Since I first listened to the Mongolian horse-fiddle in a Siberian yurt two years ago, I’ve wanted to learn how to play the Morin Khuur. After buying a horse fiddle in Ulanbaatar, Mongolia I now “just” needed to find a teacher in Buryatia, Siberia.
Since this wasn’t my first time in Ulan-Ude I knew that I needed to set my plan of finding a Morin Khuur teacher in motion as fast as possible, because things in Buryatia move… well… slowly and I only have a month to learn the basics of the Morin Khuur.
I am well adapted to the Asian concept of time, meaning that I’m usually running late and am very relaxed if others aren’t on time either. In the wider context, I know it takes time until things happen and stuff is arranged. There’s no reason getting angry about having to wait, impatience, in my opinion, just makes the experience unpleasant for oneself.
So, having said that, the second day I got to Buryatia I asked two of my colleagues and friends to please help me find a Morin Khuur teacher. Buryatia, though officially part of Russia is not only geographically but also culturally very close to Mongolia. About a week after I first uttered my wish, both of my friends told me they had asked someone, who knew someone who might know a Morin Khuur teacher and they would call with a number soon.
A few days later, we had the phone numbers of two teachers. We called and were told to call again the next day. We then found out that one of them couldn’t teach me, but he gave us the number of yet another teacher (should I draw a map or are you still following?). A few more phone calls followed and another day later one of my friends and I went to meet both teachers. The first teacher was stuck in the Mongolian embassy and had to cancel the meeting. So we go to meet the other one.
The second teacher meets us in the academy for Buryat Music, next to the slightly kitsch building of the Buryatian Theater. He is 34 and a musician and music teacher. He seems to have a good sense of humour so I tell him that his name could mean big mountain in Chinese. I don’t say, that I find the name quite fitting, since he is of Mongolian stature, with strong hands and a figure that lets me guess that he enjoys Buryat cuisine. He replies that in Tibetan his name means beautiful voice.
Listen to the Morin Khuur, close your eyes and you will see the wild nature of Mongolia
Almost to prove that his Tibetan name is fitting as well, he sits down with my horse fiddle and tells us one of the many legends of how the first Morin Khuur was built. All this accompanied with Morin Khuur play and even throat singing. Hearing him play my Morin Khuur I not only realise how hard it will be to learn this instrument but also remember just how amazing it can sound in the hands of a musician. When I listen and close my eyes, I feel I’m back in the beautiful Mongolian steppe.
Big Mountain tells me that I should have three classes a week and need to practice two hours a day if I want to make even the tiniest of progress in the few weeks that I have left. I agree, because hearing Big Mountain play the Morin Khuur has me wanting to learn to play at least one song, be it the shortest of songs. He teaches me how to use the bow and how to sit, which is a lot harder than it sounds and tells me to practice playing the two strings of the Morin Khuur and come back monday.
I practice and am half waiting for my neighbours to come with pitchforks to shut me up- hardly any instrument is so unkind to the ears when a beginner plays it as string instruments.
Close your eyes and think of the sunrise over Lake Baikal when you play this
Monday Big Mountain has me playing the scale on the f-string of the Morin Khuur. Even though it sounds terrifying and I’m truly sorry for Big Mountain and my friend Oyuna, who’s translating Big Mountains instructions for me, I enjoy learning the scale so much that practicing two hours after my one hour class comes easy.
The excitement of being able to play a few tones right is incredible. So I practice more than two hours and when I return the next day, Big Mountain approves of my progress and says I learn fast, probably to keep me going even though the tones I produce can hardly be called music.
He teaches me a very simple song, well, more a few tones and then the thing that I’ve been over-eagerly awaiting: a Mongolian song. Although the song consists of only three tones, when he plays it it sounds amazing. For this song I have to play both strings in parallel for the first time, which makes the full characteristic sound of the Morin Khuur appear, at least if one manages to actually bow both strings.
He tells me to think of the sun rising over lake Baikal when I practice that song. Easy, because even if my Morin Khuur playing at the moment sounds more like a cat looking for a mate, I can sense how amazing it’s supposed to sound. I quietly think how happy I am to learn this instrument here in Buryatia and not for example in the last German city I lived in. Having someone tell me to think of the sun rising over the concrete buildings of Bochum might not bring the nicest sounds to my mind.
‘You don’t need any notes for this song’, Big Mountain explains, ‘you have to remember it in your heart. I learned this song many years ago, but I love the melody as much as on the first day I heard it.’ This, I think, is easy to believe.
- A ride on the Trans-Mongolian Railway (vivianesview.wordpress.com)
- Festival review: Anda Union – The Wind Horse; Assembly George Square (venue 3) (scotsman.com)
- Mongolia: Altan Urag – Тэмүүжин (Temuujin) (jobblog2011.wordpress.com)