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Schubert Institute by Becky Claborn

Last summer (2008), a group of students from the University of Alberta music department had the opportunity of a lifetime when we got the chance to attend the Franz Schubert Institute in the beautiful town of Baden bei Wien, Austria. The Schubert Institute is a five-week program designed to give serious singers and pianists the chance to intensively study the art of the German lied. During these five weeks, the musicians perform in and attend masterclasses taught by some of the world’s most well-respected singers and pianists. We also had daily sessions with vocal, piano, diction, and acting coaches.

A typical day at the Institute was relentlessly intense, but very rewarding. We usually started off each day with a 9:00 A.M. poetry seminar taught by Dr. Deen Larsen, the founder of the institute and an expert on 19th-century German poetry. Under his guidance, we began to find new ways to examine the texts of our songs – not just as words to be learned and pronounced correctly, but as an integral part of the song, inextricably linked with the music. I don’t think any of us who attended will ever again feel that we’ve learned a song until we have spent time with the text, discovering its metaphors, our own response to it, and the musical nature of the words themselves.

After poetry class, we would go directly to the first of that day’s masterclass. Over the course of the five weeks, we were fortunate enough to work with eight of the world’s finest musical artists – from pianists Rudolf Jansen and Julius Drake, to singers Wolfgang Holzmair and living legend Elly Ameling. It was a tremendous honor to learn from these wonderful musicians, and I will always be grateful for the generosity with which they offered their time, expertise, and wisdom.

After a brief break for lunch, we’d return for the afternoon session of masterclass – six hours each day in total. Then it would be time for individual sessions with the Institute’s permanent coaches. We might start with a session with piano coach Michael McMahon, then move on to an in-depth exploration of the emotional center of a piece with acting coach Waltraud Österreicher, then finish with a vocal coaching from singer Bettina Smith. Finally, after about 12 hours of intense work and practice, we could collapse – but not before the nightly visit to the local heurigen, a type of family-owned wine bar where the wine was delicious and cheaper than mineral water, the food was tasty, and the people are friendly. This is where the participants formed bonds that will last a lifetime, often talking until the wee hours of the morning before getting up in a few short hours to do it all again the next day!

The intense schedule brought with it one thing above all – total exhaustion. This is intentional, according to Dr. Larsen, who wants the experience of the Institute to be comparable to a retreat. With exhaustion comes vulnerability, and only when we are vulnerable to the emotional truth of a song can we communicate that truth to our audience. The song must be true for the musicians if we are to honor the poet’s and composer’s intentions. There is a fundamental equality at play underlying all that goes on at the Institute – equality between text and music, between singer and pianist, and between the musicians as “truth-tellers” and the audience as receivers of that truth. It is a very spiritual approach to making music, and an open mind is required from everyone who participates. If everyone is able to adopt this mindset, the resulting atmosphere is one of support and trust, where it’s safe to take risks and everyone is there to learn – and not to be divas! It was truly inspiring to see all of the participants celebrate each other’s growth. Attending the Schubert Institute was like nothing I have ever experienced. For one thing, it’s not often that we get the chance to focus for so long solely on one thing, away from other distractions. But more than this, it was a chance to re-examine the fundamental reasons and ways that we make music. This program asked us to approach music in a more holistic way, reminding us that there is so much more to song than notes and words on a page. German lied is about communication with yourself, with your partner, and with your audience. It’s about the poet’s life experience, the composer’s, and your own, blending together in a unique interpretation that will never be exactly repeated. It is, like all great music, about taking something of the human condition and distilling it down to its essence so that for a brief period in time, musicians and audience share in the same truth. The Schubert Institute taught me that it is our responsibility as musicians to allow ourselves and our audience to have this kind of genuine experience, and to be open to the kind of deep communication that is unique to music. I know that neither I nor anyone who attended the program with me will ever be quite the same again.

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