Church Music Studies in Germany: Reflections on a Semester Abroad

September 4, 2017

Hannah Koby is an organ/church music major and German minor at Valparaiso University, Valparaiso, Indiana, where she is also a member of Christ College (Interdisciplinary Honors College), the University Chorale, and the student chapter of the American Guild of Organists. At the university’s Chapel of the Resurrection, she serves on the Morning Prayer planning staff, is organist for the weekly Matins service, and serves as pianist and on the planning team for the weekly Candlelight service. Koby is also organist and choir director at St. Paul Lutheran Church, Chesterton, Indiana. After her studies at Valparaiso, she plans to pursue graduate work in sacred music and to maintain German connections.

We have probably all heard that studying in a foreign culture is life changing, that one will learn a lot and grow as a person. After spending spring and summer of my sophomore year of college in Germany in 2016, I can say that those are all true. Yet as musicians, we seek musical as well as personal growth. My time abroad left me with stronger musicianship, broader understanding of German organs and their history, greater appreciation for and knowledge of liturgical worship, and a network of colleagues, friends, and mentors on the other side of the world. I believe that studying in Europe and experiencing the instruments, churches, history, and culture for oneself is an unparalleled opportunity for organists. As I played Schnitger, Silbermann, and Sauer organs last spring (to name a few), I knew I was learning for myself the aural ideals of each builder, place, and era.

A unique partnership between Valparaiso University, where I study, and the Hochschule für Kirchenmusik (Church Music Conservatory) in Rottenburg am Neckar, Germany, provides church music students with an opportunity to study abroad while continuing music studies and gaining a new perspective on sacred music and the church. This program was part of what led me to study at Valparaiso University. I believe studying abroad is an opportunity that student organists should seek out, because the benefits of seeing, hearing, and playing historic and modern European organs in their context cannot be overestimated.


Rottenburg am Neckar

Most of my time in Germany was spent in Rottenburg am Neckar, in the southwestern German state of Baden-Württemberg. There is not much to set Rottenburg apart from any other small Swabian town, except that it is the seat of the bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rottenburg-Stuttgart. Because of this, Rottenburg is home to a Catholic church music conservatory and to St. Martin’s Cathedral—the smallest cathedral in Germany. The conservatory, or Hochschule für Kirchenmusik, is on the edge of town, providing an idyllic setting for study. It is housed in one building, with residential floors above the classrooms/practice rooms, which means no excuse for not practicing in bad weather! The size of the school—about 35 students, including bachelor’s, master’s, and one-year certificate students—lent a very personal dimension to my experience. I got to know all the students and could learn from nearly all the professors, even those I didn’t officially study under. Since all the classes and lessons are taught in German, I appreciated that small class sizes also allowed for language-related clarification when necessary!

One aspect I value most from my semester in Rottenburg was the different perspectives I got from each teacher. I studied organ literature with Herr Heinrich Walther, a concert organist and professor. While it was difficult for me to get used to a teacher very different from others I previously had, he imparted much musical and life wisdom to me in the short semester we worked together. One focus of my work was playing with more nuanced articulation. Herr Walther helped me bring out much more detail than I previously had, which was possible since we were working only with tracker-action organs, as is the norm in Germany. The lessons from that semester still impact how I think about articulation and the shape of individual notes and phrases, even though I don’t often perform on tracker instruments now that I am back in the United States.

In addition to the seven small pipe organs housed at the Hochschule, students have occasional access to organs in local churches. I had the privilege of performing in one of the weekly “Music for the Market” concerts on the four-manual 1979 Hubert Sandtner organ in Rottenburg’s St. Martin Cathedral. I also heard this instrument often, with the masterful improvisation of cathedral organist Ruben Sturm during Sunday Mass. The other Catholic church in town, St. Moriz, has a three-manual instrument built in 1976 by Winfried Albiez, which provided many registration options for an improvisation lesson there! Both of these churches regularly hosted the conservatory’s guest artist and faculty recitals, giving me a chance to hear the breadth of color and texture on each instrument.


Difference in curriculum

One surprise for me in Rottenburg was that organ improvisation is a main subject in the German church music curriculum, taken every semester. I encountered many surprised looks when I shared that it is not required in many American programs. I think that for the first couple of weeks, even my teacher was not quite sure what to do with me! While I struggled to understand my lessons, my teacher, Herr Peter Schleicher, was a patient instructor. He worked with me on the basics of improvisation, a skill that has already proven very helpful for service playing upon my return.

The most striking difference in church music studies at Rottenburg is the choral and conducting curriculum. In the United States, church music studies largely focus on organ, and choral conducting training is often minimal. In Rottenburg, organ is a primary component of studies, but the church musician’s role as choral director is taken very seriously. Each student at Rottenburg has private or small-group lessons in choral conducting every semester, and the whole school takes part in a weekly praxis seminar. In addition, there are classes in choral/vocal pedagogy, and orchestral, chant, and children’s choir conducting. I think I had as much education in choral leadership in one semester in Rottenburg as many American church music students receive in four years!

Prior to my time in Germany, I had only taken one semester of basic conducting, in a class of about a dozen people. What a difference it was to work one-on-one with a professor! I worked with Herr Peter Lorenz, cantor of St. Martin’s Cathedral. I learned so much from him about physical preparation for conductors, score study, and rehearsal preparation, as well as the conducting itself. Because we had half an hour every week just to focus on my conducting, rather than dividing the time between students in a class, Herr Lorenz was able to correct much more than I had previously experienced. My conducting has become significantly more fluent because of these lessons.

Every Tuesday morning at the Rottenburg conservatory is devoted to the choral conducting practicum. Students work with their professors in lessons to prepare a choral work, and on their assigned Tuesday, lead a rehearsal of the piece. The professors will assist the student when something is not going well, and always provide feedback at the end. In addition to rehearsal leadership experience, the practicum also serves as weekly sight-singing practice for all the students.

Usually in the first year, students must also take a set of choral pedagogy classes. This set consists of studies of body and breath, choral warm-up practicum, and choral voice building. Studies of body and breath focuses on physical exercises both for the students as musicians and performers and for choirs. We learned everything from relaxation exercises for musicians to activities to physically prepare choral singers. Each new technique or exercise was practiced as well as discussed.

This class led directly into the warm-up practicum, a half hour in which a student leads a 20-minute choral warm-up, both physical and vocal, followed by 10 minutes of debriefing. This gives each student a chance to try out new vocalises and learn about their particular issues in leadership. In Germany, it is considered unprofessional to lead warm-ups from the piano, so each student has a tuning fork and vocally gives pitches. Working in that system was one of my challenges. For example, I tended to have my singers vocalize higher than necessary or comfortable because my own vocal range is high.

Following the practical courses, we had choral voice-building class, which is essentially the theory behind what we were practicing in the other courses. We focused on individual sounds—for example, learning which vowels best reinforce different vocal qualities or what sorts of exercises can be used to bring out certain consonant sounds in singing. We also learned about vocal register and experienced an introduction to the physiology of the voice. The theory was always demonstrated through vocalises (and sometimes tricky German tongue twisters!), and was reinforced through paired themes for the warm-up practicum. All these classes operated as a set, providing a holistic education for future choral leaders.


Organ to organ: 

Traveling Europe

Supplementing all my studies in Rottenburg, I took advantage of the vast organ riches within traveling distance. A highlight for me was traveling to Copenhagen, Hamburg, and Lübeck over Pentecost break. Particularly impressive was the number of organ concerts and other events in Hamburg in the half week I was there (prompting my Hamburg grandmother to suggest I continue my studies there; but that is another story). One of the many opportunities was a demonstration of the famous Arp Schnitger organ in Hamburg’s St. Jacobi Church. Upon learning that I was an organist, the intern leading it invited me to play while he demonstrated some registrations. Afterward, he asked if I would like to come back the next day, leading to a glorious hour and a half with the church to myself, exploring the grand sounds of this historic instrument. Now, I try to remember these sounds as a standard for North German Baroque registration for my work here in the United States.

Another memorable instance was in Copenhagen, Denmark, at the St. Petri Church, home to a German-speaking congregation. I was studying what I could see in the façade when the organist arrived. I asked to see the console, and he offered that I could play for a few minutes. When he saw me pull out my organ shoes and music from the bag I always carried, he realized I was a serious student and invited me to come back once he was finished with his rehearsal. I was allowed to explore this late Sauer organ from the 1930s until the church closed for the day. While it is not as old or distinguished as many I saw, playing this instrument gave me a taste of the aural ideas from that era in northern Europe.

Professional connections

Along with the experience of playing historical organs, the examples above illustrate a few of the invaluable connections I made with church musicians in Europe. I am considering graduate studies in Germany, and the connections I already have may lead to mentorships or other opportunities then. Some of my best friends are students from Rottenburg who are involved with the Valparaiso exchange. Knowing a few people made the transition to Rottenburg so much easier than it could have been. In the future, these friends will also be my colleagues. There is no telling how the friendships might lead to international opportunities for our research or future choirs or students.

Personal connections with German church musicians have already led to an amazing opportunity for me. While I was abroad, I learned through a Valparaiso connection about a potential internship at the Castle Church in Wittenberg, where Martin Luther is said to have posted his 95 theses. Having been identified as a bilingual church music student, I was put in contact with the cantors there, Thomas and Sarah Herzer. Since I was in Germany at the time, it was possible for me to travel to Wittenberg to interview for the position. In the summer of 2017, I served as church music intern at the Castle Church, playing for and helping host some of the many worship services and concerts taking place as part of the 500th anniversary celebration of the beginning of the Lutheran Reformation. I don’t know if this would have happened without the personal contact I was able to make while in Germany for a semester.


Learning from difference

As a Lutheran student from a Lutheran university, I was well aware of the fact that I was going to study at a Catholic conservatory. However, I learned that I did not need to be so concerned about it, because Catholics and Lutherans truly have much in common. The pattern of the liturgy meant that I was rarely lost in worship, even when I could not figure out all the responses. For me, this underscores the value of a universal liturgy practiced by Christians all over the world. While the language may be different, we know we are singing the Kyrie or professing our faith through the creed. Interestingly, in Rottenburg I actually felt more at home at High Mass in the cathedral than in Protestant worship. Because the Protestant state church in Baden-Württemberg is “Unified,” which was explained to me as a cross between Lutheran and Reformed traditions, the local Protestant church did not follow a strictly liturgical pattern of worship. This made it more difficult for me to follow and drove home how much I rely on the liturgy to shape my experience of worship.

Another difference for me in Rottenburg was the strong focus on the chant repertory. I participated in the conservatory’s Schola in which all second-year to graduate students sing—but for which I was completely unprepared. Prior to that semester, I had sung some chant, but always in modern notation. At Rottenburg, we sang from medieval square notation with neumes—neither of which I knew how to read. Realizing my deficiency in this area, I chose to take their intro-level chant course.

This class, Gregorian Chant and German Liturgical Music, was an incredible mix of subjects. We learned the basics of understanding, singing, and leading chant, and got a crash course in Latin and German musical resources for the seasons and festivals of the church. I am glad to say I now have a basic understanding of neumes and can read historical chant notation. Beyond that, the course also drove home the deep connection that German Catholics have to their musical tradition. They regularly sing Medieval chant without a second thought, which I have not encountered in American Lutheran circles. While acknowledging the importance of vernacular hymnody, they nonetheless keep strong the Latin song tradition as well. It was impressed upon the students in this class that as church musicians, it is our responsibility to respect these traditions.


Closing thoughts

Perhaps for organists more than other musicians, the benefit of experience cannot be overestimated. Actually being in European churches and playing historical instruments gives an incomparable context for the work that we do as organists. Many times since my semester in Germany, I have worked on registration or encountered a new organ and noted that it sounds like a certain instrument I played in Europe. From that relationship, I know I have found an authentic sound for works of that time and place. When working on registration, there is no substitute for knowing firsthand the sounds that composers had at their disposal.

The traditions I studied and participated in while in Rottenburg showed me the importance of both the historical and universal planes in which we as musicians work. I hope that my experiences encourage others to seek opportunities to be challenged as musicians by other cultures and traditions.


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