Sunday, 8 December 2013

On speaking like a German...

This week in Stuttgart I’ve enjoyed hanging out with a lot of other English speakers.  The choir has two Americans, a Brit, and, including myself, three Canadians.  When we expats get together, of course we enjoy speaking English.  But we still find ourselves throwing in the odd German word or phrase.  German is such a colourful language, so full of character.  And some German words are just so apt.  There is no English word that will express quite the same thing.  Here are some of my favourite idiomatic phrases which are useful in German:

Bitte – An essential word if you want to be polite, especially in restaurants and hotels.  Depending on context, “bitte” can mean “please”, “here you go”, “pardon me?” or “you’re welcome”.  Just imagine this absurd exchange: “Can I have the cheese, bitte?” "Bitte?" "I said can I have the cheese, bitte?" “Bitte.”  “Thank you.”  “Bitte.”  I’m not joking, this conversation could actually happen.  If you don’t learn any other German word, bitte learn bitte!

Danke – Don’t worry, while “bitte” has several meanings, “danke” just means “thank you”.  If you want to emphasise it further, you could say “Danke sehr” (thanks very much), “vielen Dank” (many thanks), or danke schön” (pretty thanks??  I’m just as confused as you are).

Pretty thanks???
Entschuldigung – An essential for navigating busy streets and train stations.  “Entschuldigung”, or the more formal “Entschuldigungen Sie” means “excuse me”.  It can also be used as a more casual form of “I’m sorry” (if you want to be really apologetic, you would say “es tut mir Leid” – literally “it does me pain”).  Before you know it, “entschuldigung” will become an automatic reflex when you bump into someone or push past them in a crowd.  I often forget myself when I’m in an English-speaking country, and say “entschuldigung” when bumping into someone.  That’s how much it’s ingrained in me.

Genau – This is my favourite word in German.  It’s a kind of all-around positive response.  It can mean “yes”, “exactly”, “I agree”, or “totally”.  If you want to really emphasise it, you can nod vigorously and say “ganz genau”.

GANZ genau!!!
Lust haben – Germans don’t say they “feel like” doing something.  Instead they “have Lust” to do it.  The desire or motivation to say, go shopping, is seen as an object which you either have or don’t have.  If you don’t feel like doing something, you might say “ich habe kein Lust”: “I have no inclination.”  In Cologne, some people say “ich habe Bock”, which is funny, because it literally means “I have goat”.

I have goat to go shopping???
Gern – This is a handy little word.  Similar to “having Lust”, it implies an enthusiasm or a desire for something.  It is usually used to qualify a verb.  “Ich hätte gern” roughly translates as “I would like to have”.  You might tell someone that you enjoy knitting: “ich stricke gern”.  “Gern” can also stand alone as a statement of enthusiasm and/or willingness.  If someone asks if you would like to go for a beer, you might respond with an enthusiastic “gern”!  Waiters also use this as a polite response when you say “thank you” – sort of like saying “my pleasure” in English.

Stimmt – Another sort of agreement word.  “Stimmt” is a combination of “ok”, “that’s right”, and “I agree”.  If you want to tip your waiter, instead of telling them to keep the change you can say “stimmt so”.

Eben - A strong expression of agreement.  In my friend's words, it's like saying "you said it, sister".  Not to be confused with "eben so", which means "likewise".

Oder – This is a strange one, and I’m still getting used to it.  Technically, “oder” means “or”.  But Germans love to use it at the end of a sentence.  “That was great pizza, oder?”  “We should get going, oder?”  The first time you hear this, you will probably wait for the rest of the sentence.  We should get going or what??  But don't be fooled - there is no rest of the sentence.  It’s a rhetorical question, like asking someone to confirm their agreement, even though you already know that they agree.  Basically equivalent to the Canadian “eh”.

-Es ist ganz kalt, oder?
-It sure is cold out here, eh?
Alles klar – Similar to oder, this is often asked as a rhetorical question.  It literally means “all clear”.  People might ask “alles klar” to make sure you understand something.  But it’s a polite formality: usually they don’t want to hear an answer.  You might also say “alles klar” as a statement, like “got it”.

Doch – A funny little interjection.  It can be used the way English-speakers say “like”, to fill a space in conversation.  It can also mean “rather” or “on the contrary”.  “I don’t have any brothers – doch I have three sisters.”  Or it can be used as a simple agreement, like "yeah".

Günstig – This has been an extremely important word for me as a penniless singer in Germany.  “Günstig” means “affordable” or “sensible”.  Whether you are buying a mattress or making plans with friends, you probably want to find the most “günstig” option available.

Praktisch – A word very dear to the German heart.  It means “practical” and it is seen as a very important quality.  Probably the highest praise a German could give something is to call it “praktisch”.  But if it is “unpraktisch” or even, heaven forbid, “unlogisch” (illogical), you can expect some disapproving tutting and shaking of heads.

Pünktlich – Another word very dear to the German heart.  Germans are renowned for their “Pünktlichkeit”: their punctuality.  German culture places high importance on being on time and strictly following a schedule.  Germans will usually show up exactly on time for their appointments, if not earlier, and they will expect the same from others.  Most of the time this is awesome – after all, don’t you hate waiting for latecomers?  But sometimes it leads to an irritating kind of inflexibility.  If you change a schedule, be prepared for Germans to get flustered and make such a fuss that you’ll feel you have committed a cardinal sin.

Schade – This one-word phrase is used to express regret when something goes wrong or can’t go as planned.  Your friend can’t meet you for coffee because they were called into a last-minute meeting?  Schade.  Sometimes Germans translate this into English as “it’s a pity”, and you have to remind them that we are no longer in Jane Austen’s time.  Simply saying “too bad” will suffice.

"It's a pity."
Tja – Sometimes this is a thinking sound, like “hmm…”  Other times it’s used to express judgement and disapproval.  “Tja, of course he’s going out to smoke again.”

Na ja – A philosophical sound, like the thinking man’s “well”.  It implies that you are thinking rather deeply on the subject.  You can use it to begin a sentence: “Na ja, she is a good colleague”.  Or you can just say it thoughtfully and trail off, like saying “oh well”.  “Na ja…”

Guten Appetit – I don’t understand why we don’t have an English equivalent for this.  The French say “bon appetit”, and the Dutch say “smakelijk”.  The German say “guten Appetit”.  Do English people just not want their friends to enjoy their meals?  Or are they too fixated on scarfing their food down to even think about it?  In any case.  “Guten Appetit” is a lovely little phrase to use when sharing a meal with German friends.

Prost – If you’re in Germany, chances are that you’ll be enjoying some beer.  Or a nice dry Riesling, if that’s more your thing.  Anyway, the essential word at the German Kneipe is not “cheers” or “chin chin” but “Prost”.  For extra points, try to say it with a super-closed “O” and a hearty guttural “r” which brings up all the phlegm at the back of your throat.


Keine Ahnung – When all else fails, and you’re at a total loss, this is the phrase you’ll need.  “Keine Ahnung”.  “No idea”.  Said with a dismissive shrug of the shoulders, with a hope that whoever asked you will go elsewhere for the answer.

These are just a sample of the many useful Deutsch expressions which I’ve come to know and love.  Try peppering your speech with these words as much as possible, and before you know it you’ll sound as German as Sauerkraut!

Sunday, 1 December 2013

On being brave...

Last weekend I had the pleasure of singing Bach’s motet “Jesu meine Freude”.  This is one of my favourite pieces of music in the world.  I first sang it in Stuttgart with Helmuth Rilling, and have since sung it in Toronto, and again in Edinburgh.  So I was very happy to have the opportunity to sing it once again in Cologne.  “Jesu meine Freude” is a masterpiece of beauty and unity: it holds together exquisitely as a whole.  But beyond the music, I love the piece’s message of bravery and steadfastness.  My favourite movement is the dramatic “Trotz dem alten Drachen”:

Trotz dem alten Drachen,
Trotz des Todes Rachen,
Trotz der Furcht darzu!
Tobe, Welt, und springe,
Ich steh hier und singe in gar sichrer Ruh

…which roughly translates as:

“I defy the old dragon,
I defy the jaws of death,
I defy fear as well!
Rage, World, and spring to attack:
I stand here and sing in secure peace”

Turns out Bach is kind of a badass.
I just love this statement.  It’s so strong and defiant.  It reminds me of the incredible act of bravery which singing is.  How many destructive forces to we have to battle every time we get up on stage to perform?  How many inner voices of worry and doubt do we have to ignore in order to let our own voice be heard?  It’s got me thinking about the negative thoughts and feelings which we often fight with when singing...


Trotz dem alten Drachen…

Obviously, the old dragon looks like Smaug from The Hobbit.
We all have an old dragon within us.  He may be a bit tired and slow, but he still likes to rear his ugly head every once in a while and make us shake in our boots.  The old dragon is an accumulation of all your past baggage.  Every bad memory, every negative belief about yourself, every piece of criticism you’ve ever heard.  As much as you try to keep this old dragon hidden away in a cave, he can still come back to haunt you.  You might be in the middle of giving a winning performance in a competition, and suddenly the old dragon will be at your ear.  “Remember that time you fluffed the coloratura in that audition?  Remember the teacher who told you you can’t act?”  If you let him, he will keep going.  He won’t stop until he’s paralysed you completely.  The old dragon always has to be kept at bay.  He is old news, and he doesn’t belong in the here and now.  You have to fight him back with everything you’ve got.

Trotz des Todes Rachen

This zebra doesn't seem too bothered about the jaws of death.
While the old dragon represents ghosts from yours past, the jaws of death represent phantoms in your future.  The future doesn't exist yet, but that doesn't mean you can't imagine it in all kinds of horrible ways.  Every time you get up to perform, there is a certain amount of risk involved.  You can't help but think that this time you might not manage it.  This time you might falter.  No matter how much you practise, there is always a very real possibility that something might go wrong.  It might be a small slip, and it might be a total disaster.  There is only so much we can control in performance.   But thinking "what if" is like looking down when you're crossing a tightrope: it will only make you waver and stumble, when you were doing perfectly fine before.  Thinking about making mistakes will only encourage them to happen.  And you can’t let some imagined version of the future mess up the reality of the present.

Trotz der Furcht darzu!

Trudy was having difficulty overcoming her fear of hands.
When you worry about the past or the future, you are letting yourself be driven by fear.  What else are you afraid of when you walk onstage?  I don’t know about you, but I’m usually afraid of judgement.  I’m afraid of what the audience or the audition panel might think of me.  This is one of the hardest things about being a performer: you are constantly making yourself vulnerable, opening yourself up to others’ opinions.  But if you're afraid of judgement, you'll never take the kinds of bold risks that will make you an exciting artist.  The best performers are the authentic ones.  The ones who do their own thing, without worrying about what other people think.  If you want to make great art, you can’t always be afraid of being judged.  You have to dare to be yourself.  You have to be fearless.

Tobe, Welt, und springe, ich steh hier und singe in gar sichrer Ruh.

Calm in the eye of the storm
Ever had one of those days?  When everything seems to be going wrong, and there’s nothing you can do about it?  Life is unpredictable.  And it can certainly throw you a few curveballs when you least expect it.  You may be faced with a practical problem, like a delayed train making you late for an audition.  Or you may be dealing with difficulties in your personal life, like arguing with your parents.  Whatever it is, it should never interfere with your performance.  The show, as they say, must go on.  Any worries and distractions have to be pushed aside.  Any inner turmoil must be stilled.  The moment you step onstage, you exist only for the performance.  You have to be able to sing from a place of calm and peace.


The mind is a powerful thing, and it can have a huge impact on our ability to perform well.  You can be the most talented singer in the world, but you won't get anywhere if your mind isn't on your side.  So how do we defeat these demons?  How do we overcome our inner turmoil? How do we deliver a showstopping performance against all odds? 

In her Q&A session at Juilliard (I highly recommend watching the whole thing on youtube), Joyce DiDonato talks about these negative inner voices which can interfere with your singing.  As she points out, you just don’t have the time to listen to these voices!  There are so many things to think about when you’re performing: the meaning of the text, the dramatic context of the music, your musical interpretation, your technical approach to each phrase… Why would you waste any time listening to a voice telling you that you messed up the high note, or that you might have a run in your stocking?  Joyce suggests you should dismiss these voices – tell them to go get a coffee, and you’ll talk to them after the show.

But sometimes it's not enough just to tell negative thoughts to go away.  Sometimes they keep shouting at you and won't be ignored.  This is extremely dangerous, because negative thoughts can be have a huge influence on your performance.  If you keep imagining things going wrong, they probably will.

An old teacher of mine used to encourage me to combat this with "positive mental practice".  Any time I had a performance coming up, she would tell me to spend time going through the performance in my mind.  She told me to imagine giving the best performance possible.  Every little detail, down to the last note, would go exactly as planned.  I would be full of energy and spark, and the audience would love me.  This exercise served as a powerful affirmation.  The more I envisioned things going well, the more I felt that they really would, and the more that they actually did.  Sometimes it's not enough just to banish negative thoughts.  Sometimes you have to fight back by cultivating positive thoughts instead.

Get back, you evil old dragon!
Singers have to be superheroes.  Every day that we perform, we battle with powerful evil forces: bad memories, old insecurities, worries about the future, fears of being judged, and problems from outside the practice room.  When you stop and think about it, it's a wonder that we're able to sing at all!  But with the positivity and presence of mind, we can overcome almost anything.  We just have to remember to draw on our inner strength.  To be focused and fearless.  Only then can we stand here and sing in gar sichrer Ruh.