The Swedish Choral Tradition

Well, my summer travels have almost come to an end.  Since May, I’ve been to Turkey, Greece, Florida, Ecuador, Sweden, and Vermont, in that order.  Tonight I head to DC for a few days for one last hoorah.  I’ve kept you updated through Ecuador, so here’s a quick post to catch you up to my present moment, as I sit in my bed and type.

Leaving Ecuador was hard.  I met so many wonderful people and had the opportunity to discover the Spanish-speaking me, which was a joy to discover.  In fact, my housemates and I had a conversation about this last night in Spanish, when Joel proclaimed “Yo soy yo en todo idioma!”  Anna and I didn’t get it until he explained further that he feels like the same person in Spanish as he does in his own language.  I’m not sure it’s the same for me.  Somehow I felt kinder, sweeter, harder working.  Perhaps this is because my language skills didn’t allow for so much sarcasm, sass, and pessimism!  I liked my Spanish-speaking self, and it was sad to leave that.  Saying goodbye to the teachers at my school and to my host family was especially hard.  On my last evening, Sylvia (my Canadian roommate) and I bought the family pizza and a cake, and then played the card game Spoons.  It was a wonderful way to spend time together.  We laughed a lot, and it made me wish for more time with them; think of how close we could be after 6 months or a year!  The next morning, before I left for my flight, I took everyone up the Teleferico – a cable car line that runs to the top of one of the tallest mountains in Quito.  The family had never done it because they can’t afford such frivolous activities.  So I offered to pay as a gift.  I felt it important for the family (especially the kids!) to see their city from higher up… to realize they are a part of something much greater.  The family loved it.  My host mom was yelling and stretching her arms out and talking to God.  She kept exclaiming how pure the air was, taking deep breaths of that respiratory candy.  Yummy!, as Sylvia would say.

My flight home was a pain, as I had to spend a night in Panama City, Panama on the way back.  It was my final test, though.  I had done the same route on my way over and had to do everything in English, feeling quite overwhelmed.  But on the way back, Spanish was no problem, and multiple people I interacted with even praised my efforts!  I am by no means fluent or even close, but considering the fact that I knew close to no Spanish when I left, I am proud of my accomplishments.

My turnaround time between Ecuador and Sweden was about 3 days, and SUPER stressful.  Not only did I have to unpack, do laundry, and repack, but my housemates and I also MOVED during that time!  And on top of all that, I was supposed to be preparing about 13 pieces of music for my Swedish adventure!  Not surprisingly, I developed a fever and some short-term bug during those 3 days, just to put a cherry on top of this towering to-do list.  Somehow, I made it out the door on August 2 (though not feeling well), off to my final grand adventure of the summer.

On February 26, 5 of us conductors received the following cryptic email from our teacher Maggie:

Greetings, all. Hypothetically, if a master class in Europe were made available to you at no cost (I.e. airfare, lodging, etc, all covered) from August 2-11, would you be able to attend?
RSVP!
Peace,
Mmmmmmm.

Ummm…yes?  There was much buzz in the next few days about where this might be and with whom.  When we finally got more information, we learned that we would be participating in a 9-day masterclass in Sweden, facilitated by Stefan Parkman, our teacher Maggie Brooks, and Markus Utz, a conducting teacher in Zurich, Switzerland.  That’s about all the information we received, aside from a list of repertoire to learn.  People kept asking us what we would be doing in Sweden before we left, and we mostly shrugged our shoulders and hoped for the best.  And that’s what we got!

Each of our three teachers came to Sweden with a team of conducting students – the American team (the 5 of us), the Swedish team (2 Swedes, a woman from Paris, and a man from Italy), and the Swiss team (2 Swiss, a woman from Germany, and a man from Lichtenstein).  It felt a bit like the Olympics, except instead of competing, we became really good friends.  After a couple days of working with all three teachers, we each were assigned a piece or two to focus on and a primary teacher to work with.  I was placed with Markus and worked on a piece by Herzogenberg and a contemporary piece by Christopher Theofanidis.  In the mornings and afternoons, we would have classes with our teachers while sheep bah-ed out the windows of the beautiful retreat center where we stayed.  In the evenings, we traveled into Uppsala, where we each had almost 30 minutes to rehearse the Uppsala University Choir, receiving critiques from our teachers and singing for the other conductors.

We did a lot of singing and conducting in that week, which was such a blessing following a month of no music in Ecuador.  The only thing we did more than music was eating!  The little information we received before arriving said, “All meals are included during your stay. You will have breakfast, lunch, a fruit in the afternoon, dinner and a sandwich/snack at the evening rehearsals.”  We laughed about this sentence before arriving and were overwhelmed to find that it was not actually a joke.  We literally ate 5 times a day (snack-time is called “fika” in Swedish)…lots of heavy creamy sauces and potatoes and fish and fruit.  And in case that weren’t enough, every evening after rehearsal, our team of 13 conductors would stop by the grocery store to buy candy by the kilo and booze if we decided we could afford it.  We would return home to the sheep, gather in the common room in our little dorm, watch the Olympics, and laugh a lot.  What an experience!

Going to Sweden somehow felt like discovering my long lost roots, though my ethnicity or experiences actually have very little to do with Sweden.  Two things make me say this: Lutheranism and choral music.  Almost everyone in Sweden is Lutheran, and I somehow could not believe this.  Of course we joke about Scandinavia all the time in the Lutheran Church, but to find that the stereotypes are actually real was such a joy!  Every person I would meet, I’d ask, “Are you Lutheran??!”  And naturally, they’d respond, “Yes.”  “Me too!!!,” I’d reply, overly excited.  Then I usually had to tag on, “In my country there aren’t very many Lutherans, so it’s fun to meet so many here.”  I did attend worship one Sunday at the Dome Cathedral in Uppsala, which is rumored to be the largest church in all of Scandinavia.  You Lutherans out there will be glad to hear that we did a lot of singing!  When we sang the last song that was on the hymn board, sad to be done singing, ushers walked around and flipped the hymn boards to the other side, revealing at least six more songs we had yet to sing!  Praise Jesus.

A castle on the grounds where we stayed in Wik, Sweden.

Choral music is one of Sweden’s primary trades, if you will.  Can you imagine if the US valued choral music in the way we value football?  I was not able to imagine this until my time in Sweden, where I could tell people I was a choral conductor and they actually knew what I meant!  As I learned more about the history of Swedish choral music, I couldn’t help but think about Nordic Choir, my college choir at Luther College in Decorah, IA.  The school was founded by Norwegians, so it’s not Swedish, I know… and I know that people who are Scandinavian like to say there’s a huge difference, but come on, people… seriously.  We learned a lot about Eric Ericsson and the Swedish choral sound, and suddenly, I understood why Nordic sings the way it does (or has in the past, at least) and why my ear is trained to want a certain sound.  (I could do an entire blog post on this, and may in the near future, if I can find the time!)  Suffice it to say that the trip, in many ways, was an existential discovery.  I found myself longing for the Midwest (I know this sounds funny to anyone who’s not from the Midwest…) and proud to have been unknowingly influenced by such a beautiful part of the world.

In case my international travels weren’t enough, I came home and went straight to Vermont with my housemates for a camping trip!  And now I’m off to DC for the weekend to catch up with some wonderful friends.  There’s much more to share, as always, and I’m sorry to say I’ve officially written my longest blog post ever!  Thanks for sticking with me, if you’ve made it this far.  Shorter blog posts more often are hopefully in the future…

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3 thoughts on “The Swedish Choral Tradition

  1. Something missing…. the trip to Minnesota! I miss you, my friend, but LOVED this blog post – especially the choral/Lutheran/Scandinavian-ness of it. Hugs, little traveler!

  2. Beautiful! I’m right with you on the Lutheran / Midwest / Swedish / choral experience, of course. Glad you had such an amazing summer. Now that’s school’s back in, hopefully you’ll be able to finally catch up on rest!

  3. Loved reading all of this. Thank you for mentioning me in your blog. It brought back sweet memories of our evening chats in our P.J.’s sharing our room together, giggling like school girls –me at my age feeling like I was 21 again, but learning so much from you and Christina, Sharing our lives with that wonderful, loving family, who gave us more than what they could afford to, but more importantly, gave us their comfort, and their love. That experience will remain as one of my most memorable in life. All the best, my dear friend. Sylvia

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