For as long as I can remember, I have always had a creative outlet, typically through piano and cello. Unfortunately, neither of these instruments is what one would call “easily transportable”. While PCVs who play guitar, ukulele, harmonica, or other portable instruments can bring their instruments to Mongolia or buy a cheap instrument here, I’m not as lucky. As such, I struggled to find a creative outlet. My school has a small keyboard, so I occasionally play piano there, and for a short time had a piano club for students, but with so much free time in the evenings, I craved more creativity. Eventually, I started drawing my favorite photographs I’ve taken of my favorite people and animals, which has definitely helped satisfy the creative thirst, but not in the same way music does.
Then, this spring, I had a big break. My friend/school music teacher sat me down and gave me a two-hour horsehead fiddle (morin khuur) lesson. I had previously been introduced to the instrument during Pre-Service Training when the Healthies visited a summer camp. While at camp, one of the campers who spoke English phenomenally (he lived in Australia for a year) gave me a quick intro lesson. Since then, I had been hoping to have the opportunity to learn the instrument more in-depth.
The horsehead fiddle is eerily reminiscent of an ancient cello, and I was hopeful that with my experience playing the cello since fourth grade, I’d be able to pick up the instrument quickly. Yet for how similar I expected the two instruments to be, I was quickly proven wrong.
Let’s start with the structure and position of the instrument. The horsehead fiddle is a two-stringed instrument.Unlike the cello, it does not have an endpin, so the instrument is upheld solely by balancing it between the thighs/knees. The instrument is also held in an upright position with the neck slightly in front of the plane of the player’s face and at an angle. The cello on the other hand is angled backwards, with the scroll ending up behind the player. In addition, the cello has four metallic strings which, from left to right when looking at the instrument are C, G, D,and A. However, the two strings on the horsehead fiddle are still made of horse hairs unlike the metallic strings used on modern day cellos and from left to right when looking at the instrument are F and B-flat. This means that from left to right, the cello’s strings go up in pitch, while the horsehead fiddle’s go down in pitch. The horsehead fiddle’s two strings as well as the bow’s strings are each made from 300 horse hairs. With regards to the bow, there is no tightening screw to create tension in the strings.
My first question was if I could hold the bow the same way I hold a cello’s bow: from the top (I demonstrated). Ganaa, my music teacher, looked at me like I was crazy and politely refuted. I was then shown how to hold the bow from underneath. All of a sudden, the strange bow-hold some upright bassists use made logical sense to me. The horse-head fiddle’s bow does not have a mechanism for tightening the bow hairs. As a result, the pinky and fourth finger are used to push the hairs away from the bow’s frog to tighten the hairs and create tension in the hair to pull the instruments sound out. Although nowadays modern instruments do not require this specific handhold thanks to the tightening screw, some bassists have upheld the tradition while losing its necessity. We worked on my bow-hold for a bit before moving onto the left hand’s placement on the neck.
I had expected that the fingering on the horse-head fiddle’s neck would be extremely similar if not the same as a cello’s, specifically with regards to pressing the strings against the neck. However, my teacher informed me that the player’s first and second fingers use the crook of the first joint and touch the joint against the side of the string rather than pressing down (with slow practice, a callous builds). The third and fourth fingers however press the tip of the finger against the side of the string. When shifting up to start a scale, the fingers follow the same pattern. Yet to continue the scale, the player’s hand shifts to the higher string (F) and up a half step. At this point, the same knuckle style is used for the first and second finger. The third and fourth fingers still lightly press against the side of the string, but the third finger arcs over the lower string (B-flat) while the fourth finger goes under the lower string (B-flat). Unique, right?? Just getting used to the fingering and bow-hold takes weeks of practice.
I had a few lessons during the spring, but when the time came for the school’s end of the year performance, I had to return my borrowed horsehead fiddle to the school. By that time, I’d learned about 5 pieces and was starting to feel comfortable with the fingerings and bow-hold, but I lost my momentum as summer came and I was without an instrument.
Fastforward to fall break this school year. I had just interviewed Tserenjigmed, a famous horsehead fiddler living in Arvaikheer who had told me about a horsehead fiddle competition the following week in his honor. Later that day, while hosting a culture club in my school’s auditorium, my music teacher friend walks in and informs me that I should come to the music room for a horsehead fiddle lesson as I will be competing in the aforementioned competition… After a week of practice, a blister on my left-hand pointer finger (the main finger used when playing the horsehead fiddle), and a borrowed school dance outfit, I was as ready as I could be.
The day of the competition arrived, and I spent an hour warming up to become accustomed to the outfit. My best Mongolian friend was with me the whole time, the wonderful Tungaa! She supported me through my nerves and made sure I knew the schedule. During my warmup, Tserenjigmed, the horsehead fiddler I’d interviewed, came backstage and listened as I warmed up. My nerves diminished significantly after that. If I could impress him, the man for whom the competition is named, then I could perform in front of an audience! Walking on stage, I knew I wasn’t in the mental headspace to give a stellar performance, but luckily the practice paid off and I got through the piece without forgetting my memorization. Although I didn’t perform at the level I wanted, the experience was unforgettable and a shining moment for me throughout my Peace Corps service.