Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Mongolian Overtone Singing Course Diary: Day 2

The sun was shining, so I ate a sandwich in Russell Square. I like public spaces that allow lots of people to do a wide range of things simultaneously. Some martial artists were practising moves with mimed swords. Some small boys were kicking a football about. A girl was photographing flowers. A drama group were doing something strange involving rope, a guitar and drum, a stepladder and foliage. A man tried to show off to his girlfriend by walking straight through the fountain in the middle of the square, and regretted it immediately afterwards. I was practising my overtone singing.

The class this week largely put overtone singing to one side, in favour of another element of tagnain khöömii that is typically Mongolian: shakhaltai. This word is translated as "squeezing", and refers specifically to a tightening of the superior pharyngeal constrictor muscle. Everything else – the jaw, the back of the mouth, and the larynx – is kept loose, relaxed, open and resonant. Michael introduced the idea in the following terms: "Sing an eee sound, but rather than your usual eee, sing the eee you would sing if you were at a cocktail party and had just met someone you hated, but were pretending to get on with." The result is a sound that is unfamiliar to Western ears. It appears to come from deep within, a constricted effect achieved by Rob Brydon with his famous "Small Man Trapped in a Box" act:

Paradoxically, this constrained voice, properly supported, has great resonance, and khöömii can be used to communicate over long distances in Mongolia. Michael advised me, as a performer, to focus on my inner support – my diaphragm and breathing – rather than strain to reach the back of the audience. There is a deeper life message here as well. We might achieve our objectives with more ease if we directed our attention to where we are and what we already have within us, rather than where and what we would wish to be.

Once introduced to shakhaltai, a second concept was brought up: dandilakh. This word has no equivalent in English. (How would you explain the word "lah-di-dah"to a non-English speaker?) Its aim is to loosen the tongue and to practise the shakhaltai style with a range of broad vowels:

LEEE – la - la – LEY – la - la – LAH – la - la – LAW – la - la – LOOO

and back again.

To practise my dandilakh, I was partnered with a Polish girl called Anka. She grabbed a pen and scribbled the Polish equivalents of these vowel sounds on the cribsheet. As on Day 1, we spent a good half an hour getting to grips with it. Anka was shy, but a natural. I feel like I made a pretty good stab at it. The room rang merrily with "LEE-la-la-LEY-la-la-LAA-" etc. until the couple sitting next to the window collapsed into hysterics. 

This technique is easy for a beginner to overdo, and I can already sense an unfamiliar soreness in the back of my throat. We were advised to abandon all shakhaltai activity between this class and the next, and concentrate solely on practising the overtone singing from Day 1.

This morning, I recorded my overtone singing in my kitchen. The harmonics – a whistling sound over the top of the main note – are ever so faint, but can just about be discerned. What do you think?

Tonight we will put the two together – the overtone singing and the shakhaltai style. I relish the challenge.

Click here for Day 1 of my Mongolian Overtone Singing Course Diary.


  1. Sounds great :D
    You might like my midwinter animation 'Flight of the Shamanic Santa'
    In which throat sining is the main music used, with the aim of introducing a wider audience to the style.
    Blessed Be By Starlight and True Sight ~

    1. Thanks, Celestial Elf. This is beautiful. I am sharing it with as many people as I can.