Every day that I am immersed in the German language is a little different. Here in Berlin, all my college classes - The German Social Market Economy, Modern German Literature, Theater in Berlin, and Berlin Memory Politics are taught in German, which has proved to be quite a challenge...sometimes.
Some days I feel like everything will be okay. On these days, I feel comfortable and confident. I notice how my German has improved. I have a great conversation with a professor or my host family in German, and I walk away hopeful. But on other days, or the next day, I sit for a 90 minute lecture tracing my hand unable to focus. I stand in the middle of a group of Germans and can’t follow a word they say. I question everything I hear. The list of words I don’t understand during the lecture is longer than my notes. A single page of a book takes an hour to get through, and when I turn the page, I am still not sure what it was about. I feel a constant anxiety that I am forgetting to do something, but I have no idea what it is because I only understand 50% of what anyone says at any moment.
On the good days, I reassure myself that at least my conversational German is passable. I had my first French horn lesson this week with my new teacher in Berlin. Immediately we addressed language. We had communicated in German over text, but when we met, she wanted to confirm my fluency, and I responded with my usual hesitation. But nevertheless, we decided to work with my understanding of German, because she is from Hungry and doesn't speak very much English.
I left elated and in awe that even though I was in another country, on another continent, speaking another language, it was still the same lesson. We talked about breath support and tone. She used metaphors and gestures and sound effects. She showed me how to stand, how to breathe, how to tighten my lips.
Some things were different. The vocabulary was different. I didn’t know the German words for scale, pitch, or flat or sharp. I have spent all of my musical career playing in Wind Ensembles and Symphonic Bands, which don’t really exist in Europe the way they do in the U.S. In Europe, orchestras are the thing. The style of orchestral playing is different. Orchestral horns play to fill a different space and with a slightly different tone emphasis. Our horns are also made differently. In the U.S., horns are made so that with no fingers down they play in F, and when the thumb trigger is pressed the horn is in B flat. In Germany, it is the opposite. So, we had some fun trying to determine which way I should play.
But still the music is the same. As horn players, we learn the same techniques, read the same notes, think about the same pitches. We speak in a language of metaphors and similes. Play like your air is water coming out of a hose. Make the notes connect like a slope and not a staircase. Play like your bowling, with the force and follow-through. Breathe into your whole body.
When the next bad day comes, and I don’t understand a word, and I am questioning everything, I can remember the joy of shared experience, even without fluent language.
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<p>Apart from my first two years at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, I have lived my whole life in Bellingham, Washington, a college town surrounded by green hills and snowy mountains on one side and the Puget Sound on the other. Since I was eleven, I've made a point to ride my unicycle down my town's Memorial Day parade route before it starts, a tradition interrupted briefly in high school when I was in the marching band. My summer job is teaching swim lessons, and I have gotten quite good at talking a scared four-year-olds into jumping off the diving board.</p>