First of all, many thanks to those of you who read my last post, "To Graz: A Love Letter." That's the way I prefer to write, and I'm so happy that you liked it! Random photo of the day: these are everywhere. It's awesome.

After the last two weeks of what felt like an uphill climb, this past weekend was an absolute joy. "Joy" is one of my favorite words, and I want to always view life through a lens of golden joy. Sometimes, at delightful moments, God sends you jewels to treasure along the way. This weekend was full of those gemstones. This weekend were the Liederabende!

Liederabend means "song-evening" auf Deutsch. Each of the three coaching studios in the larger AIMS concert studio gets two Liederabende, both with the same program. Last week, my beloved roommate Emily had her two Liederabende, and they were beautiful. My programs were on Friday and Sunday. Our program was called Die vier Elemente -- The Four Elements. Andreas, my coach, had selected Lieder for each of us to perform (usually two per person), and assigned each Lied to a certain element based on text or musical aspects that suggested the element in question. I may be biased, but I adored our program; the music was gorgeous.

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All of Dr. Hoekman's studio.

Last week was pretty rough for me. I was quite frustrated with myself, so I oversang while I was upset, which is not a good combination. Last Wednesday evening, at our dress rehearsal for the concert, I literally could not produce sounds. But I adore my coaching studio, because they lifted me up and encouraged me. They also ordered me not to speak for the next two days, so I didn't.

Friday morning, the day of the concert, I could speak some, and as the day progressed, my voice got warmer and warmer, and I could use it more. I was pretty nervous about what would happen in the concert -- but after this weekend, I believe even more fervently in the power of prayer. Actually, that's not the right way to say it. After this weekend, I am newly overwhelmed, drowning in the faithfulness of God to me. How can I ever praise it enough? How can I ever proclaim it to the world in the way that He deserves? I wrote in my prayer journal before I went to the Odilien-Institut for a run-through, and I remember telling God, "I know You're going to bring me through this." I don't know if I've ever had such optimism as a result of faith. It was only through the grace of God that I could even begin to trust that much.

Our Friday night concert was in the Festsaal at the Odilien-Institut, where we had the initial hearings. Not a lot of people like to sing in the Fest: the walls are made of wood, and the room is carpeted; it's basically designed to suck your sound. I, however, almost prefer it, because the room doesn't spoil you. You don't have the chance to listen to yourself while you're singing in it, which is great. There's only you and what you know how to do, and so you don't have the chance to listen to yourself and then screw over your technique. My coaching studio went early to the Odilien, as I said, for a run-through, a balance check between voice and piano. I ran a little of my first song, while marking (singing at half-volume to save voice). It went as well as I could have expected, and then I went back to the Heim to change into my gown. Das Konzert started at 7:30 pm, but I don't sing for the (very long) first half, so I got to chill backstage with all my friends and compatriots.

Allow me a moment to tell you about my coaching studio. They rock so much. The other girls in it, all sopranos like myself, are so supportive and encouraging. When I would try to make sure my voice was warm, they would shush me: "Save it, Sara. Save it for the stage," they would say. They looked out for me, which I so appreciated. All the guys in the studio are so talented and hilarious and reassuring. I really love this group of people; I feel like I have lifelong friends in all of them.

In the second half, the time came for me to sing my first song, a very fast Lied called "Begegnung," by Hugo Wolf. It goes by very quickly, but I enjoy singing it. I could see my teacher, the wonderful Dr. Colòn, in the audience, and as I sang (with all the voice I had within me), I could see her nodding with satisfaction. As for me, I was so excited that I could phonate! I went backstage and ran to my friends, saying "Y'all! I made sounds and they were pretty!"

Very quickly after that set comes the final set of the concert: the four Mädchenblumen songs by Richard Strauss. "Wasserrose" is the last song in that set, but somehow the other three seem to go by really fast. The three other "flower-maidens" sang beautifully, and as I was waiting during the third song to go onstage, I was praying so hard. "Wasserrose" is so near and dear to my heart -- it's my soul song. It feel like it's a part of me. It's been my magnum opus this summer -- it's wicked hard -- and I wanted to do it justice, but I wasn't scared. Jesus assured me that through Him, I could do this. For one of the first times in my life, I really believed it.

Jonathan, one of the baritones in my studio, came up to me as I was waiting to sing. He could tell that I was nervous and he whispered to me, "Just tell your story." That was everything that I needed to hear and more.

I remember that entire performance. Since I only had about half my voice, I wasn't concerned about technique. I just wanted to express, to communicate how much I love this music. "Wasserrose" feels like me, and so it felt like I was baring my entire self on the stage. It wasn't, however, the kind of stage fright you get where you're afraid of messing up in front of people. This was the knowledge that in that moment, I was fully seen, as a human being. It was a little vulnerable but incredible empowering. At one point during the song, I realized that I was holding back vocally -- and then I just let it all go. These kinds of things are really difficult to express, but I'm going to refer to the title of this blog post: This was the freest I've ever felt when I was performing. I was conscious and confident and I told my story.

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There's one final song after "Wasserrose," and during this, all my studio-mates hugged me and rejoiced with me: with only a little voice, I had done it. One of my friends told me it was the most beautiful she'd ever heard it -- and only with half a voice! Guys, all glory be to God forever; it is He and He only that does these great things.

My teacher congratulated me on a performance that she called "beautiful." I received so many sweet compliments from my friends and the rest of the audience. Afterward I went to hang out with some of my studio at the restaurant across the street. It was such a sweet evening, full of victory and joy.

Samstag (Saturday) was pretty uneventful. I decided to spend this day to rest and get my whole voice back. I went grocery shopping, and I went to Museum im Palais in die Altstadt, and I napped. That was about it. It was awesome. That evening I attended my other roommate Kate's Liederabend, which was also charming. Their encore was hilarious.

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My studio is unique from the others in that one of our performances was in the morning -- no longer a Liederabend, but a Liedermatinée. This Konzert was in the Meerscheinschlössl, a small castle on Mozartgasse (Is there a more perfect name for a street? I submit that there is not). The hall was absolutely gorgeous; what a pleasure to sing there. It was more live than Odilien, but it still didn't spoil you. As singers, we have to train ourselves to maintain the same technique throughout everything that we do, no matter where we sing. It's a challenge every day, but every day you get better at not listening to yourself.

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Meerscheinschlössl!

If it's possible, Sunday's Liedermatinée was far and away better than Friday's Liederabend (and the Friday performance was really good, guys). Everyone sang beautifully! Also, I had my entire voice, which thrilled me. I thought I sang "Wasserrose" the best I've ever sung it, and my friends agreed. I am so, so incredibly grateful for the encouragement of my studio-mates. They have helped me and encouraged me and rejoiced with me so unselfishly. I am humbled and so, so grateful to work with such talented, giving, wonderful people.

Andreas took the studio to a restaurant down the street for a celebratory post-concert lunch. Afterward, I went and hiked up Ruine Gösting (again) with some friends who hadn't been there yet -- I didn't want to sit around for the rest of the day. Side note: I had been on a run that morning, and today, the day after a hike, a run, AND a performance, my body both loves and hates me.

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This weekend was a weekend of victory in Christ for me. By the grace of Jesus, I have discovered a new freedom in my singing. I know how to continue to be free, to liberate my singing even more: get up there and communicate. Get up and tell my story. I have this to give to you, and I will give it.

Today (Montag), I will say that life is full of joy and a little bit of melancholy. I had my last coaching with Andreas this morning, and we worked on two of the other Mädchenblumen songs (I'm doing the entire set on my junior recital in the spring!). I learned these songs before I left home, but with old technique. So imagine my surprise and delight when the music emerged from me with all the new technical aspects I've been working on! The singing was for joy, y'all. I think it's all starting to click! There will be crappy days, but LOOK AT ME NOW. It's all making sense. There's lots of things I could iron out -- but listen to me sing. I can see the progress now. I can feel it.

The melancholy stems from this: this is the last week of AIMS. Samstag I'm boarding a plane that will take me home. Everything is the last: the last coaching, the last orchestra concert, the last Meisterklassen -- alles, letzte, letzte, letzte (letzte = last). Tomorrow I'm having the letzte Gesangstunde (the last voice lesson), and I just do not know what I'm going to do with myself. I miss my teacher at home, but I don't want to leave here. And I will miss all my friends. It's bizarre to think that I didn't know these people two months ago: here, they're a major part of my world! One of my favorite things about AIMSers is the incredible encouragement they give to me. We're all at different points on the Crazy Singing Journey, and since most of them are older than I, they are full of wisdom and reassurance for me and where I am. I'm so happy to know that it gets better, and even happier for the support system I have along the way.

Praise God for AIMS.

The last week will be both full and empty. Morgen (12. August) ist meinen Geburtstag -- tomorrow is my birthday! I'll be twenty years old, and while that feels old to me, everyone here smiles and me and calls me a little baby. Twenty is big for me, guys. Come on. Anyway, I'll probably go out to eat with my friends, but I also have the letzte Gesangstunde and studio class, as well as a diction coaching. There are two major Lieder masterclasses approaching -- on Thursday, there's one being given by the Queen herself, BARBARA BONNEY (Cue all the sopranos freaking the heck out). However, all the classes are winding down, and I think the only real class I have left is German. Donnerstag (Thursday) is the farewell party. There will be tears and hugs and I will be wailing to everyone how much I love them and how much they mean to me. I was about to say "have meant to me," but I don't think anything like that really has an end.

I'm not sure how to sign off of my blog posts sometimes -- openings and conclusions are always super awkward. For now, I'll say this: the days may sometimes be dark, but joy will always triumph in the end. For anyone who needs to hear it, there's a light at the end of the tunnel. Promise.

My favorite photo from Gösting.

Love from me and Graz.

Bonus photos! I feel like I always tell y'all about running by the river, but I always forget to post photos. Here are some!

I have a thing for light and trees.

From one of the bridges: a view of the Schloßberg.

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