Bob Edwards: From US soldier to musical maestro

The Local's series "Making it in Germany" presents Bob Edwards, a former US soldier who has conducted his way to the top of the country’s musical scene.

Bob Edwards: From US soldier to musical maestro
Photo: Bob Edwards at work.

After trading his native North Carolina for a US Army base in Germany, Edwards seemed to swear off his passion for music. But it wasn’t long before he found himself rekindling his relationship with the performing arts in his new home. Now well-established, Edwards has worked on several productions including “Phantom of the Opera” and Elton John’s “Aida.” He is currently the musical director of Disney’s “Tarzan” in Hamburg.


Bob Edwards



Where do you live now?

I live and work in Hamburg, but my main home is in Essen, Germany.

Where are you from originally?

Wilmington, North Carolina

What did you do before coming to Germany?

I studied music. I just got my Bachelor’s in music at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina and then planned to become a high school choral teacher. But I did my student teaching and just decided this is not what I wanted to do. So I shocked everyone and joined the US Army.

After graduating college? And studying music?

Well, I went to the local recruiting office in my university town and asked them if they had anything in the foreign language department because I always wanted to learn one foreign language properly. Then when I did well on a basic aptitude test, they told me I could have basically any job I wanted with them. When they asked me what language I wanted to learn, I said German program because I’d already taken a bit of German in college, and I was interested in German culture, but also because I had studied music.

So in a way, you chose German as a result of your musical background?

Sure, plus I’ve always been interested in Europe just through literature and stuff – it’s basically our roots. And I was especially interested in German culture, because even as a young teenager, I always thought, why did so many geniuses come from Germany? From the musical world, from the art world, from the philosophical world from the scientific world, and it was just sort of a culture that interested me.

What was your job in the army?

I worked for electronic intelligence. I can’t say specifically what it was because I’m sworn to secrecy until I die. But you can put two and two together yourself: I was translating things from German into English for certain people. I basically had to listen to things and then summarise them from German into English. I worked up at Teufelsberg [in Berlin] at the now-abandoned listening station.

You must have already spoken German quite well when you came to Germany?

I could understand almost everything. The school I went to was not a speaking language school like Berlitz: it was a school to teach people how to listen and do what I did. So it wasn’t until I actually started working in the language in an environment like Theater des Westens or even before that when I was teaching piano lessons and involved with German families. So if you want to learn it, you can.

How did the leap from the military to musical theatre come about?

When I first joined the army, I had sworn off all music and theatre, because I’d done so much of it in my life. And I said I didn’t want anything to do with it, I was sick of it. Which is why I wanted to learn German too, because I was thinking about after I get out, maybe going back to the States, getting a degree in political science and maybe try to join the State Department. But fate didn’t see it that way. So when I was in the army base in Berlin at Andrews Barracks down in Berlin-Lichterfelde, they had a very strong theatre program. I got involved with these musicals, and when I got out, I got back into singing again.

What made you realise you wanted to make it your profession this time?

It was just my experience with these musicals at the army base. I was just having such a good time, and it turned out I was really good at what I was doing, performing in musicals. I just really loved it: I ended up teaching the music to people, teaching harmonies, teaching songs to the people in the cast. And that’s what I still do. I made a little name for myself down at the army base, and there were freelancers there who passed my name on to Theater des Westens.

What has your professional life looked like since then?

I’ve pretty much worked non-stop directing musicals in German. I was with Theater des Westens from ’84 to ’88, and then I was involved with the Berliner Kammerspieler, which unfortunately has been closed. We were the first people in Berlin to do “Rocky Horror Picture Show” and “Little Shop of Horrors.” Then I went down to Bochum for a show, where I gained some key contacts. Since then, I’ve worked in Germany, Austria and Switzerland doing freelance musicals – conducting and musical direction. Since 2003 I’ve been with the big company Stage Entertainment. I did Elton John’s “Aida,” “Phantom of the Opera” and “Mamma Mia.” Then, in 2008 they asked me if I’d be interested in coming to Hamburg to do Disney’s production of “Tarzan.” It’s been playing about a year-an-a-half now, full houses. I’m the musical director and the conductor.

What do you remember being the toughest part of coming to terms with German language and culture?

When I went to the Hochschule der Künste after the army in 1981, the toughest thing for me was the politics. I had just gotten out of the army, and I only told a few dear friends because it wasn’t cool to be an ex-US soldier at that time. The late 70s, early 80s was a very volatile period in Germany politically. There was the RAF happening. There were a lot of bombings going on. There were the extreme demonstrations against the stationing of the missiles here in Germany. Older Germans were all still very thankful and very appreciative of the Americans because of what America had done for them after World War II – and still did up until recently. But younger Germans were always resentful of the American presence in Germany. So sometimes it was like treading dangerous territory. I’ve always been a very liberal and progressive person, so it’s hard for them to understand why someone like me would join the army in the first place. It was a contradiction to them, an oxymoron almost, so it was very hard to explain.

How much time do you split between German and English?

In the army of course, I was in a totally English speaking environment. But after hours in the army I managed to make myself go out and do things, make German friends and stuff, so I had like a 50/50 sort of situation. After the army it was the same: my social circles were 50 percent expats and 50 percent Germans. Then, as I got into the musical theatre world, it shifted to about 90 percent German, 10 percent expat friendships.

What fascinates you about German culture?

I’d say what’s always been neat about living in Germany is that it’s a society that works. It’s very civilised. They’ve had universal healthcare since after the war, or maybe even before? It’s just a very well-functioning society in the way life is set up: the trains, the roads and the architecture. In general it’s always been a very well-planned, well-designed, and I’ve always liked that about it. I personally feel like the standard of living was and is higher than in the States. I also find that the average German is better educated and more enlightened than the average American. I think that might be changing a bit because of the influence of mass culture, television and so forth. But I think the average person is still better educated and more informed. That has always fascinated me.

How do you feel like Germany has changed you since you arrived here?

I’d say I’ve become objective, if not critical of my home country. When you move abroad, you usually see things in a different light, and I think that’s healthy. I remember as a kid being stuck in this idea that America is the greatest nation on earth. And I always believed it: you hear it so often, that I always accepted it as fact and didn’t think twice about it. Then you travel a bit and get outside the country, especially after living so long like I have here, and you start thinking, wow, maybe it’s not the greatest nation of earth. There are a lot of great nations in this world, and the United States is a wonderful nation, but it also has lots of faults, like other countries. So I’ve just adopted a different perspective.

What would be your best advice for someone who is trying to make it in Germany?

Learn German. Not only learn German, but learn the German culture. If you’re going to make it, you’ve got to somehow appreciate the people you’re working for. I certainly have my gripes, all of us do. You sort of identify the typical German and things that bother you. There are things to this very day that bug the heck out of me, like the aggressiveness. Germans aren’t polite like the British, things like that. But if you’re coming here and you want to make it, I’d say you’ve got to immerse yourself in the language, immerse yourself in the culture. If you don’t bring it with you naturally, you’ve got to somehow like and love the culture here. I knew an American living here for 30 years who couldn’t even order a beer in German. How disgusting is that?

Do you know someone who’s “made it” in Germany? Drop us a line: [email protected]

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7 tips for how to survive as a freelancer in Germany

Taking the decision to go it alone and freelance in Germany can be a daunting prospect. But, if you do it right, it can be an exciting and liberating path. Here are some of our top tips on how to survive.

7 tips for how to survive as a freelancer in Germany

1. Get a tax advisor

The German tax system is complicated, even for Germans. All the associated paperwork uses the Amtsprache (authority language) which is more like legalese than ‘normal’ German, and mistakes when filling out tax forms can cause you, at best, a massive headache and, at worst, a costly fine. So it’s best that you employ someone who knows what they’re doing to help you out.

That person is called a Steuerberater (tax advisor) in Germany. They will help you register with the tax office, correspond with them and submit your tax declarations.

Be aware that, in Germany, different deadlines apply for tax returns depending on whether you employ an official tax advisor or not. If you are doing the tax return on your own, the deadline for submitting your annual tax return is earlier than if you use a tax advisor’s services. 

READ ALSO: What NOT to do when you’re freelancing in Germany

When looking for a tax advisor, a top tip is to use your network to get recommendations. Ideally, you want someone who will do more than just fill in the forms for you, but who will actually advise you on how best to manage your business finances so that you can make tax savings.

2. Keep your accounting in order

The better you keep your own accounts in order, the easier it will be for your tax advisor to compile your tax declarations and therefore the cheaper their services will be.

As a freelancer, there are a lot of costs you can deduct from your taxes – from train tickets, working materials, to meals out – so it’s best to keep hold of all your receipts and to keep them in good order.

2 euros and 50 cents lie on a receipt in a beer garden. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Peter Kneffel

In Germany, you’re obliged to keep hold of receipts for two years, in case of a tax inspection, so it’s a good idea to photocopy the type of machine-printed receipts you get from restaurants so that they stay legible for a long time.

There are also a few things to be aware of when writing your own invoices. Firstly, make sure that you include your tax number. This isn’t the 11-digit Steueridentifikationsnummer that everyone gets when registering in Germany, but the 10-digit Steuernummer you get from the Finanzamt after registering yourself as a freelancer. 

Most companies won’t pay you if you don’t have this on your invoices so make sure you include it.

You should also make sure that you number your invoices properly – ideally in ascending order so that you can easily keep track of them. You are not allowed to issue two invoices with the same number and if you do so and the finance office notices, you could face an inspection of your whole accounting system.

There are numerous great accounting software programmes you can use to help you, such as Lexoffice and Sevdesk and, even if you have to pay for them, the costs will be tax deductible!

3. Find out if you’re eligible for financial support

In Germany, there are several opportunities for freelancers to gain financial support and to cut their outgoings, and its worth finding out if you’re eligible for them.

If you’re claiming unemployment benefits under ALG 1 and are thinking about becoming a freelancer, the employment office offers a special type of financial support to help you to get your freelance business off the ground.

Called the Grundungszuschuss (“foundation grant”) the payment is a six-month grant equalling your monthly entitlement under ALG 1 plus €300 towards your insurance costs can be applied for those in receipt of this unemployment benefit.

READ ALSO: Will freelancers benefit from Germany’s €300 energy allowance?

If you are engaged in some form of artistic profession in Germany – which can include journalism to pottery – you may be entitled to membership to the Kunstlersozialkasse (artists’ social insurance).

Being a member of the KSK means you only have to pay half of your health insurance and pension contributions, and the KSK will pay the rest.

4. Work out how much you think you will earn

As with starting any business, you need to have some idea of your expected earnings from the outset.

If you’re just starting out as a freelancer, or have some freelance gigs on the side of an employment position, then it might be worth considering registering yourself as a Kleinunternehmer (“small business”).

As a Kleinunternehmer, you can currently earn up to €22.000 per year without having to charge VAT and having to submit only yearly tax declarations. 

An income tax declaration form lies on a table. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Hans-Jürgen Wiedl

Be aware that if you are registered as this kind of freelancer, you must include the following sentence in your invoices: ‘Gemäß § 19 UStG wird keine Umsatzsteuer berechnet’ which means ‘In accordance with Paragrah19 of the German VAT law, no VAT has been added to this invoice.’

READ ALSO: Everything you need to know about your German tax return in 2022

If you think you will earn more than €22.000 per year, you will need to pay Umsatzsteuer (VAT) and will have to submit tax declarations in advance and more often. Depending on how much you earn, this could be every month or every quarter. 

5. Get your insurance in order

In Germany, it’s a legal requirement to have health insurance.

If you’ve just made the move from employment to being a freelancer and want to keep the same health insurer, you should get in contact with your health insurance provider straight away to tell them about your change of circumstances. They will ask you to re-register and to tell them your projected freelance earnings for the year, so they can amend your monthly fees.

If you don’t keep your health insurer provider updated, you could continue to be charged the higher rate that you had from your previous salary.

The insurance cards of the health insurance companies DAK, AOK, Barmer and Techniker-Krankenkasse TK lie with euro notes under a stethoscope. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Daniel Karmann

It’s not just health insurance you need to think about as a freelancer. It’s also wise to think about protecting yourself from any sort of claims that could arise as a result of any working mishaps. 

If, for example, you lose your laptop which contains confidential client information, you need to be protected against claims.

That’s why it’s good to have both Betriebshaftversicherung (business liability insurance) and Rechtschutzversicherung (legal protection insurance).

6. Plan your time wisely

All of these bureaucratic obligations take time. So it’s really important that you take account of that when planning your time. For example, planning half a day a week to deal with your invoices, filing, emails to clients, and conversations with authorities can be really beneficial when scheduling your working time. 

7. Grow your network

As a freelancer, networking is absolutely crucial to success. 

Keep an up-to-date profile on websites like LinkedIn and German equivalent XING and keep in contact with anyone you’ve ever worked with, no matter how brief the contact was. 

Having a network is not only about getting more clients, but also about building a support network in your field to exchange advice, tips and generally for your own enrichment. 

Participating in workshops related to your field, going to seminars, and meet-ups, can be great ways of broadening your network.