The Founders of AIMS devoted many years of personal effort to make the programs of the American Institute of Musical Studies available to young musicians. There were five Founders although many others made invaluable contributions to the program in the early years. Richard Owens served as Executive Director from 1969 to 1984 and Nora Sands, Irma Cooper, Cornelius Eberhardt and Harold Heiberg each served more than 35 years.

The concept of a summer course of study for singers is attributed to Richard Owens and his wife, Nora Sands. Richard and Irma Cooper were singing in Germany and became acquainted with each other and with Cornelius Eberhardt. Although Richard and Irma had returned to the USA to assume positions as professors of voice, Richard at Baylor University and Irma at The Ohio State University, the idea of a summer program continued to be compelling and became a passion they wanted to pursue.

from left: Harold Heiberg, Irma Cooper, Richard Owens, Patricia Brinton-Becirovic (voice teacher) and Nora Sands Owens.

from left: Harold Heiberg, Irma Cooper, Richard Owens, Patricia Brinton-Becirovic (voice teacher) and Nora Sands Owens.

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Richard and Nora Owens

Opera performance opportunities in the United States were fewer and more difficult to obtain than in Europe. American singers needed to learn about the European opera system, how to audition, and to be heard by artists agents in order to gain this experience. In 1968, Richard began organizing a faculty to meet in Freiburg, Germany in 1969 for the first AIMS Summer Vocal Institute – described in posters distributed to U.S. music schools as “…9 weeks of intensive training with international artists and coaches for singers and pianists….”

In Freiburg, the faculty and students lived in private homes and hotels; teaching and performance spaces were limited, mainly hotels and churches. Cornelius Eberhardt, Irma Cooper and others were members of the first faculty. Richard and Nora sought better facilities for AIMS. In Graz, they found space for teaching at a school, “the Pädak”, adjacent to Schloss Eggenberg and for living quarters at the Elisabethstrasse Studentenheim. Many other aspects of the city made Graz the ideal location for AIMS –  its size, convenient transportation system, a well-established cultural calendar, the availability of pianos for the teachers and coaches, and excellent performance venues. AIMS relocated to Graz in 1971 and in its first year offered a summer music festival of opera, operetta and Lieder performances.

Nora Sands, also an accomplished singer, became Executive Director of AIMS in 1985. A native of Madisonville, Tennessee, Nora charmed everyone with her southern manner. She was beloved by her many friends in Graz, her colleagues, and by hundreds of students who came to Graz. She refocused the AIMS program to emphasize vocal technique, choosing repertoire appropriate for the voice, perfecting audition, techniques and other requirements of a professional music career. AIMS singers found jobs in European opera houses every year and many attribute their early success to their experiences at AIMS. AIMS was a fulltime job for Nora. Recruiting and auditioning students to come to AIMS, raising money in both the United States and Graz to underwrite the program, and the tasks necessary to plan an intensive six-week school and music festival consumed every week of the year.

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Fortunately, a third Founder, Irma Cooper (picture left), worked tirelessly for AIMS and she and her childhood friend, Martha Ellen Tye (on the picture right: Joe and Martha Ellen Tye), both from Marshalltown, Iowa, supported AIMS financially. Irma was head of the AIMS voice faculty and Chairman of the AIMS Board of Directors from its inception until her death in 2002. A tall, striking figure with a beguiling wit and charm, she was admired as a teacher, mentor and friend by her students. She and Martha Ellen Tye were patrons of the arts in Marshalltown and Columbus, Ohio, and benefactresses of AIMS and of the Metropolitan Opera (“the Met”) in New York City. Bedecked in their finest attire, they attended the opening night of every season of the Met. Irma knew many of the great Met singers and did not hesitate to go backstage with AIMS brochures in hand to greet them and tell them about AIMS.

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Martha Ellen‘s manner was more retiring and most people were unaware that it was her wealth (through the Gramma Fisher Foundation, named for her mother) that provided hundreds of thousands of dollars for support of opera productions at the Met. (Private money, not tax money, supports culture in the United States.) Irma and Martha Ellen made the AIMS teaching program and the musical performances in Graz possible year after year.

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Professors Cornelius Eberhardt (picture left) and Harold Heiberg (picture below) are also named as Founders because they joined AIMS in its first year. As General Music Director of AIMS, Maestro Eberhardt organized the AIMS Orchestra in 1978 and was its primary conductor until 2006, conducting almost 100 concerts in Graz and Styria. Nora Sands Irma Cooper Joe & Martha Ellen Tye In recognition of their contributions to the cultural life of Graz, Irma Cooper, Nora Sands and Cornelius Eberhardt received the “Goldene Ehrenzeichen der Stadt Graz” (gold medal of the City of Graz). Nora and Cornelius received the “Große Golden Ehrenzeichen des Landes” (gold medal of the Province of Styria) for their contributions to the cultural life of Styria.

Prof. Heiberg taught the history and performance of the German Lied and the art of accompanying Lieder at AIMS for 35 years. He became widely known in the United States and Europe for his knowledge of the poetry and music of the German Lied, and for his performances both as a piano soloist and an accompanist of Lieder. Hundreds of students came to AIMS to study the Lied under his tutelage.

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AIMS owes a debt of gratitude to the Founders for making the summer institute a reality, for nurturing it, and for the opportunity to live, study, teach and perform in Graz. Many teachers and famous artists contributed to the richness of the AIMS experience. AIMS is a viable and dynamic program today because of their extraordinary work and passion and the support of thousands of American donors, Graz citizens who support and attended the concerts, the City of Graz, and the Province of Styria.

Since 2003, the number of AIMS participants has increased in recent years and the organization is financially stable. It remains true to its heritage while adapting to current conditions in the musical world. Administrative costs have been reduced and funds increased for programs that directly benefit participants and the concert/recital series in Graz.