AIMS : A Semicentennial of Shaping Singers

The American Institute of Musical Studies (AIMS) in Graz celebrates 50 years this summer. As one of the longest running and most trusted summer programs available to singers of all ages, this year is a special celebration of their success in creating a bridge for singers from the U.S. to working in the German-speaking musical community. The mission of AIMS is to empower aspiring singers, pianists, and instrumentalists to achieve the high standard of knowledge and performance required of a professional musician. 

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the program includes an enhanced masterclass program with guest teaching artists including Linda Watson, Barbara Bonney, Bo Skovhus, Gabriele Lechner, and more to be announced. Additionally, alumni of the program will perform with the summer’s participants in each orchestra concert. “AIMS success stories” artists include Gordon Hawkins, Dara Hobbs, and Matthew Vickers, among others. 

AIMS sets itself apart from other programs because it is not a festival—it is a training program. It is about the participants—and it has been since its founding. The concept of a summer course for singers came from founders Richard Owens and his wife Nora Sands. They worked in German opera houses with Irma Cooper and Cornelius Eberhardt. 

At the time, there were fewer performance opportunities in the U.S. than in Germany, and these friends and colleagues were passionate about pursuing a summer education program. AIMS was designed to teach the European opera system, how to audition for artist agents, the quality of singing required to land a contract, becoming fluent in German, and networking. Contacts with other singers who had succeeded in getting jobs would prove invaluable. 

According to the general director and alumna of the program Sarah Halley, networking is one of the main things singers can expect from the program. “You can find your grad school teacher there between undergrad and grad school,” she says. For this writer and AIMS alumna, that was the case: I met my graduate school teacher at the program and thus found the right graduate program and was awarded an assistantship because of the networking I had access to with my teacher at AIMS. 

While the program is quite expensive with tuition at $6,695 not including airfare, visa fees, and incidental expenses, the value for the amount you spend is incredible. On a daily basis, singers work with teachers and coaches to improve their vocal or instrumental technical skills: how to sing in five languages and pronounce each of them authentically, how to understand a composer’s intentions as written in the music and texts, how to sing or play in the appropriate style, how to improve acting and stage techniques and, above all, how to achieve the level of excellence required of the professional musician. In addition, tuition covers a single room, breakfast and lunch, and health insurance while in Austria. 

Students may be eligible to receive academic credit at institutions where they are enrolled if they are current students. Financial aid is possible for qualified singers and a fundraising guide is provided to help singers raise the money to cover the cost of their travel and tuition. 

Perhaps most unique is the time singers have to develop as artists and as people. Because the program is six weeks, singers have time to recover from jet lag before diving deeply into their new schedule, adjust to new surroundings, address anxiety and amazing amounts of new knowledge, and “time to develop you. It’s not like real life; it’s where you can grow and learn,” Halley says. Many programs have a focus on real-world expectations and, while AIMS prepares singers for those expectations, the program allows singers to focus entirely on themselves and their art. 

You might find out after AIMS that you don’t want to do this as a career—it’s an expensive career, and money spent to discover that for yourself is never wasted. Board member Henry Sauls says, “There can be no unfavorable outcome of attending AIMS. There is a spectrum of possible outcomes, all of which are good individually. Some realize with amazement, ‘Wow, I can do this!’ Others conclude, ‘Oh my, I have a lot of work to do!’ Many question, ‘Can I do this?’ This is so common, it is expected; only a few conclude it isn’t what they want to do. 

“All these outcomes represent a better understanding of one’s self,” Sauls affirms. “The energy felt in Graz continues for an extended period afterward. One participant said, ‘I didn’t realize what effects it had on me until weeks after I returned home and was thinking about my next career step.’ Hundreds of alumni successes make our work worth all of the time and effort mounting the program requires.” 

Every year, there are singers who audition for German agents and houses and are engaged for work. The AIMS faculty makes sure that singers are ready for these auditions and have the best chance possible to be hired. Halley says, “We save you from yourselves,” noting that singers are prepared for a competitive environment in auditions and for performance opportunities, especially major concerts with orchestra and the Meistersinger Competition. 

To get the most out of the program, singers must be receptive to change. Sauls adds, “The essence of the AIMS experience is in the participants’ minds. A time to assess their ambitions, personal confidence, abilities, and hopes for the future. Their passion to achieve excellence is wrapped up in their emotions, in their desire to be the best, in the awesome task of choosing and learning the vast classical musical literature, in the emotional trauma and growth required to comprehend the minutiae of every work they perform, and in testing their mettle in the crucible of performance.” 

AIMS has multiple tracks: voice (with Lieder and Opera Studios), piano, orchestra, and vocal pedagogy. Younger singers tend to participate in the Lieder Studio. Choosing which track is appropriate for you will depend on your current vocal abilities and goals. 

For the Opera Studio, singers must prepare four operatic arias in three languages plus one selection of their choice. For the Lieder Studio, singers must prepare four German Lieder from two or more composers plus one selection of their choice. Prescreening video is required. Vocal pedagogy applicants must submit a résumé and two letters of recommendation. Live auditions take place in multiple cities and regions, and it is easy to find an audition close to you. 

Should you find yourself unable to decide which program is right for you, consult your voice teacher and reach out to AIMS administration through the website. They encourage singers to audition wherever their passion lies. AIMS has a plan for applicants and participants to succeed at each stage of their career and guides students of all ages—there is no age limit for any application. 

Sauls does specify, “Much of the struggle to succeed occurs in a young person’s third decade of life. AIMS is designed to address issues relevant to this struggle at this time in their career. None of these issues should be evident in a public performance, but we who plan the AIMS program know that to deal with them is of utmost importance to the individual participant’s success.” 

Unlike many summer programs, AIMS is incredibly organized. Halley notes, “The thing we are praised most about is how organized we are. Also, training for the classical arts doesn’t change, and we do it well. We have so much experience in training voices to succeed. We have a successful formula, and it has worked for many years.” 

Singers have guaranteed performances for both the Lieder and Opera Studios, though the orchestral concerts are by audition and are more competitive. There are seven orchestra concerts, which means there are ample opportunities to perform with orchestra. The Lieder Studio is more of a study program, and there are more performance opportunities in the opera program. As an alumna, I can attest that there are many opportunities to sign up for, audition, and perform. 

It is important to note that the performances are concert based and that singers do not prepare a full role. There are no fully staged productions and no opera scenes programs. The program is geared toward developing as a comprehensive artist, not building a résumé of roles. There are more concerts, class performances, masterclass opportunities, audition workshops, and other preparatory performances that give you experience in being ready to sing every day and in multiple situations. This experience is both helpful to developing artistry and to the type of daily rehearsal, coaching, and concertizing that artists who are actively performing do on a daily basis. 

The program also gives you time to explore Austria (or even take a train on a day off to neighboring cities and countries). One of my personal favorite excursions was a tour of the Lipizzaner stud farm plus a wine tour through the countryside of Graz. I practiced my German at the farmer’s market and at the many restaurants and small food festivals along with participants with whom I am still in contact and who are working as singers (one made her Met debut recently), voice teachers at the university level and, in one case, a Linkedin Senior Software Engineer. 

Lastly, the administration points out that the singers are largely responsible for what they get out of the program. There are numerous workshops and events to sign up for and a myriad of activities. Limiting distraction is especially important according to Sauls. “The amount of singing—and for pianists, time at the keyboard—will exceed your university experience, so learning how to take care of your voice and body during AIMS, and for the rest of your career, is very important,” he says. “Center your thinking on personal goals, not on competing with other participants. 

“And, of great importance, eliminate distractions from hindering your work. Before the year 2000, the ability to communicate with the rest of the world was limited in Graz. There were no television sets in the dormitory, no cell phones, no internet. Buying a newspaper required riding the tram to the center of the city. 

“Making a long-distance telephone call to home required using the two pay phones in the dormitory lobby or traveling to the central post office. Joseph Haydn was once asked how he composed so many pieces of music. His reply is relevant today more than ever: ‘There was nothing to distract me.’ Isolating oneself from distraction gives you an advantage over all those who don’t,” Sauls observes. “No matter your level of skill, you will benefit most if you focus only on personal improvement.” 

Whatever your singing level at the moment, AIMS has a well established program that can guide your personal needs and goals to high standards in preparation for European opera houses, excellence in performance, and quality teaching work. More can be found at www.aimsgraz.com. 

 

Joanie Brittingham

Joanie Brittingham is a soprano and writer living in New York City. She can be reached at joaniebrittingham@gmail.com. Visit her blog, Cure for the Common Crazy, at commoncrazy.blogspot.com or see her column, Big Apple Sauce, on the arts scene of New York, at the website JuicyHeads.com.