Finding my voice

It's never too late to change course.

I was born in Germany in 1941 into a very music-loving family, and music has always been a main interest in my life and I have always had a dream of pursuing a career in music. I learnt piano early and sang in choirs, but when time came in 1960 to make study and career choices my parents strongly advised me against a career in music but to keep it as a hobby so the idea of becoming a professional musician was discarded. 


Making a sensible career choice.

Since I also loved foreign languages I opted to study English and French with the specific aim to work as a simultaneous interpreter at the EEC in Brussels.  Alas, the French vetoed Britain's membership application in 1963, so I could not use my English there and left.

I worked two years as interpreter/translator of the Mayor of Hamburg, studying Italian privately in case I might want to return to the EEC, then out of curiosity decided to visit the US, where I met and married a Scotsman.

As he was offered a job in Washington DC, I applied for a job as conference interpreter with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) which is headquartered there.  Through my work at the Fund I became interested in economics and decided to study it, first taking evening courses and then taking leave to study one year full time for an MA econ. 


with the cast of The Bartered Bride in Kampala 2004

A scene from The Bartered Bride in Kampala 2004

Finding my voice.

At age 35 I became an economist in the Fund's African Department, an interesting and challenging job which involved occasional travel to African countries. 

All the while my husband and I were singing in one of the leading choruses in Washington, but then I decided to learn to sing properly and started taking singing lessons at an age (38) when many singers think they are nearly over the hill, and continued enthusiastically, albeit with many interruptions, for about 10 years until I was ready to perform in public, mostly classical song recitals.

In 1995, after our two sons had left for university, I was offered a 3-year resident posting as IMF representative in Uganda, and my husband, a self-employed civil engineer, was pleased to go there with me.


From singer to singing teacher

I was keen to continue singing and performing in Uganda and was extremely lucky to find a wonderful British pianist, Fiona Carr (Royal Academy graduate) who was willing to accompany me in song recitals.  She was teaching Ugandan youngsters piano free of charge and found them to be very talented and enthusiastic. 

Together we gave many recitals, initially for various Ugandan charities but then to raise funds for an organisation founded by Fiona, “Pianos for Uganda”, to bring pianos donated in UK into Uganda where virtually all musical instruments had been destroyed or severely damaged during the 1970s under Amin and Obote.


With the cast of the Merry Widow 2007

With the cast of The Merry Widow 2007

By the end of my resident assignment I was ready for a new challenge and decided to quit work as an economist and start teaching singing in Uganda;  my husband was also keen to stay on. Thus, at end-1999, I took early retirement from the Fund and began to give lessons, while still doing recitals.  I found teaching singing quite a challenge at first. 

It was not straightforward to apply the technique that worked for myself to somebody else, especially as I had studied singing as an adult and now was dealing, one on one, mostly with youngsters in their teens or early twenties, from a very different culture to boot.  But gradually, with experience, I gained confidence and enjoyed teaching very much.


Performing with two Ugandan students at the Edinburgh Festival

Performing with two students at the Edinburgh Festival

Studying again at 60.

Ugandan students were keen to learn the classical song repertoire (in German, Italian,  French, English) and take yearly exams of the Associated Board of Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM), the UK charity that administers standardised music exams worldwide. 

In order to familiarise myself with this system and find out what these exams are like, as well as to legitimise myself as a teacher under the British system, I decided to take the Licentiate exam (LRSM) in singing performance myself, which I did (and passed) in 2001, at age 60! 

Also in 2001 Fiona and I, together with a Ugandan music teacher, set up the Kampala Music School which has grown and flourished ever since, a centre of excellence for classical music teaching in East Africa. 

I put on many song recitals and four fully staged operas – a very exciting experience - with my students and taught a number of them up to Diploma level; one baritone continued studying on full scholarship at the Royal Schools of Music in Glasgow and Manchester and became a professional singer in UK.

 In 2008 my husband and I left Uganda and I handed over the school's singing department to one of my former students who has continued teaching with excellent results.  I am happy to think of his students as my musical grandchildren. 

Now, in my seventies, I have stopped teaching to be free to travel and enjoy my own grandchildren, but still enjoy singing very much and I am very happy that I have been able to share that joy with others, and especially to enrich the lives of young people in Uganda.

  Ulrike Wilson

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