Traveling by Ear


It was a warm, humid Thursday in Vienna and I was having a stressful day. I rushed onto a subway train (the U-3 line) and absent-mindedly picked up a glossy magazine. As I slid into the nearest plastic seat, a magazine insert fell into my lap. There was a picture of two little ears carrying suitcases and jumping off a railroad track. The German text above the picture read, “Schicken Sie Ihre Ohren auf Entdeckungsreise.” Send your ears on a journey of discovery. And for the first time all day, I started to smile.

The tiny ears were advertising the Haus der Musik museum in Vienna, but for me, the message had a different meaning. The reason I was feeling stressed that day was because I needed to decide whether or not to move to Italy for a post-grad certificate in opera studies. (I know that sounds like an easy decision, but it was complicated.) After completing two performance degrees in voice, I just wasn’t sure if I wanted to embark on yet another academic journey. Did I want to stay in school? Part of me just wanted to get onstage that very instant and SING!

But every budding opera singer has a unique path to follow, and my path included several years of intensive ear-education! By studying in Salzburg, I had already absorbed a distinctly Austrian Klangvorstellung (concept of sound). Moving to Italy helped me listen to music with a more Mediterranean worldview, and that was a good challenge for my German-American ears. It influenced my music forever.

Being a musician has changed the way that I travel. Ever since that moment on the U-3, every little trip has become a journey of discovery. My ears are always getting new stamps in their passport. They were happy to soak up Slavic sounds in Moscow and Hindustani vibrations in Kathmandu. And now as I prepare to spend April in Southern Africa, my ears are already tingling with… READ MORE

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Finding Your Own Tempo

What’s your tempo?

How fast are you moving today? How fast are you thinking? Are you in andante?  Allegro?  Molto agitato?

What are your tempo plans for this weekend? Are you hoping for a slow, luxurious adagio? Or something more exciting? Molto vivace?

When I lived in Italy, I found that my personal tempo was too fast for my neighborhood.  As an ambitious young opera singer, I would fly down the street, chasing after my professional goals. My neighbors would gaze at me in amusement. My speed was fine for the center of town, with the busy tourists and zooming motorbikes, but it didn’t match the slower pace of residential life.  In my piazza, people liked to drive quickly, but they preferred to live slowly.

But I was always bursting with energy.  I didn’t want to walk slowly, and I didn’t need a break after lunch. I didn’t want to wait in the long queue at the post office. I was even aggravated by my own voice, which was growing (slowly, leisurely, even languidly) into a more dramatic repertoire.

In my frustration, I went to consult with the great singing teacher, Maestro Sergio Bertocchi. “Why am I not developing more quickly?” I asked him. “Hai fretta,” he said simply. (You’re in a hurry.)  “The voice doesn’t like to be rushed. Never try to learn anything in a hurry. It will only slow you down.”  

Patience is a hard lesson to learn. (I have to keep learning it, over and over again, but I suppose that’s the nature of the lesson…) I must have slowed down a little bit, though, because when I returned to the United States, I was shocked by how fast everyone was going!

When I visited American universities, I was sad to see that so many young voice majors were stressed out!  They were rushing from class to class, juggling double majors, squeezing coachings in between after-school jobs.  They were so busy, and I wondered if they had enough time to practice.

To be a good musician, you need to have time to practice. It’s not just about learning the music.  It’s about forging your own identity as an artist.  You need to spend many hours in a quiet place, away from the noise and the bustle, so that you can hear your own music. You need to spend time in your own “artistic space.”

When I was an undergraduate in Salzburg, I spent many long Saturdays in the practice room. I would sing for hours and hours. And when I was too tired to sing, I would sit down and think about singing. My best friends were the other singers (and pianists) who were crazy enough to spend their weekends at school!  We listened to music, and we talked about music. We had time for music.

Of course, you can’t be a student forever.  These days, there are more demands on my time. But whenever I hear myself telling someone that I’m “too busy,” or that “I don’t have time,” I try to slow down and reset my inner metronome.

Life is like music, and it helps to be aware of your own rhythm. Listen for the beat. Does it match the music you want to hear? If not, you might want to adjust your tempo.

Addicted to German

The German language is like coffee.

It tastes bitter at first, but it’s incredibly addictive.

To the English ear, it is not the most beautiful of European languages. But at least it has some bite!

This authentic picture of German coffee is provided by Research in Germany.

My grandfather was German and I was familiar with the sounds of German before I ever studied the language. I had the rare chance to learn German in an American high school, and it changed my life. German opens whole new worlds of opportunity, not only for engineers and business people but also for scholars and musicians! Still, it was not until I moved to Austria (at the age of 20) that I realized that German could be habit-forming.

Gutteral sounds are not the most pleasing to hear, but they are extremely satisfying to say!  And if you crave elegance, you can find it in German’s pure, round vowels. Best of all, the explosive consonants give the listener a special rhythmic pleasure that is absent from, say, French. German snaps and crackles and pops!

In my first few months in Salzburg, I let the German language seep into every corner of my mind. I limited my contact with my English-speaking friends and insisted on only speaking German to my professors and colleagues. All of my courses at the Mozarteum were taught in German and the lingua franca of the cafeteria was German. My brain adapted to my personal linguistic experiment.  By the end of my third year in Austria, I was thinking and dreaming in German.

The wonderful thing about thinking in a different language is that you start to think in different directions. You can’t help but have new creative insights!  This happens automatically when you use a different word order, or express your feelings with a different metaphor, than you would have used in your own language. You start to see things differently, not just from a different cultural perspective, but from a different linguistic perspective, as well.

My parents were a little alarmed when I first came home for vacation and had to search for English words. But it provided a lot of spontaneous humor at the dinner table.  Naturally, the brain adapts (again!) very quickly to conversation in its native language. And all of this brain exercise is very healthy; recent studies indicate that people who are bilingual have higher cognitive function and better long-term brain health.

Of course, I was studying music, and music has a way of getting under your skin. By singing German opera and German Lieder (art songs), I ensured that German would stay in my soul forever.  There is a deep beauty in German Romantic poetry that has been set to music.  Du holde Kunst, ich danke dir dafür!

So why is German considered so difficult? It has a relatively small vocabulary, but a very sophisticated grammatical structure. That’s why German is not the easiest language for an English-speaker to learn, even though English is a Germanic language. I made a ton of mistakes while learning German — and I still do!

But now, I have a tender spot in my heart for German syntax. I even get nostalgic for the sound of the Austrian dialect. If I stay away from Austria for too long, I have to feed my German addiction by reading German novels and watching Austrian TV programs.

You may have seen this chart on Facebook.  It insinuates that German is not as pretty as other European languages. Which is true!!!

But German has its own crackling energy. So be careful the next time that you pick up a German book, or start talking to a German friend. German is extremely addictive.  You might just like it!

Auf Wiedersehen!

From Austria with Love

In the opening scene of Puccini’s opera La Bohème, we find a couple of starving artists ( a poet and a painter) talking about life and art in their Parisian garret on Christmas Eve. They’re having some trouble paying the bills, so after a witty conversation, they decide to burn the pages of the poet’s latest play in order to keep warm.

Once again, I am living la vie bohème in Salzburg. That doesn’t mean that I’m having trouble with my central heating! But I get to be an artist among artists. I have the privilege of knowing so many talented and creative people in this city.

Here in our cozy Alpine flat, my friends have been hosting a lot of coffee parties, even more than usual. And it’s Christmastime, so we always have candles burning in the window and sweet treats in the kitchen.  We have had honored guests from Stockholm and Vienna, and more local friends, as well.  They all come over to discuss Life and Art over coffee or wine. Most of them are classical musicians, of course, and they tend to quote German poetry and refer to Italian operas in the same conversation, so it always feels like we’re about to burst into song, and sometimes we do.  This week, our coffee table  has become a kind of nexus for artists, where we all discuss and compare our latest creative projects. It feels a little bit like Paris in the ’20s… but for the Facebook Generation.

Of course, Salzburg is much smaller than Paris and I feel the urge to visit a larger city quite soon. Can you guess which one?  (Hint: it’s not Paris.) Stay tuned…

And while you’re pondering that, enjoy this clip from La Bohème:


Advent in Salzburg

Christmastime is one of the most beautiful times of the year to be in Austria.

It’s a lovely place in every season, but Salzburg does Advent especially well!  And that’s because, one day in mid-November, the Christmas market suddenly comes to life!

The Salzburger Christkindlmarkt (Salzburg Christmas Market) has been been open since November 17 and will continue until the day after Christmas.   It’s a little kitschy, but it’s fun! You can walk beneath the golden lights humming German Christmas carols. You can buy some hot roasted chestnuts.  You can even sip a mug of hot spiced wine (Glühwein) as you stroll from booth to booth, admiring handcrafted Christmas ornaments, woolen sweaters, Austrian crystal, baked goods, and all kinds of other wonderful Christmas gifts.

Here is a quick video clip of the marketplace tonight. It’s not my very best cinematography, but I think it will give you a sense of the ambiance:

One of the most fun musical traditions is led by Salzburg’s Tower Brass Band (Salzburger Turmbläser). Every Saturday night in Advent, at exactly 6:30 PM, the sky above Residenzplatz fills with music as the band plays Christmas carols from the rooftops.  Imagine hearing a solo trumpet play the first phrase of Silent Night from one church tower, and then being answered from across the square by a quintet of horns and trombones in another tower.  It’s a magical thing.

Now, if you really need to hear some Christmas carols played by an Austrian brass band, and yet you can’t get all the way to Austria, fear not! The city of Graz also has a tower brass band, and you can download the music of the Grazer Turmbläser on iTunes.

No matter where you are in the world tonight, I wish you a very happy Advent season!

that autumn feeling

Autumn has arrived in Salzburg. You cannot walk through Mirabell Garden without hearing the crunch of red and gold leaves underfoot!

I keep thinking about my favorite fall poems, the ones in English by Donne and Dickinson, and the ones in German by Rilke and Trakl.

And then there are the ageless songs of autumn, like September and Im Herbst … and Autumn in New York.  😉

Since I was once a college student here in Salzburg, that music always reminds me of past autumns in Austria. In fact, it’s sometimes hard to separate the memories from the music. In her wonderful book, The Inner Voice, Renée Fleming describes this phenomenon: “I have lived a life with a soundtrack. So many of my memories have music attached to them.”

And I know just what she means. I would take it even one step further.  Not only do my memories contain a soundtrack, but certain playlists seem to contain my memories!  When I hear a song that I love, I often remember where I was when I first heard it, and what was happening in my life at the time. It feels like my own story is written into the harmony.

The most vivid memories come from arias that I have studied or performed.  After all, learning a piece of music is a very personal experience, and hearing the music again reminds me of that experience – I can usually remember singing the piece for the very first time. I remember the people who were there, and what was happening, and what was said. When you live so closely with music, listening to a song can be like re-reading your own diary.

It’s a little dangerous to live this way, with some of your most personal feelings tied up in standard repertoire.  It means that you can walk into any concert hall and get knocked off your feet by a couple of measures of music. A well-placed chord is a powerful thing, and a single arpeggio can reduce me to tears. The pianist finishes some rich, luxuriant passage and I want to say: “You had me at the G minor sixth chord.”

Oh, the nostalgia. Of course, autumn isn’t just about memories.  There is always fresh new music to sing! And there is much to be excited about this fall. May audition season begin!

Salzburg’s Brand of Magic

Salzburg is a magical place.

I could feel it even before my plane landed at Mozart Airport on Tuesday night. As soon as we entered Austrian airspace, my pulse got faster.  Like a little girl, I pressed my nose to the window to gaze at the twinkling lights of the Old City. I can’t help myself: I love this town.

When we landed, I grabbed my bags and ran outside to take a breath of cold Alpine air, which felt refreshing after last week’s heat wave in Los Angeles. I got in a cab and joked with the taxi driver in Austrian German. I couldn’t wait to get to the flat that I share with a friend here.

I had been away from Salzburg for four months but it felt like I had never left. When I finally arrived, I pulled my suitcases up the old marble stairs and saw my friends’ smiling faces framed in the doorway. It was a beautiful feeling. This is truly my second home.

This week, I have enjoyed readjusting to my bohemian Salzburg lifestyle.  My circle of friends here includes an extraordinary number of amazing musicians. As one might expect, we spend a lot of our time singing and dancing.  I stay up late into the night — singing and talking and laughing with my friends — and then I sleep until noon.  It’s really a perfect schedule for an artist with jet lag.

Living in Salzburg is a bit like living on the set of The Sound of Music. However, contrary to popular belief, the hills are not alive. They are freezing, like the rest of us, in the frosty autumn weather. But even so, this city is absolutely saturated with MUSIC! And I have some exciting musical plans for this fall.  So let the magic begin.