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Renate Kordic immigrated to Australia with her family from Germany over sixty years ago.
They were poor migrants then.
Renate had wanted to play the piano her whole life but it wasn’t until she met her current piano teacher Greg Thompson just over a year ago that she was able to realise her dream.
“Greg and I started talking about music and then we came to an arrangement that I would teach him German and he would teach me the piano.”
Just like any beginner, Renate started by practicing simple scales.
And on the night of her 60th year she composed her first song.
“I was playing these notes and I was thinking about the fact that I'd been here a long long time, and thought, well, I’m lucky I can go back anytime I really want to, but I’ve got siblings who can’t do that, and what it must’ve feel like for them if they can never ever go back to the place where they were born, and so the notes that I was playing were a little bit haunting, then I went “Ammer-land….da-da-da, and I thought, oh that's quite nice, and I added a few more notes and I thought I’ll have to write this down or record it.”
She shared these notes with Greg at the next lesson.
They decided to turn it into a piece that Renate’s young relative Leonie would sing in a competition to revive their dying mother tongue, Low German, also known as “Plattdeutsch”.
Brisbane-based Renate and Greg started writing a song with her niece Leonie and music teacher in Germany via social media.
“Not only are we writing a song, but we’re writing a song in Plattdeutsh, which is Low German, which is the language in North Germany that has been spoken by the farmers and the fishermen, and as such it hasn't been seen as cool in the area of Ammerland specifically where I’ve come from, and people have realised that this is a huge loss to lose a language.”
Renate isn’t fazed about the forgotten language.
With the help of her relatives in Germany, and music teacher Greg, she has created a piece about longing based on her journey from Germany to Australia.
“So the title is ‘Ammerland’. The text itself tells a story of my brother who hasn't been back, and images that I can draw from and images that my relatives in Germany share with me. So Ammerland is his homeland. Ammerland is where he came into the world. Ammerland is where his cradle stood. Ammerland is the place of the green meadows, the deep moors, the beautiful farm. Doesn't matter where you go, doesn’t matter where you are, don't forget your Ammerland.”
Greg Thompson believes a sense of purpose is what motivated Renate’s musical endeavors.
“I suppose it also goes back to the idea of making music meaningful. If you have a certain purpose, or a certain reason to learn or do something that actually makes it better as well. The idea of learning something just to learn it, that can happen but to have that added dimension, I think that's something special.”
An emotional Renate is listening to Greg fine-tuning the piece with her niece Leonie singing through speaker phone via social media from Germany.
“Sadness, loss, and, it brings out that feeling in me. You know…the life that you could have had, not that there’s anything wrong with the life here, but it would have been a different life. Maybe better, maybe not. We’ll never know, and we didn't make that decision because our parents decided to go and that makes a difference when you don't yourself make the decision, when the decision is made for you. So, it encapsulates all those feelings. Excuse me…”
The act of song-writing is more powerful than simply learning an instrument says Professor Felicity Baker from the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music.
In her study, people with moderate stage dementia have improved their engagement and memory from writing songs.
“Typically, people are learning Mozart or Frank Sinatra or whatever it is, but when you write your own song, it’s your own story, so there’s that element of personal expression and personal meaning and that you are then sharing that with other people. So, the song doesn't just stay with you, you end up recording the song and sharing it with other people and it becomes a way to have meaningful relationships with other people that you don’t get when you’re just playing an instrument.”
Professor Baker’s own study has found profound therapeutic benefits in improving the memory and communication of dementia patients through song-writing.
“It’s one of the few activities in life that actually is a whole brain experience. So, learning an instrument or writing a song involves thinking. It involves emotion. It involves visual stuff as well as auditory motor planning, involves all sorts of executive brain functions that are higher order functions of our brain. So, by doing that they’re keeping their brain active.”
And piano teacher Greg Thompson says it’s never too late to learn an instrument.
“Everybody has their own strengths and also their own challenges, and it doesn't really matter about age because someone might be more challenged physically, or emotionally, or even be distracted with technology. Young people these days…their attention span to keep on one particular task…you know. So, my advice is find a purpose, find a meaning, taking up an instrument later in life, we have so many years of knowing what you like.”
Piano novice Renate’s piece is still being perfected for the song competition in September but the project has already turned her into a composer – something she’s never imagined.
“I didn't ever see myself as a song writer. I came up with a few ideas and then I needed the expertise of other people to take that to the next level to add that magic and they've done that. It's just a wonderful thing to work creatively with other people and especially in the field of music. It has made my life more fulfilling, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this. I don't know what my next challenge is going to be then. It's a bit like facing the unknown but it’s all wonderful.