Man at tram stop: Девушка, балалайка опять в моде? Hey, is the balalaika back in style?
Me, smiling brightly: Нет, совсем не в моде. Nope! Not at all in style.
This exchange made me happy – it's the first time, in either Russian or English, that I've had a remotely snappy reply for someone who's made a smart remark about the instrument I was carrying. And that actually happens a lot when your instrument is six feet tall and you're only five foot two, or when your instrument wraps around your body. (I sure know how to pick 'em, eh?)
Yes, the balalaika is about as square as you can get in Russia. Kind of like klezmer in the U.S., or maybe the banjo – awesome, yes, but totally not stylish. I've had to assure a fair number of people that yes, I am aware that playing the balalaika doesn't make me "more Russian," and yes, I realize that most Russians don't know how to play the balalaika, and no, I am not trying to imitate anyone from the American film version of Dr. Zhivago. I realize that comes with the territory when you're a foreigner studying an instrument that Russians assume is a stereotype of their culture, and it doesn't really bother me. But almost every time I walk down the street with the balalaika, either a five-year-old child or a drunk eighteen-year-old dude will point and crow with delight, "BALALAIKA!" Really, I should start carrying "Captain Obvious" stickers to hand out.
So if I'm not trying to make like Lara and I don't like being pointed at, why do I play the balalaika? I actually don't have a good answer for that. When I got to Russia, I missed playing music, and someone suggested taking guitar or accordion lessons, and then I found out that accordions (also a Russian folk instrument) were expensive and balalaikas were cheap, and things sort of went from there. Not to say that I don't love it with all my heart. It's a fascinating instrument. Besides being shaped like a triangle, its main characteristic is the variety of ways in which you can get it to make noise – strumming with the thumb, wagging the wrist up and down and hitting the strings with the index finger, pizzicato and "two-sided" pizzicato, a fancy finger-spreading technique called a drop, a tinkling tremolo, a vibrato made with the right hand instead of the left, a sharp pluck made with the left hand instead of the right.
Anyway, I just got set up with a new balalaika teacher and had my first lesson. The faculty director of the institute's student club, who is herself giving me singing lessons (she's my kind of singing teacher – she prints off the lyrics to a bunch of folk songs, Okudzhava and Vysotsky, and we bash through them together with little to no regard for anything resembling technique), found him for me at the local music college. I'll admit, when I heard that my new teacher was a man, I had brief visions of a dashing young balalayechnik (who doesn't?), but Mikhail Semyonovich is seventy if he's a day. All the same, I'm really excited to have him for a teacher. All of my most effective music teachers and language teachers have had the same M.O.: be very, very kind, as well as honest and serious about your student's performance, and the student will want nothing more than to not disappoint you. This is exactly the kind of guy Mikhail Semyonych seems to be. He's very quiet and calm, takes care to correct every serious mistake I make, criticizes without judging, always checks whether I understand him, and addresses me, at least for now, на вы [using the formal 'you' rather than the familiar, which would be well within his rights considering our age difference]. I walked home from my lesson smiling all the way, despite the drunk eighteen-year-old dude who pointed and crowed, "BALALAIKA!," because I know I'm going to learn a lot from him.
One last thing: I learned today that a scale (as in do-re-mi etc.) is called a гамма/'gamma' in Russian. If anyone (linguists? music theorists? eh?) has any idea why that might be, I'd be interested to hear. (If you think the fact that I got through a whole year without knowing the word for 'scale' says something about my last balalaika teacher, you'd be right.)