The Mozarteum, Getting in the Back Door

The MozarteumIt was the summer of 1968. My parents, having seen “The Sound of Music,” had saved for the better part of a year in order to alleviate their homesickness and make the journey back to Salzburg to visit my grandparents for the summer. It was a summer of milestones for all of us. My father had only flown in an aircraft once before and for my mother the 14 hour journey would be her first experience away from terra firma. The trip would ultimately prove to be the last time my father would see his parents alive. We had also hoped to visit with my great-grandmother, known to me as “Wolfgang Omi” and my god-father, Ludwig. Sadly, they had passed within days of our departure and our visit was limited to planting fuscias on their new graves.

For me, the summer was a time of discovery. I was 15 years old, about 6’5” and looked at least 20 so there was nothing off limits. After a cup of my grandmother’s coffee, my first discovery of the summer and the beginning of a life-long addiction to the sort of coffee that turns spoons into forks, I would head out into the city on foot. I was alone and could do as I liked, go where it pleased me to and linger over whatever caught my interest. I became particularly enamored of the Mirabell Garden. The idea that this formal baroque garden, with its fountains, statuary and manicured flower beds was once someone’s back yard impressed me. So regardless of where my fact-finding mission of the day took me, a portion of the afternoon was spent sitting on a bench fantasizing that this was mine and those enjoying the garden were there by the grace of my benevolent nature. My usual perch turned out to be just under the open windows of the Mozarteum and the sounds of practicing singers and musicians pouring out into the garden air became the “first hit” of the second addiction I acquired that summer.

Up to that time I had been sitting on the fence between being a basketball star and becoming a world-famous musician. I was fifteen and had that curious combination of confidence and inherent laziness that marks that age. Sitting in the garden I decided that music had to be an easier way to get girls than sweating in a gym and my fate was sealed. I decided to study at the Mozarteum. The last thing that occurred to me as I made up my mind was that I would have to actually learn something. Sitting in my personal garden I was convinced that the music world was waiting to strew my path with flower petals.

Flash forward and thirty years of reality have not dimmed my ambition of entering the Mozarteum. This spring I produced the “Out Of Confusion” album for the Salzburg band, ConFused5. Herbert Hopfgartner is a multi instrumentalist, composer and one of the two talented lead singers in the group. During the recording of the album we discovered that we had a lot in common and subsequently, Herbert’s wife Regina Hopfgartner, a teacher of vocal pedagogy at the Mozarteum, asked if I would have interest in teaching a workshop for singers at the school. I played hard to get for a nano-second and accepted the invitation on any terms and at all cost. We decided that it would be a workshop aimed at singing students with a classical background and training but who wanted to sing pop and rock material. As Herbert is more adept at interpreting these styles than the average school accompanist, he graciously offered to lend his fingers to the project.

The workshop was attended by a wide variety of students and a few faculty members as well. As I scanned the room I saw that the teachers were all in the back row and imagined they might have been thinking, “Okay hotshot, show us something we don’t already know!” I could not have been more wrong. After a short introduction, I brought the first victim to the front of the room.

My chief aim for the workshop was to prove the value of keeping an open mind, When I went to school, andpete strobl what eventually drove me to leave the academic environment behind, was the close-minded attitude of my teachers and the manner in which they used their authority to foster the same prejudicial tastes in their students. I respect teachers for their learning and for the work that they do. But I have a great deal more respect for students because of the work they have yet to do. Teachers are already plying their trade, they have made their choices and are living their lives accordingly. But students are a blank page waiting for the words to be written. “What shall I do?” and “How shall I proceed?” are questions yet to be asked intelligently.

And so, given my rebellious nature, I had no qualms about instructing the students on more than one occasion to forget everything they have learned in school, if only for the next few hours. The reaction from the faculty members was not at all what I expected. The questions they asked and their welcoming attitude toward me demonstrated a willingness to learn something new and a genuine effort to give their students a different viewpoint and perhaps some tools they didn’t know were in the toolbox.

The most common impediment we encountered was fear. Most of these singers had excellent voices and good technique. What was missing in their performances was intent. The notes were correct, their diction and enunciation were, with a few adjustments, acceptable. But when attempting to sing anything contemporary they delivered data and not music. Years of learning technical exercises don’t yield an end product. They are meant to teach the body to respond in the most natural way to what is required. I have yet to see a poster advertising Gabriella Sans-Corazon in a program of vocal exercises. In working with these singers I attempted to take them out of their comfort zone. I asked them to describe what their song means and what they wished to convey to the audience other than “My, what a lovely vibrato, or, Doesn’t she stand with good posture?”

pete StroblThere were some corrections to make in the area of what I call Vocal Architecture. And there was the baritone who was trying to sing a song that had a high ‘G’ and I could see in his eyes that he knew it was coming and he also had a plan ‘B’ which he availed himself of every time. Apparently this singer had not heard of Leonard Warren, the great American baritone who sang the sort of high ‘B’-flat that made tenors look into their trousers to see if the twins were really all they were supposed to be. I asked the young man what his highest note was. He told me ‘E’ was about it. And I observed also that he was very sure about this and that it was based on many hours of training. Yep, ‘E’ was it and then he had to go into his head voice. So I took him to the piano and vocalized him a bit. I went up to ‘F’ sharp and he had no problem at all. But as soon as I told him that he had sung an ‘F’ sharp he folded again. I explained to him the importance of not caring how the note is named. And if he could sing an ‘F’ sharp freely, then a ‘G’ was nothing to worry about. It’s like being a receiver in football. How many times do we see a tough pass go off of a wide receivers fingertips? But if you can touch the ball, you should also be able to catch the ball with just a fraction more effort. This baritone had told himself that a ‘G’ was too high, and as long as he believes himself, it will be out of his range. No amount of exercising will change that belief. He already has the note, he’s just afraid of disobeying his own instructions and just letting it out.

The two days were heaven for me. And I want to thank the students for their attention, the teachers for their warm welcome, Herbert for putting up with me and providing expert accompaniment and finally, Regina Hopfgartner for making a thirty-year-old dream come true for me…even if I did come through the back door.There isn’t anything I love more than seeing young musicians step out of themselves and be who they really are, not who they think their teachers want them to be. And to freely express themselves without regard for what they think is right and wrong. Because there really isn’t a right or wrong in the arts. There is only “I dig it” and “I dig it not.”

One Response to “The Mozarteum, Getting in the Back Door”

  • Carla Zehrt

    Oh, am I glad to find your musings! I look at the computer much too often, and always your site to read what you have to say next… certainly a high light… thank you