– PART two
I had never been to Germany before. In fact, there are many places in Europe that I have never been despite being half-European. Driving into Würzburg my sleepy eyes and mind thought that I had returned to the lush landscape of Elmsted, instead now castles had replaced cows. The magnolia trees were in at the Hauptbahnhof. I adore the pale colour of the giant flowers heavy on their leafless branches.
Würzburg is a quaint city in Bavaria. A city of wine, wine and beer drinkers at all hours of the day, nature and culture. It is also home to Germany’s best music research centre at the Hochschule für Musik. To my excitement, I also was informed that the X-ray were invented there. It’s always fun to learn about ubiquitous things that were invented in somewhat obscured places. Each place has their own piece(s) of pride I suppose!
Würzburg, waking and working
My time in Würzburg was limited. I gave myself four weeks to find a place of my own and options for employment and potentially further study. I spent my first weeks in Würzburg basking in nature, bike rides (and injuries), Bavarian food and stress. The feeling of waiting can often eat away at my mind and causes me to be quite unsettled. I am a patient person however being in institutions and living life by a schedule has structured the way I live each day. I am quite restless when I have no outstanding tasks to do and I find it difficult to embrace free-time, relaxation and holidays. It seems that I perceive my waking hours as working hours. So I spent my time in Würzburg a little disorientated by my lack of structure, and newfound freedoms. I had sent applications for several orchestras in Germany with vacancies, for several festivals in Europe, applied for a casual job and emailed many people regarding subletting a room for the next couple of months. Waiting is difficult, you have to think about various outcomes, and when you do receive news and it is favourable, action must be taken. You have to get working on those excerpts, that concerto, be ready to pack your bags to move and be ready by the given date. It’s a feeling that is simultaneously exhilarating and exhausting. In addition to the applications and searching I received news that my flute, Lentil, was in quite a bad state and in need of repairs and an eventual overhaul. The six months of drilling technique at the flute studio had worn my flute out as well! I was directed to Herr Abe, a flute technician in Stuttgart who previously worked for Yamaha. He now works from his studio with two dogs who ‘sing’ when they hear the flute.
I decided that I needed to move to a city in Germany that had more to offer for music and the arts. All signs and people seemed to be pointing in the direction of Berlin. This seemed a good option for me with reasonable rent, concerts every day and a healthy classical and experimental scene. It seemed to offer good ground for exploring. The only real downside was that I knew that my progress in learning German would suffer slightly in Berlin. Many people speak English. If you are to buy a coffee, you may be greeted and asked what you want all in English depending on where you are in Berlin. It can be quite disorientating. However, I still persevere with speaking German where I can.
A Botanical Berlin
I surprised myself by having found a place to live for the next two months fairly quickly, having only spent less than three weeks in Germany. Situated near the Botanic Gardens in Lichterfeld, a particularly peaceful area of Berlin, I was to be living with two ladies around my age, Doro and Mathilde. Doro is German and studying Veterinary science, she also is a wonderful photographer (I’ll be using some of her photos as I begin to update my website), and Mathilde from Yverdon, Switzerland who is studying political Geography and is a leader in the climate movement (Jeunes Verts). I was very excited to be moving into such a vibrant and lively household.
Whilst I was preparing to move I also had to prepare for my very first professional orchestral audition. Having spent several years of my studies practicing and learning orchestral excerpts and standard flute repertoire and taking ‘mock orchestral auditions’ I decided it was time to apply this hard work to a real experience.I received a lot of encouragement from Trevor and my colleagues at the studio to apply for auditions. Of course, when you ‘apply’ for an audition you may not always get invited to do a live audition merely on the basis of your experience and your CV. Germany has many orchestras, sometimes a couple for each city and one for each town, and because of this mild abundance vacancies do come up periodically. But of course winning a job is tough, especially with the amount of applicants and competition to secure an orchestral job. You hear plenty of stories of people who have taken dozens of auditions, those who didn’t pass a trial and those who leave orchestras due to conflict.
Of course, many positive stories also exist.
I was simultaneously excited and nervous when I received an email from one of the orchestras I had applied for inviting me to participate in a live audition. This was to be my very first audition for an orchestral job and I was eager to find out what this would be like. Back in my undergraduate we had mock auditions which were incredibly helpful and mostly conducted behind a screen but all the other auditions I previously had done for youth orchestras and the university orchestra were never behind a screen. Unsure of how German auditions are generally conducted, I had some questions. “Would it be conducted behind a screen?” “Would I need to speak German fluently?” “Would I need an accompanist?” I knew that the answers to most of my questions would be revealed on the day and so I eased some of the lingering curiosities in my distant scenery in my mind. However, I found this article quite helpful and enlightening when I started preparing for auditions in Germany.
I was only to spend about a week and a half in Berlin before I had to leave to go to my audition. I had been practicing at the flat and was initially quite conscious about breaking my practice into several chunks to give the ears of my housemates a bit of a rest. However, after my first practice session at the flat I came out of my room to find all the doors completely open and my housemates sitting peacefully in their rooms. I was so shocked that the doors weren’t closed, especially after practicing some scales and repetitions but they told me how much they enjoyed hearing the music. I felt a welcome warmth in this quirky and special household.
The town of my audition was situated about an hour away from Würzburg, my first German home prior to Berlin. The ‘Deutsche Bahn’ system can be rather deceptive and there are several ways to travel around Germany with the main trains being the ICE and the RE. It is always helpful to know some German as on these trains they don’t always announce the important information in English such as transfers, changes to services or trains splitting in half. But one does learn very quickly once one has experienced getting lost in translation. The first time this happened to me was when I was travelling to my audition. I was well aware of my transfers and made sure to always listen very carefully to announcements being made but somehow I managed to miss that my final transfer would be the trickiest. Having travelled for over three hours my brain managed to miss the warning that the Deutsche Bahn ticket checker had given me and also the poster in capitals with five exclamation marks telling me that the train would split into two each going to separate destinations. Usually there is a speaker announcement at stations that specifies this strange splitting but at this very tiny station there was only a flimsy piece of paper in a most inconspicuous place. This 50/50 chance of getting on the right train was unbeknownst to me and I got on the wrong train.
“Your ticket please.” The ticket officer asked.
I showed him my ticket. His eyes squinted slightly.
“You’re on the wrong train! You are meant to be in the one in front but it has already left.”
I panicked slightly, my brain translating his relentlessly fast German into some sort of understanding. My train had already left.
Another man joined in and frantically pointed at the door.
I needed to get off or I’d end up lost in Bavaria!
As it turned out I wasn’t the only one who had hopped onto the wrong train. A backpacker also had unknowingly wandered onto the train believing that the whole vehicle went to the town.
We looked at each other and hurried off the train that was ready to depart.
The backpacker looked at me. My exhausted face managed a smile. We both went over to sit under the shelter, there we could also look at the timetable. Her name was Sandra. She asked me if I wanted to go and sit outside the station with her. I nodded. More to look at I supposed.
Our train wasn’t due for another hour. We sat and spoke about Germany, identity, home. Sandra was living in the town I was to have my audition in.
“Do you like it there?”
“It’s nice. The scenery is beautiful with mountains and greenery. But after a while it gets boring for the young mind!”
Between drags at her cigarette Sandra said she wished to move to a bigger location in Bavaria, perhaps Würzburg or Schweinfurt. I recommended Würzburg highly to her but also expressed why I felt it wasn’t for me. She had lived in Berlin once too.
Time elapsed, few cars passed, even fewer people passed, our surrounding never really changing. The station was made up of two platforms and a quaint antique shop only open twice a week. No coffee, no food, not even bathrooms. It was an inevitable mediation of sorts.
The hour elapsed and we made our way back to the platform. This time, with the small piece of paper in sight loud in its punctuation, we would get on the correct train.
And we did.
As promised the town was robed in mountains and greenery and an air of calm. Sandra accompanied me to my lodging for the night. She lived in that direction also. She wished me the best of luck and we parted.
I was greeted by two cats before I saw the concierge. She gave me my keys and showed me on a map where I could find the concert hall where I was to have my audition. I thanked her and the cats and went to my room to study my scores and before I slept.
The town was beautiful. The city centre was comfortably small but still equipped with food markets, restaurants and other shops. I made my way to the concert hall to discover that there were two concert halls. In one of the halls there was a concert in progress, in the other a swarm of flutes was to be found. The sound of thirty flutes playing ‘Voliere’ over and over is quite an overwhelming experience. A swarm of birds indeed it is, perhaps an experience more reminiscent of Hitchcock rather than Saint-Saens. I began to warm up on my flute and piccolo. I had thought that my given time of twelve o’clock was my individual audition time. Thoughts travelled around my head. Perhaps they would get us up one by one in front of each other to play our concertos and excerpts in front of everyone. There was no screen to be seen on the stage either. It would be an open show. I went up to the piano to test the pitch. It was a little lower than expected.
The hall was beautifully ornate with gold filigree sprawled across the ceiling and chandeliers that hung like grapes. Decadent details for a small town dedicated to spa tourism and relaxation. The jury started to trickle in. It was obvious that those who were not holding flutes were on the panel for the audition. A representative stood up to make opening remarks. It was in these opening words that many of my curiosities were answered.
“Welcome flutists! As there are many of you we have decided to have two rounds. In the first round you have the choice to perform with or without accompaniment. And in second round we will choose ten of you. Please wait outside until you are called.”
There were about thirty flute players and many of them had already had generous orchestral experience and experience with taking auditions. This was my first audition for a professional orchestra ever and I was feeling determined. When it was my time to go and play I felt the usual feeling of knowing I could’ve played better. My sound was a bit off in the space. I was truly prepared to go and eat some lunch but the orchestral manager was to announce the second round. My name was called and my stomach had to wait. A banana or two would do for now.
In the second round all repertoire was accompanied by piano. I had never had the chance to play the required repertoire with piano before, so there was an element of excitement and an even more heightened sense of concentration. I would play so that it would never cross their minds that I had never played the pieces with piano before. I gave the accompanist my tempos and explained my repetitions. After playing I was invited to come down to speak to the jury. They asked me some questions which I managed to understand and answer in my basic German:
“Where do you see yourself in five years?” I chuckled slightly. I had come across this question a lot in my Bachelor’s degree.
“I love playing all music, from early music to modern music. I particularly enjoy playing in Chamber ensembles and creating and continuing to develop my own projects. And of course, I see myself teaching new generations of flute players and using music to influence positivity and communicate important messages and values.” *
“Thank you. Have you obtained your B1 Certificate in German?” They asked.
“No. Not yet. I am studying and will take my test as soon as possible.”
“Good, because in order to start here you will need it.” I nodded. I knew this wouldn’t be the first time I would need this certification.
“Thank you for your time. We will call you soon with the results.”
I left the hall with my head swirling. Had I heard everything correctly? Were there details I had missed out on telling them? I decided to catch the train home and said goodbye and good luck to the remaining flute players.
Whilst I did not get the job on this occasion, I am certainly glad that I decided to apply for this audition. Being an orchestral musician is not the job of my dreams but it is an opportunity that I do wish to have, even whilst opportunities in this field are rare. There’s nothing quite like the incredible wash of sound you get when sitting in an orchestra. It’s uplifting and makes you want to lift the audience up also. I also had a surprising amount of fun taking this audition. Enjoyment seemed to override any anxieties I may have had as soon as I began to play. I met flutists’ from all around the world, I got to play some great repertoire with piano and did I mention that I also got to drink copious amounts of soda water? Well, I made sure to drink this only after the audition as to avoid any possible accidental extended vocal (belching) techniques! Although it may have been a rather surprising twist on classic repertoire.
* On a side but very alarmingly real note, it is hard to envision the next five years when we face a climate crisis. David Gilmour, who just auctioned his valuable collection of guitars raising $21.5 million for the non-profit environmental law group, ClientEarth, said: “”The global climate crisis is the greatest challenge that humanity will ever face, and we are within a few years of the effects of global warming being irreversible… We need a civilised world that goes on for all our grandchildren and beyond in which these guitars [and all instruments] can be played and songs can be sung.” More on this a in my next post.
Never static, never silent
I mentioned in my last post that I would talk a more about my encounters with dance. At times I feel that my experiences with things are by no means accidental and are linked to an experience or experiences that will occur in the future. I’ve been fascinated by the human body and gesture for a long time. Personally I feel it is quite unnatural to not ‘move’ with music and simultaneously be moved by it also. But this is again up for debate. Trevor often told us that it didn’t matter how much we moved, if our music didn’t have vitality and the ability to dance on it’s own then our bodily movements would be for nought. On audio recordings you can’t hear the person’s bodily movement, unless of course they are being deliberately percussive. But if movement helps to heighten one’s sense of musical phrasing and musicality then one should do what they feel can help them communicate best. I love movement. I’ve come to understand it as music itself, a graphic score of sorts.
I was invited to do a performance for an arts exhibition opening at the Alte Munze in Berlin with dancers. It was an opportunity I received after attending an improvisation workshop with Chie Mukai, a musician and improviser from Osaka. This workshop brought together artists from many disciplines, from film, installation art and performance art. It was such a refreshing environment to improvise in and there were many breathtaking outcomes. I can say that I’ve had some really spectacular and wonderfully creative improvisations with those who aren’t necessarily trained musicians. In fact the theme of Mukai’s workshop was about freedom and eroding barriers, there should be nothing stopping us from innate human creative expression. And so we tore down any hesitations and let ourselves speak. It was in this workshop that I met many wonderful creatives active in Berlin. One of the artists, Yaqin Si, invited me to perform with dancers in the opening of an exhibition she was part of.
I had never really worked with professional dancers before. My set was to be the last of three-episodes, a solo flute performance to counter the heightened activity and rush of drums and electronics in Fumihiro Ono’s performances before. I had the pleasure of working with a chorus of innately creative dancers including Angelica Blalock, Veronica Parlagreco, Margherita Mattia, Katja-Maria Taavitsanen, Eva Kaak and Emma Bäcklund who provided a vision behind the performance and loosely choreographed the dancing. Our performance was intended to bring the night to a close and draw the audience outwards. The room was busy with artwork and people and required some conscious manoeuvring. In the centre a ‘battle ring’ had been set up with monitors surrounding reminiscent of a boxing ring. I requested for the lights to be turned off so that the only light would be from the city glow outside and the monitors. The performance was an ethereal moment of intimacy and in some ways transcendence. The dancers were in close contact moving across the space as one entity of movement. I responded to their movements through sound and bodily movement myself and in turn they responded to my music. For this performance I chose to begin on the alto flute, which has undoubtedly become my favourite flute over the years. I adore the organic tone, the richness of harmonics in the middle and upper registers and the simultaneous airy rawness. It reminds me of the smell of earth after rain. I moved around the space with the alto with the plan to transition to my concert flute at some point. As we moved out of the space the audience seemed to move with us, out through the entrance and up the stairs. It was a pied-piper moment. I will be sure to share the footage of the performance on my website and Instagram when I receive it.
I loved every moment of working with the dancers. It was a symbiotic performance whereby the movement of my sound and their movement of the body informed each other and coalesced. Collaborating across the arts is truly special and I feel that other art forms and disciplines can infuse and augment creative delivery, as a matrimony of creative languages that converses with each of our senses differently.
The third episode of ‘the long way home’, part three will tell of some of the fascinating concerts I’ve been to whilst here in Germany, transforming uncertainty to action in light of recent events, powerful projects from back home and upcoming performances and festivals. Stay tuned (not always in equal temperament) and sweet sonic journeys until then!