clouds.

As we walked, we passed a group of burly looking guys, who were all talking animatedly amongst themselves. It took both groups a minute to realize that we were all speaking English. 🙂 They were from Canada, and looked like Hockey players, though that might be a gross generalization. In all fairness, they were wearing Hockey jerseys… We ordered dinner in our usual halting, awkward way, guessing a lot at what food each 27 letter word on the menu might refer to. We thought we’d done pretty well, and apparently we did even better than we thought. When our food arrived we had seemingly ordered half the menu. After our extra-long trip to dinner, we were grateful for a good meal. We had a great evening of food and fellowship. 🙂

Yes, we did somehow order 4 sides of fries. Oops.

Lauren and Valerie listening intently to one of Doug's stories.

Jo is deep in thought. Or a food coma. Hard to tell.

Doug himself didn’t photograph well (he moves around too much and turned out blurry every single picture), so he is absent from this photo grouping. Happy Fourth of July to everyone back home!

A perfect bird's nest that I found on the ground next to the Schloss on my way back from breakfast yesterday morning. Gorgeous little thing. I put it back in the tree.

Eureka!

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I found my voice today. Just for a brief moment, and then it was gone, but I FOUND it–That elusive perfect spot where placement, air and aperture all line up and turn into something magical. I have never sung like that before, and I am HOOKED.

I have always struggled with jaw/tongue tension and a curious combination of physical habits that cause me to under-energize and over-control muscularly. I sing coloratura passages pretty well, but have apparently been achieving that accuracy with muscle alone, which is on the one hand kind of amazing and on the other totally awful. Just like the fact that I can make an “O” sound, while my mouth shape is more like “unnngguhhh.” That probably should not happen, yes? My passaggio (the place in my voice where I change from my middle range to my higher range, for non-singery types) has been a source of endless frustration. I am 29, have been studying voice since 2001, and often still can’t sing evenly across my passaggio. BAH.

And this whole time I’ve been thinking forward with my resonance. Into the mask, right? High and round and into the mask, like every teacher I’ve ever had EVER has said. And my body has reacted this way (here represented in the style of Allie from Hyperbole and a Half):

Do you guys know how big your tongue is?  Seriously, y’all, that sucker is HUGE. Look at this:

That’s one big giant muscular thing that sits right there in your mouth and gets in the way of everything. Curse you, tongue tension!

Anywho, back to my breakthrough. Tracy’s been trying to get me to create more space and release my tongue since I got here (as has every teacher before her). I’ve finally started to figure out what that acutally MEANS in my mouth. I have a really small mouth (as evident by my sad crooked teeth) and the whole tongue against the bottom teeth thing really doesn’t work for me–if it’s that for forward, it means that my tongue is, in fact, arched up in the back of my mouth. I have to rest it ON my bottom teeth and against my bottom lip. This feels strange, but works much better.

In addition to this, we’ve also been trying to find a higher resonance center for my voice. I feel like I’m sort of hitting my head on a ceiling when I sing a note, rather than having a big vaulted space and coming down to the note. Well, this has mostly been translated as “creating space”–or releasing my tongue forward and expanding my pharynx and soft palette. It’s like creating a big diagonal space from my jaw back to my ears. This has given me some success, but still hasn’t ever really hooked in–until Tracy suggested that instead of forward, that I instead try once to send my sound out the back of my head. Sounds bizarre, right? You’d think it would result in a throaty, covered sound?

Nope. The space behind my teeth just opens up like a gothic cathedral, my tone suddenly evens out through all ranges, my tongue stops fighting me… It’s like magic, people. It felt like I was throwing the sound backward, like I was singing to someone standing right behind me. But it didn’t lose forward resonance, it just…shifted. The air moved smoothly and for the first time EVER, singing was truly easy. The kind of easy that makes me think “This is ALL? This is ALL I HAVE TO DO??” It’s incredible. And sorta scary. And awesome. And I can’t wait to be able to make it happen all the time.

Of course, today my tongue is responding to its sudden unemployment from the position of Vocal Controller by staging a sit in and refusing to relax even just the tiniest bit. I actually had tongue cramps. What a jerk. I’ll have to do some negotiating with it and see if we can come to a mutually beneficial understanding. As Myron said today: vocal issues are like horror movies: you have to kill the monster at least three times before it stays dead. And if it’s a successful franchise, like Freddy Krueger, or that guy from the Halloween movies, it’s more like 10 or 12 times.


Who wants this scarf?

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As I’ve mentioned on Facebook over the last couple of months, I am raffling off some of my knitted things as a fundraiser for my Austria summer program (where I am right now). This is my first item–which is good, since it seems to be the thing people are most in love with!

Stripey Scarf

This is a 100% Merino scarf, handmade by me, knitted mostly in the Austrian countryside! The colors in the pictures here are pretty accurate. It’s about 6.5 feet long, very soft and cushy …and will be quite warm. If it’s not your style, it would make a great gift! Maybe get some Christmas stuff out of the way early!

So here’s how it’s going to work:
1. I have this scarf.

2. If you want this scarf, send me $$  by PayPal, either directly to nyhev@yahoo.com or through my ChipIn Fundraising site (http://maggieschwenker.chipin.com/lied-austria-summer-music-study).  You can also send me a check–leave a comment with your email address and I’ll send you the information you’ll need.

$5 will buy you one “ticket”–or you can buy five for $20! What a bargain!
I’ll send you a confirmation message once your $$ has been received.

3. When I get home on the 16th of July, I’ll draw a name randomly.

4. One of YOU will have this scarf.

City Singer, Country Singer

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City Singer, Country Singer

Schloss St. Martin is on the outskirts of Graz. We are on the side of a mountain, and though we are not at all far from the city, it is easy for us to feel very much removed from civilization. Yesterday was our first opportunity to explore the city below us, so we all threw on our walking shoes and headed down the hill to catch the bus after lunch.There’s a steep little trail that leads down through the woods from the Schloss. You’re surrounded by trees and slipping down along this damp dirt path–then suddenly you shoot out of the trees and into suburbia. Just about everyone here lives in apartment buildings, since single family homes (even very modest ones) are very expensive. The apartment buildings are often colorful and cozy though, and I imagine they’re quite nice inside.

We caught the bus and rode into the city. The central transportation hub is called Jakominiplatz; this is where all the buses and street cars converge right near the old city center. Wolfgang led us on an enthusiastic little tour of downtown and many things that we simply MUST see before we leave. He and Tracy warned us of a rash of purse-snatchings, gave us some basic directions and set us loose on the city.

This is Graz!

Doug, Joann and I set off wandering the city with few specific goals (a yarn store, a short shopping list and a beer garden). Our first stop was one of our most touristy: this floating cafe in the middle of the river where we stopped and had a mid-afternoon beer. We saw some great stuff, found some interesting stores (including an Austrian version of a  Big Lots where we checked off some of our shopping lists).

City Hall--Rebuilt in the 1800's, and includes architechtural details from several previous styles all smashed onto one big building.

We saw our first ever Smart Car Sport Coupe…which was actually a pretty cute car. We were impressed, though yellow would not have been my first choice.

We snacked a bit through the afternoon. Doug got a currywurst from a street vendor (which he said was amazing), and we all got ice cream cones. We went to the biggest bookstore in town, a four story thing that reminded me very much of a Borders. Though we never did find a phrasebook that suited our needs, Doug and I did buy some little €.98 kids books. They’re great for beginning language students and make fun presents. I bought one on dinosaurs, one about a chicken who saves Christmas somehow and one sticker book about farm animals. We stopped in a really lovely little chocolate shop for a truffle and met a super sweet little old lady who spoke nearly no English. Between our bad German and her bad English we were still able to have a nice little conversation. She gave us each a free little chocolate confection, and we assured her we’d be back. I’ll take pictures next time.

After a nice dinner at a fairly traditional restaurant the sun was starting to reappear after a day of clouds and a few sprinkles of rain. Since the weather was turning, we decided to climb the Schlossberg. This is perhaps the most recognizable landmark in all of Graz–a little bulbous mountain sticking straight up out of the middle of the city. Here’s a picture (not mine):

Now I said we climbed it–that’s not strictly accurate. Doug and Joann saw the dozens and dozens of steps to the top as a challenge, and jogged up. I decided that I didn’t want to arrive half an hour later than them and near death, so I took the lift through the middle of the hill, which actually turned out to be sorta cool anyway. I thought it’d be a total tourist trap, some thing you’d go up, see once, and kind of be done with.

On the contrary, at the top is a pretty extensive bunch of gardens and paths, a couple of restaurants, and of course the bell tower and clock. And while there were a fair number of tourists wandering around, there were also gobs of Grazer youth on blankets sitting drinking wine with friends and just hanging out. There was also a rock concert going on in a covered pavilion in the middle of the mountain, gave the whole thing a feeling of community and fun. And of course, the views were spectacular.


Ok, do you see those little yellow dots near the foot of the mountains in the middle there? No? Here, let me blow that up for you:

Well that’s Schloss St. Martin! Aaaaaaalllll the way out there in the distance. Pretty cool to realize we could see our house from up there. 🙂

Our buddy Doug


This is why you’re fat

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Apparently folks didn’t like my last entry–or were just scared by the all German title (all it says, btw, is I speak a very very small amount of German). Lesson learned. 🙂

This morning dawned clear and gorgeous, and I was moved to hike up the mountain before my poetry coaching. I set off after breakfast with determination, up the (very) steep road to the mouths of the various hiking trails. I ran out of breath quickly, and since I was passing people pretty regularly on my way up, I tried to disguise my need to stop so my heart didn’t explode as a burning desire to look at a specific tree, or look intently at my phone. That’s how I got this random picture of a face on a tree:

He has a pipe. I have no idea why.

I thought I was quite successful, and felt pretty good about the whole thing.

My confidence soon withered, however, as several retirees with walking poles got out of their cars along the road and started the ascent with no apparent effort–meanwhile I was huffing and puffing like a two pack a day smoker with a Krispy Kreme addiction. Some of this difficulty can be blamed on the altitude change (we’re quite a bit higher here than at home, and even the fittest of us have complained of getting out of breath on stairs), but really.

In a rather herculean effort (that I of course tried my best to play off as nothing) I pulled ahead of them and tried to beat them to the trail. I was trying to avoid walking WITH them, in case they wanted to start conversations (terrifying!) or that I might find out that they are indeed in far superior cardiovascular health. I made for the trail head as fast as I could without stroking out in the process, and found three options ahead of me with somewhat cryptic signage. My choices were Uphill, Uphill and Very Uphill. I could here the little white haired couples gaining on me, so in a moment of panic I chose Very Uphill and dove into the trees, hoping to gain enough ground so that they wouldn’t hear my pathetic wheezing as they passed.

Here I feel I should interject a word about Austrian hiking trails, and hiking in general. Hiking is very popular here; on Sunday afternoons you’d be hard pressed to find folks who were not out walking somewhere in the woods. All ages, all the time. Austrian trails, at least in the mountains, appear to be designed for mountain goats and triathletes. They do not believe in switch-backs here, so every trail takes a very aggressive, direct, Germanic route straight toward the top. Add a little rain, and the whole thing basically becomes a death trap. Because this does make the going a little challenging, even for the very fit 70 year-olds who easily mopped the floor with me this morning, Austrians tend to walk with poles. Like these:

Don't they look wholesome?
Don’t they look wholesome?

So here I go, huffing my way up this just stupidly steep stretch of trail, hoping to avoid looking like an idiot. This game of cat and mouse continued with other hikers as I continued up the mountain, stopping often to breathe and ponder my lack of fitness and question my sanity. But I kept on climbing! I was determined to see some kind of vista, dangit, and was not going to turn back until I had–or until I ran out of time before my coaching, I suppose.

Visions of myself staggering, sweat-soaked, red-faced and puffing into my coaching with Wolfgang ran through my head as I went on. Also, a scenario where I collapse of a heart attack in the middle of the trail and am set upon by eager horse-flies, only to be found hours later by fit, cheerful Austrian old people who don’t speak English and look confused while I weakly protest that I am close to death…Flies chased me, and I found a little evergreen branch to wave about me as I walked. I gasped and wheezed and sweated. Just as I was thinking that it might be wise to turn back, I saw a break in the trees ahead.

I found my vista. And it was totally worth it, even though I thought I was going to die.

It look me 45 minutes to get up. It took me less than 15 to get back down again.

Ich habe eine kleine bisschen Deutsch sprechen.

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I’m so glad we’re taking German language classes while we’re here. Our teacher, Eva, has a Masters in teaching German to foreigners, and the difference in her teaching style compared to that of the other language teachers I’ve had is amazing. She is able to make us understand things despite not actually having the vocabulary to keep up. I’d imagine I’m slightly biased toward this approach, though, since for me this is largely review. Maybe I can harangue Joann into writing a blog about her experience as a nearly-first-time German student.

I’ve started voice lessons and coachings, and am really excited about both. Tracy is our voice teacher, and we spent most of my first lesson discussing the overall plan for the rest of the summer here. I’m looking forward to getting a different perspective on some of the same stuff I’m always working on: evening out my registers, stretching my range, improving my placement and eliminating tension throughout the vocal mechanism. She has an approach that is very much in line with my Alexander Technique study, which is fantastic. She encourages us to get out of our own way as much as possible. We concentrate on a good mental and physical setup for singing, and largely let our bodies guide us from there. She thinks I have a lot more voice lurking, and that I generally have a resonance center that is too low, which makes it hard for me to execute into the top portion of my range. It’s going to be great to work on these things with a lesson every other day. 🙂

Myron Silberstein is our coach, and he is amazing. He’s a composer and piano soloist who also works a lot with vocalists from all over. We worked on one of the pieces we were to have prepared before we arrived, Brahms’ Wie Melodien, and he had some really great ideas about how to shape the piece. We’ve got some amazing repertoire to work on together over the course of this program, and I’m really thrilled to be working with him.

My big challenge right now is going to be Hugo Wolf’s Lied vom Winde, which is a pretty challenging piece. And part of the process of this program is that we can’t go listen to a recording. We didn’t even get the music for a couple of days, but instead began our work on the poetry alone. It really does make some things much, much easier, but is sort of uncomfortable for most of us who usually start with the music and work in the other direction. It’s hard not to cheat, I have to say.

Your picture of the day is my first attempt at a panorama with a phone app I bought. It’s a bit blurry, since I didn’t know how much overlap to allow, but it gives you a sense of the scope of the valley below the Schloss. You can kinda see Graz proper out to the left–we’re going into town Friday, so I’ll have lots of new pictures then.

Aside

I’m about to say something that will shock you. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s a hanging offense in this part of the world.

I don’t much care for Schubert.

I know! I know! I know he’s the height of Lied composition. I know he composed hundreds of songs, perfectly marrying text to music with an artistry and attention to detail that makes men weep and women swoon.

I just don’t really like a lot of his songs. Case in point: Der Musensohn. But the poem is beautiful, and luckily part of the point of this program is that we start with the words. Our poetry teacher, Dr. Wolfgang Lockemann, is a lifelong student of German poetry and literature, and feels very (VE-RY) strongly that art song requires a totally different approach than dramatic singing disciplines like opera*. Rather than creating a character and singing the action of the poem as though it were a dramatic scene, we let the worlds of the poem speak for themselves. Its the difference between being the painter and being the paint.

Lieder singers should be reproductive artists, learning to express the innate rhythm, cadence, topography of the words themselves without deeper interpretation, but rather exacting detail and faithfulness to what the poet gives us. Don’t make up a back-story, or try to find symbolism. Don’t assume or create circumstances or facts beyond the words on the page. Choose the Occam’s Razor approach to poetry–the simplest understanding is correct for our purposes. This allows the listener to really experience the poetry for themselves, rather than having OUR interpretation foisted ineffectually upon them. It’s the audible, external version of reading a poem to oneself. Our singing is the paint that the poem uses to show itself to the audience. The poet is the painter, I am just his medium.

This approach is TOTALLY different from the way most of us have been trained, and is hard to wrap the brain around. We are all struggling to subsume our own thoughts and interpretations of the poetry, and rather learning to recognize the internal structure directions that the words themselves provide the performer. Right now, our work is spent endlessly reciting poetry in a group with Wolfgang directing and correcting us. It’s harder than one might think to read with drama but without being “dramatic” (that is, speaking as though we were on stage). On stage the goal is (in part) to make one’s speech/singing sound spontaneous, as though the thought were passing through our heads for the first time. In recitation of this kind, we approach the line as a finished thing that exists in the world already as a whole.

It is…hard. Really, really hard. And I’m pretty sure that I’m currently in the lead for the Most Annoying Student award for asking complicated philosophical and practical questions about the whole premise and process.

We have each been assigned 3 songs, the first of which for me is Der Musensohn by Schubert. After today’s poetry workshop on the text, I have an affection for and understanding of the poem, which is by Goethe. It is beautiful (though not my favorite of those that we did today. But I just don’t particularly like the setting by Schubert. I just listened to it again (last time I heard it was in Song Literature class several months ago), and am sort of bored by it about a minute in. It will be interesting to see how I feel about it once I start to apply what we learned about the poetry to singing. I’m ready to change my mind, Schubert fans–I hope that I do.

Now, it’s 8:30 here, and I have some German homework to do before language class tomorrow, a first lesson to prepare for, and about 10 more poems to prepare for tomorrow, so here’s your moment of Zen for the day:

A spontaneous Yoga gathering in the hallway.

Bis später!

*For those who would like to read more about Dr. Lockrmann’s approach to Art song singing, he has published this article  (I believe in Classical Singer? will have to check), and here on the program website: Lieder As Mini Opera?

Poetry is hard