Dominic Steele: Bad Coffee and ‘Boning in Germany

IMG_0063I’m currently sitting on a train between Mannheim and Würzburg, returning from a few days’ break from trombone. I have now been living in Germany for just over two years and this is quite possibly only the first (or maybe second) chance I have had to travel to another city without a trombone or two on my back.

I first travelled to Germany in December 2011 to visit my girlfriend (who is studying percussion at the Hochschule für Musik Würzburg), attend the Lätzsch International Trombone Festival and look around and audition for a few schools. At this time my audition opportunities were limited as many schools only accept new students in the June/July auditions.

During my first trip I met the trombone professor at the Hochschule für Musik Würzburg, Andreas Kraft. Although Professor Kraft is unknown internationally, his class within Germany is very highly respected and he is considered one of the top orchestral trombonists, playing principal trombone in the Stuttgart Radio Orchestra and Bayreuth Festival Orchestra. On my first trip I could speak enough German to order a beer (or two) and recite the alphabet. The lessons I had with Professor Kraft at this time, although in German, were some of the most enlightening I had ever had. Upon my return to Australia, with the help of my girlfriend and Google translate, I wrote to Professor Kraft asking to study with him. In June the next year I returned, auditioned and received a position to study for a masters degree at the school. It was only 18 months later that I found out that Professor Kraft spoke almost perfect English.

Andreas Kraft with trombone class and Stuttgart Radio Orchestra section

Würzburg trombone class with the Stuttgart Radio Orchestra trombonists, Andreas Kraft conducting

My first task as a student at the school was to learn German. The Hochschule has a minimum requirement of B2 German, which is a semi-fluent standard. I enrolled in an intensive language course that ran up until the beginning of semester and also made a decision to only speak German wherever I went. The trombone class in Würzburg being entirely made up of young Germans helped here. Two or three nights a week I found myself at the local pub, doing my homework after a few too many beers. Naturally, learning German from trombonists meant I could swear better than most locals within a matter of weeks.

The trombone class in Würzburg is a rather intense class. The focus is primarily on individual lessons and ensemble. When the professor is in town, he teaches, when he isn’t, we practise. It is not uncommon to have three or four hours of individual lessons per week and five hours of ensemble. The former professor, Martin Göß, also makes weekly appearances for group classes.

Bavarian Christmas party

Trombone Christmas party – Bavarian Style

The teaching approach that Professor Kraft brings to my lessons is very different to what I had previously experienced. Rather than spending time on technical refinement and re-enforcement of playing, the focus is on the ‘Korpergefühl’ or the physical sensation used to achieve great playing. By focussing on bringing an active but relaxed physical sensation to playing, consistent tone and technique is (hopefully) assured. Most lessons with Professor Kraft consist of walking in, performing the David concerto, having every single semi-quaver analysed, before moving on to excerpts and etudes. Other lessons focus on solo repertoire or etudes (usually Maxted), which are assumed to be receiving constant work in the practice room. Looking at this teaching balance on paper it appears to be extremely unbalanced, however the overarching theme, irrespective of the contents, has helped my playing immensely.

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