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Reflections on a German Education by David Lau

The following post is by David Lau.

After suffering through the second security-check my one way ticket aroused at PDX, I squeezed into 18b sandwiched between a woman clearly requiring two seats and a talkative man in his forties with breath that reminded me of my childhood goat Henrietta. Making myself as comfortable as possible on the 13 hour flight to Frankfurt, I leaned back practicing my two sentences in German. One asking the location of the toilet, the other an inappropriate request I had learned years before at a music festival.

I came to Germany almost by accident but what ensued was a constant reminder of the role Destiny plays in our lives. In my last semester of a Bachelors degree at Juilliard I waited eagerly for my Fulbright Scholarship to Austria. Having been assured by the professor of his excitement to work with me I imagined the whole thing a done deal. But when the thin envelope arrived in my mailbox I frantically looked for alternatives. As luck would have it I was able to join the studio of Professor Barbara Westphal in Lübeck which quickly proved to be one of the greatest learning experiences of my musical education.

Manhattan to rural northern Germany is quite a contrast. I am from Oregon and at that a very country part of the hippie/farmer state. But having spent four years in New York City I felt more at home in the anonymous bustle of the city than anywhere else. Needless to say arriving in Lübeck, a town of 200,000 butting up against the Baltic sea was a bit of a culture shock, but I did my best to settle in and make the most of this new adventure.

Die Musikhochschule Lübeck was located in the center of the old city. Made up of five 18th century merchant homes connected inside by a labyrinth of passageways it oozed with the old world European charm I, as a young traveler, longed for. I naively thought coming from Juilliard I would breeze through this school, land a job and set forth on a wild life of concerts and travels. To my surprise and eventual pleasure, the ignorance of my assumptions quickly became clear. Whereas before if it was loud, fast and in tune you struck awe in your audience, here there was a specific nuance and style, a new musical language that proved more difficult to learn than German.

This tiny music school had pockets of grandeur. Concertmasters of the Berlin Philharmonic had studios here, star clarinettists, pianists and cellists whose students quickly filled the vacancies in major European orchestras. In a place I had never even heard of before, music was being taught and played in new and exciting ways. How refreshing it was to come away from the heavily competitive world of large scale American conservatories and find the students immersed in not only their own studies but in enthusiastic collaboration with each other.

The difference in how one approached music here began to unfold itself to me. There was an inherent quality that the German students could produce that I was before unaware of, especially in music from the Baroque and Classical periods. When it came to music from say 1920 onwards, I found the differences not so great, but everything before was black and white and this fascinated me.

In Germany every audition requires Hoffmeister or Stamitz. You might balk at this pieces thinking how juvenile and easy, but the shocking truth is, nine out of ten violist stumble through these pieces like a bull in a china shop. I spent the next years of my education focusing on the subtleties of works from these periods because I knew I wanted to audition for an orchestra here. And the first hand knowledge I would receive by studying with the direct inheritors of these traditions was something I wasn’t going to find anywhere else.

With much patience and persistence the subtle world of German classicism opened up to me. Rules of where, when and why to vibrate, when and why to lift my bow in phrases,(Absetzen), cadential nuances, (Abphrazieren), the things I found my German colleagues just knew, I had to learn. The approach to Baroque and Classical music here was a new and freeing experience for me. I slowly began to feel less bogged down by the stodgy institution of “Historical Performance” and found if I just listened I would understand why certain pieces where played this way. The rules weren’t rigid unmoving parameters boxing in my expression but more like phonetic guidelines. If I wanted someone to understand me when I played Mozart then I needed a slight space between two notes that came after each other if they were the same tone. It also wouldn’t take away from the excitement of my performance when I made slight diminuendos at the ends of phrases it would make it comprehensible. I found a new freshness in my performance of this pieces and an imaginative freedom. There were no “rules”. With these pieces anything was possible I just had to learn how to speak the right language.

Aside from the different approach to music here, the repertoire is also more varied. I have never played so much Opera and Ballet music before in my life. This mainly do to the fact that almost every small town has its own theater and company. Even better were the discoveries I made playing countless church gigs. Uncovering new baroque composers on another random religious holiday previously unknown to me or playing weekly cantatas with the Thomaner choir in the loft of the Thomaskirche while looking down on Bach’s grave. Music is a part of almost every occasion. There is a closeness to the music that one can almost touch here.

Studying in Germany, and now working here, has been tremendously eye opening. I enjoy the sense of being at the source of the music. Brahms, Telemann, and Buxtehude in Northern Germany. Discussing and playing Debussy and Ravel with French colleagues. And now playing in the Gewandhaus orchestra in Leipzig where Bach, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Wagner, and Mahler all lived, studied and worked. There is an encompassing sense of tradition and understanding of music because it is their history and an important part of their lives.

Orchestras and schools are funded mainly by the Government here. Which means school is only 80€ a semester and most of that goes to pay for your bus pass. Upon graduating debt free the bulk of quality reliable jobs can also be found here. Berlin Philharmonic, Bayerischer Rundfunk, Gewandhausorchester and Dresden Staatskapelle all have openings now and these are just 4 of the 133 orchestras that exist in this country roughly the size of Montana.

Learning German has proved less of a challenge as I once thought, having almost flunked out of my course at Juilliard. And it is perhaps a language all musicians should be required to learn. It is pretty satisfying not to have to look at a dictionary when learning a new Hindemith sonata or Mahler symphony, or simply being able to read Mozart’s letters in their original.

I have been living in Germany for 7 years now and think I will eventually come back to the states, but it is an experience I would recommend to any musician. For now I continue to take advantage and play a role in a society that values its musical heritage and fights to keep it alive.


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