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Katie Kelley is a singer in the Concert Studio for AIMS in Graz 2014. We are excited to have her blog about her summer experiences!

July 22, 2014


We had our official weekend off to explore! There were groups that went to Budapest, Vienna, and Salzburg, as well as many, myself included, who took the opportunity to explore the areas just outside of Graz. For me it was a weekend of lessons in cultural differences. We had one of our hottest days yet on Saturday, so some friends and I went in search of a public pool. We found one, but it was a six euro entry fee (major cultural difference number one: you pay for just about everything here, including water at restaurants and public restrooms, but there’s no sales tax) so we skipped it, and instead got a little lost in the city. We discovered how good the street musicians can be, which is both wonderful, and, once you ask yourself why someone who can play Bach so beautifully is living on the streets, absolutely terrifying. We also discovered the glory that is Schoko-Orange flavored gelato: organic dark chocolate with candied orange rind slivers mixed in. So good.


Gelato brings me to another major cultural difference that I’ve been happy to see. The people here seem to sustain themselves entirely on gelato, sausage, and beer, but because preservatives and over-processed foods are so rare here, because the people lead such incredibly active lifestyles, and because the culture seems to encourage a more natural beauty, everyone is stunningly (…intimidating) beautiful. There are rarely mirrors in bathrooms. The only place I have seen more than just shoulders up of my own body since I got here is in my teachers studio, where it is important to be able to assess the movements of my jaw, ribs, and hips. On hot days a lot of women just go without bras and, (gasp) this doesn’t seem to offend anyone. If the street car is a little crowded, it probably smells a little funky. What I’m trying to say is that people are encouraged to be humans here, not perfect plastic models of humans, but real humans who separate their recycling and eat whatever they want without a barrage of advertisements shaming them.


Late Saturday night my suite mate invited me to go hiking with a group the next morning. I can’t get enough of this landscape, so I agreed to go, not knowing at all what I had signed up for. At about nine in the morning, after an hour bus ride, we arrived in a sweet mountain town shadowed by a real, life-size mountain, and began our ascent. After three hours (yeah, three hours) of steeply inclined gravel paths and old, somewhat rickety ladders that took us over and around the most pristine waterfalls, we reached the half way point and rested at the restaurant there. German women who were easily over three times our age had beaten us there and looked ready to conquer the second half, which I decided not to attempt at all. After deciding we wanted to be able to walk the next day, myself and two others decided to head down. We got a little lost after taking a detour into a very Sound of Music-y field, but, as seems to be the theme of this entire trip so far, getting lost lead to wonderful things. We conquered peak after peak as they came into our view, scaling rockier and rockier paths. I sat out on a ledge that was perfectly my size and observed the lack of silence. Nature sounds and organized music are inextricably linked. Then we discovered a cave, and the deer living inside gave us quite a start. Then we saw two gigantic rams, a male and a female, from no more than 30 feet away. These are big animals, bulky even before you add the huge curved horns, but in just a couple of dainty steps they showed us just how inept we tiny humans were at navigating the rocky mountainside. It was incredible to stand so calmly face to face with these creatures, knowing that this was their home and that they really didn’t have to allow us to be there, but they did. Even more awesome was our final view before we actually began our descent. After conquering the final peak that we would climb that day, I descended out onto the farthest ledge I could see, so that I felt I was on a tiny island in the sky surrounded by mountains and rolling hills and clouds and birds. I won’t attempt to describe the view except by saying that it was endless, and as beautiful in detail as in grandeur. I could have sat there all day and night, but even just in the short time I was able to be there, it had a huge effect on me. I have a theory teacher back at Baylor who always tells us its important for musicians to spend time in nature, but I never really understood why until now. Music is often about contrast, about light and dark, about how sun light is made all the more stunning by the clouds that break it apart into shards that segment entire landscapes. To have a successful performance, a musician has to have both the minutia under control and the big picture in mind. Every singer has been told this in a thousand different ways, but, sitting on top of that mountain, I finally really appreciated how linked these two ideas are. I think that maybe we can stop viewing the details and the big picture as two separate flaming batons we need to keep in the air at the same time, but rather we should realize that the big picture, the landscape of a song, is made up entirely of a million tiny details. The ideas of light and dark fit right in there too. That probably seems obvious. At any rate, sitting out there and thinking about music and about nothing and about how many wild strawberries I was yet to find was wonderful.


The way down was a little bit terrible. It’s very steep and while going up had burned and challenged every muscle in your body, going down just killed your knees. I definitely did a thorough cost-benefit analysis of whether or not I should just roll down. Near the bottom, we found a great place to put our feet in the brook. It was icy cold, delicious, and incredibly rejuvenating. I just put my feet in but others got almost naked and swam. Not just children or attractive 20-somethings, but much older couples or entire families bathed in their underwear.

As strikingly beautiful as everything I saw that day was, I was also struck by what I didn’t see. There were no obstructions such as guard rails or warning signs or t-shirt stands or people trying to sell you pictures of yourself, or even any kind of lift to the top. As a native of the Texas Plains I may not be an expert here, but I can’t imagine that that experience would have been at all possible in the states. I imagine that at home there would have been about a million warnings of “do not attempt if you aren’t in at least really decent physical condition” and “beware of giant rams who will kill you” and “if you fall off the mountain you will probably die so stay on the path” and “no half-naked bathing”. Personal responsibility seems like a much more well ingrained concept here, and as I said before people here are encouraged to be humans and to be part of nature instead of either conquering it or avoiding it. It really was quite wonderful to experience, even if I can’t quite walk properly again yet.


I am excited to see how these experiences will inform my singing. So much German poetry deals with the landscape, if not directly than as a backdrop or as a metaphor. I feel like I am gaining a hands on understanding of the music that I am so lucky to get to study in this beautiful place, as well as of what shaped the people who wrote it.