ehr, sehr, wehr, mehr, kehr: singing in German

Honestly, you would think that for someone who once looked like this, singing in German would be easy!

BUT, I am finding it more frustrating than ever. I learned most of my German by the total immersion method of living in a small village (Fieberbrunn in Austria) in the back of beyond (Alps)–the disadvantage being that I had a pretty small vocabulary (USA Today reading level) and a, shall we say, “charming” accent. No one ever tipped me for an American though! I was generally thought of by our guests (mostly tourists from Germany) as Yugoslavian–crazy accent, working as a maid, must be from Yugoslavia!

I wish I had a tape recording of myself at the end of my two years of working in Fieberbrunn. I have a memory of phoning the University of Maryland Munich Campus (where I ended up working) to ask about a job and thinking I sounded weird even to myself speaking English. I also remember a friend’s wife (who was German) trying to correct my pronunciation of some vowel. She said “You’re saying it wrong. You say, *speaks word*; you should say *speaks word again*.” I was dumbfounded for a second, then asked her to repeat. My response to her: “Believe me, I’d love to correct it, but I can’t HEAR any difference in your two pronunciations!”

Sometimes your own ears don’t let you hear things, especially when you are in your 30s. Much less *cough*cough* now.

Two years in Austria were followed by 5 years in Munich where, even though I worked, shopped, and watched television in American English I still was pretty much swimming in German. Of course, it was my favorite German: Bavarian. Similar to Tyrolean Austrian German. I have to say, there are still announcers I hear on German television whose ‘hochdeutsch’ accents are like fingernails on a chalkboard* to me: ugh. They sound as though something rude has been done to them with a stick. (I am sure they would think I sound like–a crazy Yugoslavian maid!)

Flash forward to 25 years later. I haven’t spoken German (apart from a bit when the Choral Society of Durham went to Vienna in 2009) in . . . 25 years. I can still read it (I read an entire (easy) book in German this summer–twice!), but I’ve never been able to write it. I LOVE it when the Choral Society sings German repertoire, and this year we’re doing Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and German carols.

Piece of cake, right? Wrong. OK, most of the vowels are fine, and I have no need for translations (unless there’s some bizarre old Wagner-type word like Minne or Wonne), but it seems that as soon as I’m singing, all that just disappears out of my head! It’s as if I’d never seen German before.

Plus there is my nemesis vowel: the “e” that is in wehr, ehr, sehr, kehr. No matter how much I try, no matter how many times I sit in the car during my commute and repeat it, trying to get it right: as soon as I’m singing, it comes out AIR. It’s NOT pronounced like AIR! It drives me nuts. I think I’m going to have to give up though. I don’t want to get an ulcer or anything. And the contortions I have to go through to get it to sound even CLOSE to “ehr”! Well, it’s not something that I can do in the middle of a bunch of sixteenth notes!

What makes it worse is that I’ve been listening to a German singing German lieder and opera all summer (yeah, that guy) and it’s a real treat, I love it so, BUT those ehrs, wehrs, sehrs, kehrs, just come out so . . . perfectly. *sigh* On the other hand, I adore their way with consonants. Lord have mercy. I can’t speak for any other language because I don’t know them well enough, but to listen to a German singing German is to realize that a consonant is a whole world unto itself! How do they do it? Years of training, I guess! Take a name like “Elsa”. I can say that with the correct accent. I can sing it in the correct time. But your German will sing it like this: Ellllllllllllzzzzzzzzza, or at least that’s what it sounds like, and STILL fit it into the same number of notes, the same timing. The consonants are treasured, valued, caressed.

I suspect that our Choral Society conductor has been trying to get this across to us for the 20 years I’ve been singing with the group, but you know? These are professionals, kids, don’t try this at home. 😉

Maybe I should invent a song that is nothing but “ehr” and if I sing it over and over eventually I can get rid of the diphthong? Because it’s that pesky American diphthong isn’t it? *shakes fist*

*I wonder how soon it will be, before no one even knows what this expression means? Perhaps that has already happened! I guess chalkboards have been gone from schools for years already.

Fieberbrunn, where I learned my crazy Austrian/Tyrolean German

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One Response to ehr, sehr, wehr, mehr, kehr: singing in German

  1. Lucy says:

    I love both photographs! Both look almost too picture-postcard to be true. It’s funny you should say that about hochdeutsch, because whenever I hear Austrian or Swiss TV I have the same initial “Gosh, they talk funny” and “What have you done to the vowels?!?” reaction. Which makes me feel like a cultural imperialist or something, so I’m glad the periphery is Othering the center.

    Wish I had helpful tips about vowels; don’t; but I am jealous that you get to sing the Christmas oratorio! I am infamous in my university department for initiating/abetting German carol-sings at the Christmas party.

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