The Hills Are Alive: Learning to Yodel in Tirol
I am sitting in a cosy wood-panelled room at the Reschenhof, a guesthouse in the village of Mils near Innsbruck. Alongside me are Martha and Reinhard Schwaizer, a husband-and-wife duo who have the unenviable task of teaching me how to yodel. To be honest, I have always been a terrible singer. To give you an idea of what they are working with, my voice sounds a bit like the noise made by those elves in the Disney films when you step on their wings. With this in mind, I am reassured when Martha tells me that you don’t need a great singing voice to be a good yodeller: „Anyone can learn to yodel. You don’t have to have the voice of an angel.“ If anyone should know, it’s her. Together with her husband, Reinhard, she has been performing on stage for 55 years and also teaches yodelling workshops for school classes. Surely I can’t be any worse than a bunch of kids. Right?
At the same time, youngsters growing up in Tirol have a certain natural advantage over me. I spent my childhood in the city of Munich. It might not be a million miles away from the Alps, but yodelling was definitely a million miles away from the things I used to do as a kid. In fact, yodelling was about the uncoolest thing you could possibly think of – something even my parents would laugh at on TV. But now things have changed. Yodelling is experiencing a revival as people are becoming increasingly interested in reconnecting with the customs and traditions of their regions. My home city, Munich, hosts an annual yodelling festival called LAUTyodeln, and in the Swiss city of Lucerne there is a university where you can study yodelling. I have always been a sucker for the latest trend, so I have decided to leave my comfort zone and learn (or at least try to learn) how to yodel.
Maximilian Reich grew up in Munich and enjoys spending time in the mountains. As a child he found yodelling funny and more than a little bit silly, but since his yodelling workshop he has discovered a new-found passion for this ancient form of communication in the Alps. His novel „Muttersöhnchen“ will be published in April.
The most recognisable aspect of yodelling compared with other forms of singing is what is known as the ‚Jodelschlag‘. „It describes the switch from the head voice to the chest voice and back again,“ explains Reinhard Schwaizer, who is sitting next to me with a guitar on his lap. It is this repeated variation of high and low tones that make it possible to yodel across vast distances. Indeed, yodelling was originally created not as a form of singing but instead as a means of communication between farmers, who would spend the summers in the mountains looking after the animals grazing there and communicate with each other via yodelling.
Let’s rewind for a moment. What is meant by ‚head voice‘ and ‚chest voice‘? Reinhrd Schwaizer gives me an example: „MMUH is the deep sound created by the chest voice,“ he says, encouraging me to imitate his very realistic cow impression. „That is the voice we normally use in everyday life.“ Then it’s time for the head voice: „UUUUHHHH is the sound created by the head voice, explans Martha. „It feels like the sound is coming out of your eyes.“ After a few goes at each, my head does indeed feel a little red – but that could also be down to embarrasment. We have attracted a small audience: two children standing at the door are wondering why a grown man is imitating a wild bull.
For those of you who have always wondered, there are no lyrics as such in a yodel song. Instead, each is made up of a series of sounds repeated in a certain order. For example: „Ho-La-Di-Hi-Ti“. As well as classic yodels there are also fast yodels, where the yodeller switches quickly from the chest voice to the head voice and back again. This is the most difficult kind of yodelling and takes years to perfect. „It’s something you can’t really learn,“ explains Reinhard Schwaizer. „It’s just about natural talent. I can’t do it, but Martha can.“ Another kind of yodelling is ‚echo yodelling‘. This recreates the call-and-echo style which was used in the mountains centuries ago to communicate with others.
Reinhard Schwaizer sings „Ho-He-Hi“, then looks at me expectantly before repeating slowly: „Hoooo.“
Martha Schwaizer copies her husband with a hearty: „Hoooo.“
My attempt sounds more like: „Höööö.“
„No, no“, says Martha Schwaizer. „You have to raise your voice.“
My second attempt is a: „Huuuu.“
„Not that high,“ interjects Martha.
Third time lucky? „Hoooo.“
„Yes, that’s it,“ she says with a smile. „Well done.“
Then it’s time for us to join forces:
„Ho-He-Hi“ we sing together.
Reinhard takes over and yodels a longer section for me to copy:
Me: „Ho-He-Hi-Ho-He … err …“ I soon find out how difficult it is to remember the sounds and the order they are sung in.
The good thing is that classic yodelling has no hard-and-fast rules about which sounds should appear in which order. I guess it is a bit like freestyle rap. The word ‚yodelling‘, by the way, comes from ‚Johlen‘ meaning to cheer or whoop for joy. That is the inspiration for me own freestyle yodel: „Ho-He-Hi-Ha- Ho-Ja-Di …“
Martha Schwaizer taught herself to yodel. Aged 13 she would sit next to the radio and copy what she heard. Today, at the age of 70, she has been performing together with her husband Reinhard for over 55 years.
I may be getting full marks for effort, but that doesn’t mean it sounds good. In fact, I am surprised none of the beer glasses on the table have shattered into a thousand pieces as I warble away like a sparrow in puberty. Martha Schweizer assures me that I am doing well and explains that women generally find it easier to yodel than men. Why? Men generally don’t sing as high as is needed for yodelling, so it takes them longer for them to find their head voice. that most The solution? Practice makes perfect.
„Each profession and each region has its own specific yodel,“ explains Reinhard. In Tirol, for example, the yodels tend to have a lot of E and I sounds, while in Switzerland there is more O and U. As if that isn’t confusing enough, there is also what Reinhard calls the ‚Gegenjodler‘.
To explains, he picks up his guitar and sings: „Jo-He-Jo-He-Jü-Di- Ei-Jo“. His wife joins in but yodels something completely different: „Ho-De-Rü“. That is what is meant by a ‚Gegenjodler‘: two voices yodelling different sounds and patterns at the same time. Yodels are probably best known in the German-speaking world not as a music genre in their own right but as parts of folk songs, where lyrics and yodels combine. Often the verses will be made up of lyrics and the chorus will be a repeated yodel. The most well-known example in Tirol is the famous „Kufsteiner Lied“,which Reinhard and Martha invite me to sing with them.
Wenn ich auf hohen Bergen steh, wird mir ums Herz so wohl. Ich schau hinab ins tiefe Tal, ins schöne Land Tirol. Dort drunt im Tal die Nebel ziehen, die Sonne scheint ins G’went, Tirolerland, mein Heimatland, dich lieb ich ohne End. Ho-La-Di-Ho-Ju-Hi-Ho-La-Di-Ri-Jo.
My voice may still sound like fingernails down a blackboard compared with their melodic perfection, but at least I have got over my initial embarassment I am enjoying myself. The children are still standing next to the door listening to me, but instead of looking away in shame I smile at them as I sing. I also don’t care what the other guests in the dining room next door think – I am 100% focussed on my yodel …
Bei uns in Tirol, Da fühlst du dich wohl. Ho-La-Di-Ho-La-Rai.
Reinhard Schwaizer sang and played the guitar as a child, but he didn’t start yodelling until he met his wife Martha. The 71 year-old has performed in places as far flung as Holland and Ukraine.
Yodelling, as I have come to realise, is all about having fun and expressing the joy in your heart. Unlike pop songs, it’s not all about hitting the notes and being pitch-perfect from start to finish. I suppose in many ways it’s a bit like being in a football stadium, where you sing along with the other fans without caring too much about getting the words and the tune right. Still, I am keen to know what Reinhard and Martha think of the progress I have made under their patient guidance. „You’re still right at the beginning,“ says Reinhard, ever the diplomat. „You have learnt the switch from head voice to chest voice and back, but you still need a bit of work on your technique.“ Breathing is another thing I need to work on. Yodelling is surprisingly hard work – the correct breathing technique uses not the lungs but in fact the stomach so that there is no interruption to the sound being produced. I take a deep breath and, as instructed by Martha and Reinhard, try to push their air down into my stomach. No chance. After thirty years of breathing one wrong way, it’s going to take more than just a few hours to change. As we go our separate ways, Reinhard gives me some words of encouragment: „If you practise for half an hour a day, in six months you will be a decent yodeller.“
That sounds like a plan. The only thing that remains to be seen is how happy my neighbours are when I smash out my daily routine every morning. Here goes nothing:
Yodelling lessons are available at the Huberhof guesthosue in Rum near Innsbruck, where Martha and Reinhard Schwaizer offer workshops on the first Friday of each month. More information.