Thursday, 27 June 2013

Mongolian Overtone Singing Course Diary: Day 3

There seemed to be a mixed mood among the students last night. A midweek lull is to be expected, I suppose, and several people arrived late for the class.

Michael filled the time by getting out some of his musical instruments – like most teachers, he enjoys going off on tangents and showing off his erudition. I enjoyed his collection of jew's harps.* I hadn't previously considered this a Mongolian instrument, but of course it employs many of the same resonant overtone qualities as khöömii. Variants of this most ancient of instruments exist in almost every corner the world – including Turkey, Hungary, India, the United States, Scandinavia and the Philippines. I've been listening to jew's harp music ever since and am in the process of assembling an eclectic jew's harp playlist. In addition to samples of traditional styles of world folk music, it includes examples by Fairport Convention, The Muppets, and, most surprisingly of all, a series of concerti by Austrian composer Johann Georg Albrechtsberger (1736–1812), who taught Beethoven.

Much of the class was given over to recapping. After some "toning" chanting (which was perhaps a little overexplained), we went back over the overtone singing of Day 1 and the shakhaltai style of Day 2. After some practice, we listened to a bit more cultural background, before getting on with combining everything we'd learned so far.

It is impossible for a khöömii teacher to explain how to get all the elements right at once, because there are so many variables: the pitch of the tone, the volume, the constriction, the breathing, the placement of the tip of the tongue, the vowel sound, the shape of the mouth and the position of the jaw, not to mention the completely unique shape of each individual's head. Most of the work must be done through diligent trial and error. But why use the phrase "trial and error", when we have the simpler (and infinitely more positive) word "play"? For the first time, I felt like I was making clear, controlled harmonics. The guiding principle is to fall in love with whatever works. Feeling it in your heart will motivate you; intellectualising it will paralyse you.

The class overran a little, which made up for the late start, and I sensed everyone was feeling much better. Certainly everyone had made enormous progress. As I walked home, it seemed to me that I was hearing overtones everywhere: in the squeal of a buses brakes, in the laughter of a group of tourists, in the wind rolling down Calthorpe Street. Were my ears really this well attuned, or was it my imagination?

When I woke up this morning and checked my emails, I found that I had ordered myself an expensive jew's harp from an online music store.

* Wikipedia explains that while some people object to the name "jew's harp" – as the instrument has no connection with any judaic tradition – other people believe that to refuse to call it a "jew's harp" is more offensive.

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