Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Perfect Instrument and its Related History in Mongolia

I've been teaching "togoldor xuur" (pronounced like the following English words in succession: toggle - door - whore) i.e. piano at the local children's theater lately and have been working on my Mongolian music vocabulary as a result. I discovered this morning while studying some root words that "togs", the root of the word "togoldor" means perfect/complete and the word "togoldor" used alone has acquired the same meaning. "Xuur" traditional meant a two stringed instrument but is used in combination with a number of prefix words to name a number of other instruments. The idea that the word for piano is "the perfect/complete instrument" juxtaposed with the generally neglected state that most of these instruments are in made me wonder how this instrument got its name...

Classical music really wasn't around Mongolia before the 1920's. During that time Mongolia, with the assistance of Russia, drove Chinese troops out of the country. After the successful revolution the Russians didn't leave. In fact they did the opposite of leaving: they organized the government and infrastructure of the country, implemented a public education system, sought to get rid of organized religion, among other things. Because of all these reforms UB (the capital) grew enough to allow an entertainment and arts culture to develop. The Russian residents had an opera/ballet house, symphony orchestra hall, and other cultural building constructed. And with them came, naturally, the neccessary instruments.

Seems to me that this must be where the instrument got its name: they certainly weren't around before that time. Perhaps someone reading this that knows more about the Russian side of the story can inform us on this.

When the Russians left in the late 80's/early 90's they left their instruments behind, but without the educational infrastructure to support it. As a result many of these things fell into disrepair: I cite the requisite broken down piano in every soum (village) center (see also the blogs about trying to get the piano here in Bayankhongor ready for last May's concert). Another example: one of my piano students studies music at the national school of music. Her piano teacher Russia of course.

When we played the classical music concert this May it was the first classical music experience for many in the audience. Talking to some of Leslie's counterparts at the theater it seems that Mongolians, in general (dare I use such terminology!?) dislike or are indifferent to classical music. And unsurprisingly so! Imagine Mongolians running the States for about 60 years and bringing with them their traditional music. While it would certainly get some attention from citizens, it probably wouldn't be on the top 10 list. Similar deal here it seems.

Need not be this way. And to some extent, it isn't. The opera and ballet company is still performing though orchestra hall was burned in the July 2008 riots (what does that tell you? A political riot that involves burning orchestra hall...). I think that a lot of the apathy results from unfamiliarity. People simply haven't heard classical music. And if they have it is a small slice of what is out there.

Which leads us back to Bayankhongor and the 15 or so students studying both Mamu Nash Ir (folk songs) and Bach (even someone working on Chopin!):

The only person at the local theater that could theoretically be a piano teacher can't read music (this person hold a Bachelor's degree in music). So, what happens after I leave next year? A serious sustainability issue, that's what happens. My current thought is this: I have a handful of adult students and some very promising teenage students. If they can get far enough in the next year, they could teach after I leave.

In unrelated news the BACC received Wheat Grant funding this week with funds arriving in the back account next week: this means general happiness and lots of work to get done before the grand opening in September.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Camus and Goats

Lest I fail to provide an opportunity for my fellow Bayankhongorians to comment on the excessive citation of awesome French people I will now relate what I did in the countryside for two and a half days. Right.

My family and friends are always talking about going to the countryside and its glories so I will admit that I had high expectations.

Here's the skinny on countryside "activities":

1) People milk animals (twice a day).
Turns out that this is not one of my most impressive skills. I was quickly asked to "go drink some milk tea."

2) People watch TV. But intermittently because they are run on solar power.
It was Naadam in UB when I was in the countryside so guess what we watched? People wrestling. Again, and again...

3) People catch up on news: Bayankhongor happenings, family, the latest terrible that China "sent" here.
At least, that's what I think they talked about.

Since it was one year since I first read The Myth of Sisyphus I thought it would be acceptable to take a break from Goedel, Escher, Bach for a while (sorry Julie). Reading is not terribly commonplace here and is usually associated with EXTREME loneliness or boredom. Needless to say I was asked approximately 629 times, "Are you bored? Do you want to go home? Is everything ok?" etc. Yes, everything is ok, no we can stay here, and no, I'm not bored. In fact, reading by a beautiful and clean river is actually something I enjoy and is not a sign of impending suicide.

Soccer was played (at about 10:30 at night which means we really just kicked a ball around aimlessly and often into the river). No vegetable or fruit was eaten (except maybe my secret stash that I brought along). Gave the family I stayed with pudding and showed them how to make it: the kids ate it up in record time. Jello company: you owe me.

Despite my protests against the thesis that I was bored out of my skull my family insisted that we leave early. Assuming that they weren't happy about this series of events I made them apple crisp with Russian ice cream when we got to Bayankhongor. This seemed to smooth things over a bit. Apple crisp: always a winner.

Check out the pictures for the equivalent of ~95,000 words.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

June and promises

Was is really over a month ago since I posted an update? My apologies. Summer is naturally whizzing right along and the list of things I hoped to accomplish lies miserably uncompleted on my serving table with an occasional trip to my rather unused desk.

June can be characterized by: bus trips. My poor sister Nikki visited and saw far too much of this rather unfriendly means of transportation. Upon my third arrival in Bayankhongor in less than 20 days I promised my family that I would not go to the capital again until August, and then by plane (thank you Peace Corps: medical check up and Mid-service training!).

I think I understand now the plaque that my elementary school teacher had on her kitchen wall: "There are three reasons for being a teacher: June, July, and August" (or something close to that, doesn't quite ring right does it?). Indeed, the freedom that summer has provided, while perhaps not as productive as I had hoped is a form of glory.

First off, I get to make my own schedule. No directors, coworkers, etc telling me that I will teach so and so at this certain time. Summer here means: evacuate the cities for the countryside and fewer people means fewer requests to do this that and the other things (namely, teaching English). Strangely, piano students are popping out of the woodwork and I can't say no to them without killing part of my soul. Only teaching one class of English (only two people, terribly manageable).

Besides those few obligations I am practicing up a storm at the piano/keyboard, cooking, and trying to study Mongolian on a daily basis. Also playing Phase Ten dice with my 11 year old brother who beats me about 99% of the time.

I have a few stories in the bag but need to run and teach a lesson. Friday-Sunday will be in the countryside with my family.

A full report upon return, I promise.

PS: posted some photos that I discovered gathering dust on my camera. Enjoy!