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Shiroka Luka

In the Rhodope Mountains, you can find small villages where the men gather in those tucked away pubs above tourist restaurants, shuffling cards and cigarettes as weekday dusk turns to night. Shiroka Lŭka[1] is one such mountain village, located not far from the popular ski resort town of Pamporovo along the road to Devin. As I have mentioned before, it is also the home of a folk arts high school. Late last week, I made the trip south to visit the kaval teacher there for a lesson.

The village itself has only about 500 residents, plus the 100 or so students at the school. Only five of those students study kaval; apparently, gaida is much more popular in the region. The main road runs alongside a small river, which might be more appropriately labeled a stream or creek, on one side of which the houses climb the hillside. Walking up the weaving stone streets and braving the aggressive dogs that most homes seem to have, eventually you encounter the smell of sheep and chickens in the small barns along the village edge, before the buildings are replaced by evergreens.

Since the teacher I met with there was likely the last new musician I will work with during my current stay in Bulgaria, now seems an appropriate time to reflect on what I have observed about kaval pedagogy. With each of the teachers I have met, the study of a new piece begins with the teacher pulling out a score. Written in modern Western musical notation, the sheet music is somewhat similar to a Baroque urtext in that it outlines the principal melody but only includes a few printed ornaments. The teacher will generally play the piece through for me as I record, including ornaments but slightly under tempo. If we will be meeting multiple times, I then work out the melodic line at home before coming back to learn the ornaments at my next lesson. If it is a one-time lesson, on the other hand, we will go through the piece phrase by phrase, and I will ask about which ornaments to use in which places.

It is possible that some teachers use a different approach with me if they know I have been trained classically. Some teachers are proactive and label the ornaments on the page right from the outset, but there appears to be no uniform notation method. They also sometimes have different names for the same ornament, or use the same name for different ornaments. Sometimes they have no name for an ornament at all. Being able to figure out a complicated combination of ornaments on the first hearing seems to be an expected skill, so some of the teachers have had difficulty breaking things apart for me when I have difficulty imitating (though my ornament-ear is improving!). They often cannot slow down an ornament so I can observe which finger is moved when. Sometimes I can tell that they are ornamenting differently than I am, but when I ask what my rendition is missing, they tell me I have played it correctly.

The teaching techniques I have encountered were developed during communist times from a combination of aural folk tradition and Western models in order to ensure that musicians could be prepared to perform in folk orchestras. According to Donna Buchanan in Performing Democracy, “Teachers employed notation, but in support of aural skills. The new method books were useful for teaching fingerings, the parts of the instrument, and to some extent technical facility… but children needed to listen and play regularly to sense ornamentation and style, which could not be captured on the printed page” (194). Imitating a master musician ensures that folk traditions maintain their traditional lines of stylistic descent, while notated music facilitates the application of that style to arranged ensemble music.

Buchanan continues, “By listening intently to their teachers and parroting back what they heard, students assimilated stylistic knowledge to the point that they could wield it creatively, thus developing their own musical personalities” (194). This is a worthwhile goal across musical genres – to reach the point where one has a deep enough aural understanding to be able to develop stylistically appropriate musical ideas independently. I believe this idea is not emphasized enough in elementary classical music training.


[1] Широка Лъка, sometimes also transliterated as “Shiroka Laka.”