In my last post, I included several pictures of traditional Mongolian instruments. There are many, and unfortunately I don’t know enough about them for Wikipedia to be of much help in naming them. There’s the ятга, which is held leaning up against the body so that it’s partially on one’s lap, and plucked; there’s the ёчин, which is like a piano without a keyboard – you hit the strings with mallets as you would the bars of a xylophone. There are pan-pipes and flutes and a stringed instrument you strum like a guitar. But most notably, there’s the morin huur.
The morin huur, which my word processor keeps trying to turn into ‘moron’ huur, hyuk hyuk, is the most famous of the Mongolian instruments, and it seems to be the one most strongly associated with traditional music. No surprises there; it’s an instrument whose bow and strings are both traditionally made of horse tailhair, with a carving of a horse’s head atop the neck, where the scroll would be on a cello. Small wonder that it resonates with a people whose ancestors were, or whose relatives still are, nomadic herders.
A Mongolian “orchestra” uses all of these instruments to create music quite unlike the classical compositions to which we Westerners are accustomed. I’m not always a huge fan of the singing that often accompanies it (that will have to be the subject of a different post), but I love the instrumental music. It’s dynamic; it’s compelling; it speaks of open spaces and open skies, of people on the move and hoofbeats across the steppe.
(The video above, assuming it embeds properly, is a quick taste; for something a little more extensive, check out this concert. Long, but well worth the time.)
I was in the orchestra from fourth to twelfth grade, so learning to play a Mongolian instrument was high on the list of things I hoped to accomplish during my time here. And since I’m a horsewoman who played violin for eight years, my choice of instruments was obvious.
I’ve only had a handful of lessons so far, but let me state the obvious: morin huur is hard. Beginners at any instrument usually spend their first few months sounding as though they’re strangling a cat, and this seems to be no exception. To make things harder, my teacher knows about as much English as I do Russian: he can say yes and no, hello and goodbye, good and bad – and that’s about it. I’m still working on the most basic mechanics of playing, and I can’t understand when he says to sit up straighter, or to tilt the huur more, or to press harder or softer, or not to drop my elbow on the downbow stroke. These are all things he can demonstrate, but it takes time to reposition my grip or show me whether we’re playing the scale with a ta ti-ti or ti-ti ta (elementary school music class, anyone?) pattern this time. Thank heavens he’s so patient with me. There’s a whole list of words I need to learn from him: half/quarter/eighth note, bow, string, and so on. I learned flat (би моль), sharp (диез), downbow (татах, which also means pull and smoke, if I’m not mistaken), and upbow (түлхэх, which I think is also push), but those are only the tip of the iceberg.
At least I can read music, so I’m not starting completely from square one. The lowest note on a morin huur is an F, one note below the lowest on a violin, so the range is one I’m mostly familiar with, and I can read the signs for up- and downbow as motions, rather than having to search for the word in an unfamiliar language.
But that’s the only way in which violin has helped me so far. In most ways, it’s actually a hindrance; I get lulled into a false sense of familiarity and revert to what I know instead of what I’m supposed to be learning. I default to the wrong hand position, the wrong assumptions about which strings produce which notes. Everything I know is wrong.
For instance: you create pitches by pressing your fingers sideways against the string instead of curling them over and pressing down. That finger position where your main knuckle is bent but one closest to your fingertip is locked, the one you are absolutely not supposed to do with your left hand when playing violin? Apparently it’s much easier to do by accident than on purpose.
For instance: I’m used to the lower strings being on the right. Which they would be, if I was holding the huur as I would a violin. But you old it on your lap, facing away from you, which puts the lower strings on the left. Had I played the cello, this wouldn’t be nearly so confusing. But I didn’t play the cello. I played the violin.
For instance: the notes of the lowest major scale you can play on a morin huur are called fa, soe (like ‘soy’ with an elongated diphthong), ya, si, do, re, and mi, in that order. Sounds familiar, right? It sounds like solfège. But it’s not, or at least, not quite. Solfège as I know it is moveable, and a major scale starts on do; that’s just how it works. Thus, in the key of D, do is D; in the key of F, it’s F.
A quick perusal of the dictionary informs me that I’m used to the “moveable do” or “tonic sol-fa” system, whereas the Mongolians use the “fixed do” system, in which each pitch takes the name it would have in the key of C. This means that fa is the pitch I know as F, which is convenient and easy to remember. But do is C, not D, and that never fails to throw me for a loop.
If this goes over your head, I apologize; frankly, a lot of it goes over my head too. I’ve never taken a class in music theory, so my knowledge is limited to what you really can’t miss after eight years in an orchestra. I know what a fifth is, and I know the difference between natural, harmonic, and melodic minor scales. I don’t know the relative minor of each major key off the top of my head, but I know the pattern well enough to work it out pretty quickly. I can say, “What do you call two violas playing in unison? A minor second,” and then explain why it’s funny, and why it’s mean. (Viola jokes – sure sign of an orch dork right there.)
But I am not very well-versed in solfège, for the simple reason that I never had much occasion to use it. Singers use it all the time; violinists, not so much (unless they do a lot of transposition – my skills at which, unsurprisingly, are abysmal). So I’m sort of glad that this isn’t the solfège I know, because I don’t really “know” it, even in English. But it’s a different system with the same names, and that causes all manner of confusion.
Thus, I spend a good part of my lessons struggling to remember that the second note of the scale is not re, but soe; re is what I would think of as la, and what I want to call sol is now do. Holy interference, Batman! And when I’m not mixing up the names of the notes, I’m fumbling at the finger positions and placements and failing to keep my elbows in the right places. My lessons are, in short, a train wreck.
I’m struggling to come up with the right terms for this disaster; if I were learning a new language, I’d call it L1 interference, but I’m not. Music is supposed to be a universal language, right? Right? And yet it’s not; we think about it and write it in culturally dependent ways, and it’s really hard to retrain your brain when things so much more similar than they actually are. My subconscious keeps insisting that the term I want is “cognitive dissonance,” but that’s probably me misremembering terms from cognitive psych, since I’ve suppressed most of the memories of that class anyway.
Perhaps comparisons will serve me better: it’s like a ballerina trying to do hip hop, a Lindy hopper trying to do West Coast, a potter trying to knead bread. The instincts and muscle memory are there, trying hard to take over – but they’re all wrong. Between the confusion and the inept squawking, I usually leave with a headache.
But I’ve only had five lessons so far, and I’m not about to give up. Maybe after another fifty or so, this will all start to make sense.