Sunday, 29 March 2015

On learning a foreign language (Part 2)

It's been a year and a half now since I last wrote about learning a foreign language.  A lot has changed since then.  I'm starting to get the hang of this German business now, and for the most part I get by.  I'm certainly nowhere close to being fluent, but somehow I am managing to function every day auf Deutsch.

Of course, it does help that I finally sucked it up and hit the books.  Last spring I signed up for an intensive B1 course at the Volkshochschule in Cologne.  (For those of you not in the know, the Volkshochschule is a German institute for adult education: a much more affordable route for learning German than Berlitz or the Goethe Institute, although you won't get any official accreditation).  The course gave my German skills a major boost.  The biggest difference I noticed was my grammar.  Before taking the course I would often just throw random words together into a sentence, and pray it made some kind of sense.  Now I'm much more conscious of things like cases and word order.  The rules haven't yet become automatic, but at least now I think about them and try to correct myself.

I have progressed.  Really, I have.  And people are noticing.  But no matter how good my German gets, it never feels real.  The truth is, most days I feel like a big fat fraud.  It's like I'm putting on an act for everyone.  I don't really speak German – I'm just playing the role of someone who does.  I'm constantly acting, pretending, struggling to "pass" – and hoping that people won't see right through me.

There are days I'm so sure that someone will turn around and call my bluff.  "YOU don’t belong here!" they'll say.  "You don't REALLY speak German!"

"RAUS, du L├╝gner!!!"

I always knew learning a new language would be an intellectual challenge.  What I wasn't prepared for was the emotional challenge.  The feeling that you never really fit in, and you never really know what's going on.  The frustration that comes with being unable to express yourself fully or accurately.  The intense homesickness of missing your native language.  The loneliness and isolation that comes with realising you're the only person in the room who speaks it.

All of the feels.

When I first moved to Germany, I used to play it safe.  Surround myself with English speakers, and only speak German when it was absolutely necessary.  It was like I had this safe little English bubble to float around in.

Lalalala.... bubbling around...

But I couldn't stay in this bubble forever.  After all, I wouldn't always have English-speaking colleagues around.  More and more, I began to find myself in situations where nobody else spoke English.  It was overwhelming, and it scared me half to death.  But it left me with no choice.  I had to sink or swim.  If I wanted to survive, I would have to do it auf Deutsch.

How can I explain the discomfort of constantly speaking a language which isn't your own?  It's like an extra layer of challenge has been added to every single part of your day.  Imagine if you could never see things clearly, but instead had to peer through a screen all the time.  You never get a full picture of reality.  You're always squinting and craning your neck, trying to piece together what on earth is going on from what you can – just barely – see.  That's what it feels like speaking German every day.  Some days the screen obscures a lot, and sometimes it's more transparent.  But make no mistake, the screen is always there.

"It looks like... they're saying something.. about..... a bicycle?"

Perhaps the most difficult thing is that, in German, I can't really be myself.  I'm far too self-conscious and slow on the uptake.  I must seem like the most boring person in the world in German.  I hardly say a word aside from "ja" or "stimmt".  Usually by the time I've understood someone and formulated a response, they've moved on to another subject entirely.

One-on-one conversations are fine, because my conversation partner can always slow to my pace.  But group situations are the absolute worst.  As the talk gets lively, everyone starts talking a mile a minute and interrupting each other.  Meanwhile I'm sitting in silence, looking for all the world like a dull and humourless idiot.  It probably seems like I have no thoughts or ideas in my head at all.  The truth is that my head couldn't be busier!  While everyone else is nattering on, I'm making a bunch of complicated linguistic calculations and mental back-flips just to get a basic grasp of what they're talking about.

So much.... translating....

Any friend of mine can attest to the instant transformation I undergo when I switch from German to English.  As I move to my native tongue, all hesitations fall away, and my true self emerges.  One minute I'm dull as dishwater, and the next minute I'm the life of the party.  Hey, who knew it?  Turns out this girl actually has a personality!

For this reason, I still socialise a lot in English.  Most of my friends are other native English speakers, or Germans with very good English (there's a lot of those).  I may be able to make small talk and friendly chat in German, but this always comes with a certain level of awkwardness, and a lingering feeling that I'm doing my math homework.  It's one thing to go through this effort when I'm on the clock, but why would I want it in my down-time?  Only in English can I truly relax.  Only in English can I feel natural, and be myself without worrying about whether I just used the right pronoun.

"Ahhhh.... this is the life."

And so a real dichotomy has developed.  German is my work language, and English is my leisure language.  It's like I put on a German hat to go to work, and take it off as soon as I get home.

I often wonder when this language will become second nature.  When will I be truly fluent?  When will I speak German with bravado and ease?  When will I form a sentence without thinking, is it der, die, or das?

Years later, Joe still wonders if it was "die Birne" after all

One sure sign will be the day I have a real German friend.  I'm not talking about a German friend who speaks English with me.  I'm not talking about a friend-ly German, who speaks simple German with me so we can make superficial chitchat.  I'm talking about a German who speaks to me in German consistently, using sophisticated language, and discusses deep and important issues.  I'm talking about someone who can be real with me in their language, and not have to constantly worry about dumbing things down.  If I can reach that level of understanding with a native German speaker, I'll know I've really made it.

But I have to be patient.  Learning another language is a slow process, and nobody becomes fluent overnight.  It takes years of repetition, immersion, and trial and error.  Sometimes your progress can be so slow it's imperceptible – and other times you'll make a huge leap and completely surprise yourself.  It will be years before I can feel completely comfortable in German.  In the meantime I'll have to be kind to myself, and trust that I'm moving forward.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Ten Tips for Touring

As you may have noticed, I've been doing a lot of touring lately.  As well as travelling around Germany for various projects, this season I've been in a concert tour of China and Korea.  I just got back from a trip to Spain, and I'm now gearing up for a big tour of South America in April.

Being on tour is an intense experience.  You are with the same group of people, repeating the same programme and travelling together for days on end.  It takes a lot of energy and focus, as well as patience and good humour.  Here are some important things which I've learned about what it takes to be a happy touring musician...

(Psst... You might want to start by getting a bigger suitcase)


1. Stay on top of the paperwork

Touring is rarely as simple as flying from point A to point B.  Often you will have to travel to several different locations, and apply for all of the relevant working visas.  Take it from me – you should start on this as early as possible.  Usually your employer will tell you what you need and which forms to fill out, but you may also need to look into some of this stuff on your own.  And even when you think it's all sorted, there can always be further complications and delays.  I recently had to apply for a temporary second passport at the Canadian embassy, and I'm glad I started early.  As it turned out, they needed English translations of the letters from my employers.  This inevitably took some extra time.  Imagine if I had left all of this until the last minute.  I would have never got the passport in time for the tour.  I would have been landlocked, and lost out on ten days of work!

2. Be prepared for anything

Sunshine, rain, snow, plagues of locusts – you need to pack for every possibility you can imagine.  You'll be kicking yourself if you get to a cold concert hall and realise you've forgotten your long sleeves at home.  Never say never.  Anything can happen on tour.

Betty and Jim really wished they had brought their locust repellent with them to Egypt.


3. Bring along a piece of home

Travelling from hotel to hotel can be stressful and exhausting.  So it's important to make your temporary residence as comfortable and home-y as possible.  Everyone has different things which make them feel at home.  Whether it's a cup of tea, a pair of fuzzy slippers, or a favourite movie on their laptop, these things can transform a cold soul-less hotel room into your home away from home.  Don't underestimate the importance of these small creature comforts.  They can really help you negotiate the stress of long-term travel.

Fuzzy slippers are really important, you guys!


4. Find some regularity

Another way to handle the stress of touring is to create your own regularity within the irregularity.  Having some routines and habits can help everything feel a lot less chaotic.  I have a bit of a ritual when I arrive at a new place.  I unpack my suitcase in a particular order, I have a short nap if there’s time, and then I warm up before heading to the venue.  It's important to me that I unpack right away, so that I can feel settled as soon as possible.  Aside from my unpacking ritual, I am also a member of a gym which has locations all over Germany.  This means that no matter where in the country I'm working, I can always go to my gym and know my way around.  These may seem like small details, but they really help me feel comfortable on the road.

5. Do some forward planning

When you’re travelling for work, there isn't as much space for being spontaneous as there would be on holiday.  Your sightseeing time is limited, and you can't just wander aimlessly hoping to run into something cool.  So research the places you'll be visiting.  What is unique there which you absolutely must see?  When might you have time between rehearsals and concerts to go and see it?  I'm not saying you have to make yourself a detailed itinerary, but it helps to have a rough idea of what you will see when.  I had an amazing visit recently to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.  I was particularly inspired by the exhibit of Niki de Saint Phalle.  I'm so glad I put some time aside to go and see it!

Seriously, how cool is this??

6. Pace yourself

Touring requires a lot of energy and endurance.  You have to think of the long game – this is a marathon, not a sprint!  It is of utmost importance that you conserve your health and energy through to the very end of the trip.  Know your own body and be sensible enough to rest when you need it.  You may feel a bit blue about missing a night at the bar or an afternoon of sightseeing, but it's better to make that sacrifice than to end up sick for the rest of the tour.

"Ahhhh.... made it."


7. Keep it fresh

One of the toughest things about touring is that you're usually performing the same piece, over and over.  But just because the music is old news to you, doesn't mean it should sound like that to the audience!  This is the first time they're hearing your performance, and they want to hear something fresh and inspiring.  So don't let yourself coast.  Keep looking for new things in the music, and trying to outdo yourself.  Could that phrase have a smoother legato?  Could that high note have a better approach?  Remember – the biggest room in the world is the room for improvement.


This is also a very big room.

8. Set a budget

You can spend crazy amounts of money on tour if you’re not careful.  The last thing you want is to come home to an empty bank account!  Many employers will pay you a per diem for your meals, which can provide a good guideline for your daily spending limit.  However there are some companies who don't provide a per diem, and if you're not careful you can eat up most of your fee before you've even been paid.  I like to take out a set amount of cash every week, based on a daily spending limit.  Some days I might go above or below this limit, but I always make sure it averages out in the end.  As long as I don't need to take out more cash before the week is out, it's all good.  This trick is even easier if you're visiting a country with a different currency.  If you only buy so many pesos from your bank, you will only have so much with you on tour.

Benito Juarez is judging your spending habits.


9. Do it like the locals

Why go all the way to Japan only to spend all your time in Starbucks?  You have a unique opportunity here to explore a new country.  Get out there and enjoy it!  Check out the local food, the local wines, the theatres, the museums, the festivals and marketplaces – everything which makes this place unique.  You may never have a chance in your life to do all of this again.  So seize the day!

10. Schedule some time to crash post-tour

You will be tired after a tour, especially if it's a week or longer.  So for the love of God, don't plan an important meeting the day you get back!  Sometimes these things can't be helped.  But if you have any control over your schedule (which freelancers normally do) make sure you have an empty day or two when you get home.  You'll need this time to rest, recover, and tackle that giant mountain of laundry sitting in your suitcase.

"Send help!"


Touring can be a real hoot!  It can also be a gruelling nightmare if you're not careful.  In the end, it all comes down to how you approach it.  So be smart and organised, plan ahead, and try to keep a healthy balance between work and play.

I hope these tips will help you make the most of your next tour.  Happy travels!