A Visit to a Yodelling Course Yodel-le-hi-hoo

Traudi Silferlinger, Thomas Höhenleitner and their yodelling students
Traudi Silferlinger, Thomas Höhenleitner and their yodelling students | Photo (detail): Sabine Pusch

Strange sounds echo through the Munich Kranz Theatre, high and low tones, booming, squeaks and warbling. A visit to a yodelling course.

As the day draws to a close and the shadows of the houses in the Munich Glockenbach quarter lengthen, the rehearsal room of the Kranz Theatre is filling up. One course participant after another arrives. They all want to learn the art of yodelling. The curtains are drawn, the air stuffy. The ventilation was turned on too late, says the waiter to his colleague, pointing to the two grey ceiling fans.

The people arriving and looking for a free chair are not what you might expect. No one is wearing traditional costume, few are over fifty. They are very different. The two older ladies who, to judge by their faces, are sisters and, laughing, are reading the drinks menu. The tanned man in his mid-forties who looks as if he has just come from the gym. The tall, lanky man wearing braces and the image of a pretzel on his shirt. The student busy with coloured highlighters, riffling through her documents and repeatedly shaking her head, and the beige-attired women sitting alone and reading the newspaper.

Few have ever yodelled

Then the course begins. The yodelling teachers Traudi Siferlinger and Thomas Höhenleitner strike up the first Gstanzl (literally “stanza”), a four-line song. “Who here has already yodelled?” moderator Siferlinger wants to know. Twelve hands go up; the other 58 yodelling students are novices. “Singa is unsa Freud, singa dan mehra Leut” (Singing is our joy, lots of people sing) intone the two teachers. First tentatively, then louder and louder, the students join in.

The students are divided into vocal colours. “Sopranos please to the right, altos left and men on the stage”, calls Höhenleitner. There they then stand, lined up as in a school choir, illuminated by spotlights and overwhelmed by their sudden fame. Tenors on the one side, basses on the other.

A tall woman throws a shawl over her shoulder and asks about a score. “There aren’t any scores here. You should be able to sing in a mountain pasture and there aren’t any scores up there”, says Höhenleitner. “It doesn’t even have to be beautiful, but it should be fun.” True to this motto, the yodelling continues. The basses boom, the tenors squeak, the altos troll the main voice and the sopranos do something or other – the main thing is: higher. “Stop, stop! This won’t do at all.” Siferlinger steps in. “Now we’ll do each voice individually.” Alto, soprano, bass and tenor.

Large interval leaps characterize yodelling

“Somehow that doesn’t sound to me like yodelling”, says one of the group. “There’s something missing.” Siferlinger places her hand on her breastbone. “When you sing in your chest voice, you feel a slight vibration here. If you go into the head voice, you feel nothing. Yodelling lives from large interval leaps, veering from chest voice to falsetto. You simply have to umschnackln”, she explains, using the Bavarian word. “Umschnackln”: change from chest voice to falsetto? A young man in the front row looks clueless.

He had been assured that though yodelling is very traditional and very Bavarian, he could shine in the course without a detailed knowledge of the dialect. “I come from Saxony and simply wanted to do something very Bavarian”, says Yves Falke, in his mid-twenties. “I’ve never really sung before. At most once in a while in the shower or beer tent. But there you usually rather bawl”, he says. He would like to demonstrate his newly learned skill at the next Oktoberfest.

Yodelling can be like meditation

The graduated yodeller can sing in four parts and sound harmonic. The course participants all hold the final tone particularly long. The basses hum, the tenors consolidate the tone, the altos carry the main voice and the sopranos sing the fifth: no friction, only a marvellous four-part harmony. When the last yodeller is out of breath, there is silence. “Yodelling has something satisfying about it”, says Traudi Siferlinger, “sometimes it’s even meditative”.

Information on yodelling:

Around the world, people communicate through yodelling – in the Caucasus, Sweden and the United States.

Yodelling is singing according to phonetic syllables and with frequent and rapid changes between chest voice and falsetto (change of register), but without texts.

Identifying characteristics of yodelling include large interval leaps and a broad tonal range.

In his sketch “The Yodelling School”, the comedian Loriot caricatured the German tendency to take even fun seriously and to lay down systematic rules for it.