What happens in Baden, stays in Baden. Sometimes…


Guildhall has been a wonderful whirlwind of fun (and hard work!). I am constantly amazed at how much opportunity there is available not only at the school but in London/the UK and Europe! My friend, classmate (and fellow Aussie) Lauren Lodge-Campbell and I were both awarded the Franz Schubert Institut prize at a competition at Guildhall earlier in the year. Little did we know what journey that competition would take us on! I just got back to my house after a morning masterclass with Elly Ameling, and I have a few hours now to write this before heading out again to the ‘Feuerzangenbowle’… I don’t know exactly what this is… apparently it’s going to be a big party with a special type of drink, poetry readings and improvisation on the piano? Either way, if Deen Larsen (the founder and director of the Franz Schubert Institut) has anything to do with it, I’m sure it will be a hoot!!

I need to back track a bit because I’ve realised I have quite a bit I want to talk about. First of all, when I say ‘my house’ I mean the house that I am staying in with Lauren. Our host family is so lovely and supportive. I try to practice my German with them, which usually goes along the lines of “Ja, Ich… habe… ein…” and then I can’t remember what the German word for umbrella is and we all have a good laugh and I slink out the door slightly embarrassed. Just to give you an idea of how idyllic and cute Baden bei Wien is… my house is on a street called Mozartstraße (and around the corner is Schubertgasse). There is just no end to the depth of history, culture and beauty to this place. Mozart, Schubert and Beethoven all spent some time here in Baden and you can see why they were all inspired to write such beautiful music whilst they were here. [FUN FACT: We actually sang Mozart’s ‘Ave verum corpus’ during a mass at Pfarrkirche St. Stephan, the parish he had composed it for whilst visiting his pregnant wife in Baden in 1791.] The town sits on the outskirts of dense woodland, which is charming at first, but don’t go there alone… My imagination sent me quite literally sprinting back out again. There are a few hikes organised into the schedule so we definitely got to experience the Vienna Woods as a group. One Sunday we went hiking almost all day but there was one rather important thing keeping us motivated… Our destination = a Heuriger. This is an essential part of Austrian culture where local wine makers open their doors to the public to taste their new wine. We are encouraged to experience this, but of course, if you are a singer you have to be careful not to over do it as the schedule is extremely demanding on the voice! We always have a great time at the Heuriger, getting to know each other and sharing stories. The singers and pianists are chosen from all over the world so it is really exciting to learn their journey towards being a musician, and hearing different views from another perspective. I feel very close to everyone here for many reasons. Of course we naturally have bonded over our mutual love for story telling combined with music, but this course requires you to be open and vulnerable on a daily basis in order to communicate the text truthfully. We learned quite quickly that we needed each other for support in order to sustain this openness for five intensive weeks.

The schedule here is intense… and when I say intense, I MEAN intense. 9am until 9:30pm. We start every morning with a poetry class with Dr Larsen, thoroughly covering a wide range of German literature. We then have two Masterclasses throughout the day, each two and a half hours in length, as well as one or two ensemble/diction coaching sessions. We are singing or performing every day so we have all had to look after our health. Although our limits have been tested, it is extremely comforting to know that we are all in the same boat. You learn very quickly in this situation how to recognise your limits and how to deal with it the best way possible so that you can still have an optimal learning experience.

The master teachers for this year were Robert Holl, Wolfram Rieger, Julius Drake, Birgid Steinberger, Roger Vignoles, Andreas Schmidt, Helmut Deutsch, Elly Ameling and Olaf Bär. Each teacher brought their own expertise and ideas to the table and I have to say, I feel so energised from this, regardless of ‘the week five exhaustion’. The coaching is mainly focused on ensemble between singer and pianist, however, the coaches respond to each individual according to what they need. The coaches this year were Cynthia Hoffmann, Michael McMahon, Gabriele Jacoby, Wolfgang Dosch, Armin Zanner, Benno Schollum, Reinhold Schaffrath and Waltraud Österreicher. I cannot stress enough how important it was to hear so much spoken German by native speakers. Our coaches encourage us to speak through our texts in each session, which they correct and then demonstrate back to us. It helped a lot to hear the sounds and melody of the spoken language so that it became our language and not a foreign one. It helped to gain an immediate recognition of the words, and see how the correct pronunciation facilitated an informed sound production and how this links in with the composers’ intention.

This course is not about how well you can sing, or how well you can play the piano; it’s about the text and the music. It has been a liberating experience to have permission to tell stories. It’s very easy as a student to get caught up in the ‘worry web’ of obsessing whether you’re a good enough singer/pianist and comparing yourself to others. Of course, this is healthy to an extent, but the technique will come in time! At the end of the day, we sing lieder because this magical art form has the power to take the text to an even deeper dimension of expression. We have the chance to share this transcendent, moving and healing gift with others. Thoughts like “am I good enough?” are only destructive and get in the way of experiencing and embracing this art form fully and entirely. I asked Elly Ameling whether she thinks about technique at all when she performs or if she only expresses the text… “Eventually, you will. You will be able to perform without concentrating too much on technique, but right now you are young and you should concentrate on it. Don’t be too frustrated. It will come.” She then continued to share a very personal story with me about her singing journey… “I quit singing you know! I got so frustrated one day that it wasn’t working, so I quit and tried to study something else until I realised that I had this voice and that it was such a waste. Good thing I starting singing again because then I had a 40 year long career…. You find ways to deal with it. You are never going to be perfect. The higher your goals are the more you will achieve. Just keep aiming high, it is a good thing if you are not content with what you are doing or you will never keep improving.”

Another very large part of the learning curve here is working as a duo. This year we were to prepare 20 songs (additional songs were optional). [FUN FACT: Try to learn your music off copy before arrival]. This is a lot of repertoire to prepare and with the intensive schedule it is a challenge to balance both getting to know each other and rehearsing the repertoire, but it is doable. It has been an incredible experience to work so closely with a pianist everyday for 5 weeks. At some point along the way you begin to realise how essential the piano is to lieder. Even if you thought you already knew that, the realisation will hit you again. Yes, the text is important, but they are the inspiration for your words in the first place.   The piano in lieder has the power to transcend a song into another realm and this can only happen if you both communicate your ideas and trust each other. It’s like a relationship where “communication is the key”, but it’s true, and in order to do that you have to open up to each other and be vulnerable. There probably will be tears and frustration but it is all a part of the process of becoming a successful duo.

We have had five public performance opportunities, two of which were at the beautiful Stift Heiligenkreuz, a medieval monastery founded in 1133 and is situated in the Vienna Woods. I had a really strange experience performing here and I couldn’t figure out what it was until I realised… They’re looking at me. They understand every word, the second I sing it. It was my first experience performing for an entire German speaking audience. They know these songs and texts just like Australians know and love ‘Waltzing Matilda’. It really hit home to me the importance and the power of this art form.

I have been waffling on a bit too much but there are a couple of things I want to warn those who are interested in auditioning for this course:

  1. The bees. They are big. They are everywhere. And they have an agenda…
  2. The food. Austrians pretty much only eat bread, potatoes and Schnitzel and it’s all extremely salty. On day three we all had a bit of an ankle swelling issue. Which brings me to my next tip…
  3. The heat. I know I’m an Aussie but I have to admit it is pretty stinkin’ hot here. Mostly because there isn’t any air conditioning in any of the classrooms or practice rooms etc. Bring a fan or two!
  4. The baths. Baden is really famous for it’s beneficial sulphurous mineral spring water so if you get a chance, go to the Roman baths (which I didn’t make it to, partly because of my new lovely swollen ankles). I did however go to the swimming pool yesterday and it was like going to a mini Cottesloe Beach. With the tough schedule and heat I highly recommend it, fat ankles or not.

This course is definitely not something anyone can possibly summarise into words; it’s an experience that you have to absorb for yourself. Most of us are exhausted, mentally, physically and emotionally. We have all reached our limits in more ways than one and that is ok. There is support from the teachers but best of all we are there for each other. You have to do what is healthy for you. Performing everyday makes you face and assess parts of yourself as an artist and a person, which can be very confronting and exhausting over a long period of time. We all have a lot of information that we are trying to process and managing fatigue etc. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. I think I can speak for everyone in that we are all extremely proud of ourselves, and each other, for allowing ourselves to keep learning and staying open. This is just a snippet of my time here, and I know that everyone will experience it in different ways, but I am pretty darn grateful to be here. The highs have been rewarding, the lows have helped shape me as an artist and person and we have all learned from each other in more ways than one.

To finish off with I’m going to leave ya’ll with a quote from Elly Ameling in response to asking a singer their age….

Elly Ameling.jpg

Written by Corinne Cowling