Balalaika update

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Somewhat to my surprise, we’re having a long weekend here in Russia, with Monday and Tuesday (yesterday and today) being holidays for… ermm… not sure. Something. Oh yes: National Pride day – as in, “Be Proud to Be Russian”. I’ll take that, for a two-day holiday!

Not having anything planned, I sloped up to Udel’nya market, 5 stops northwards on the blue line. The market’s a gem. It’s dominated by second-hand clothes stalls, though there are plenty selling cheap new Chinese clothes as well. Both are really popular with migrant workers from Central Asia and the Caucasus. There are loads of stalls selling army surplus gear, and also plenty of antiques stalls. I say ‘antiques’: some of the things on sale are genuinely old and expensive, but most of the stalls are to the “junk/house-clearance” end of the ‘antiques’ spectrum.

Which is right up my street. I love junk shops! They have all kinds of fascinating and unusual stuff. So, I went to Udel’nya to browse, and just see what I could find.

As it happened, I went into a deep and narrow stall to find two old balalaikas right at the back. One was missing its strings and bridge, and was for sale at 1000 roubles. The other seemed to be intact and sound, and was for sale at 1500 roubles. For me, that’s a day’s income. So, I bought it.

You may remember that a while ago, I decided to learn how to use the balalaika I somewhat reluctantly bought shortly after I arrived in Russia, and had a lesson with a tutor.  He was unimpressed: my balalaika’s bridge was much too high, the strings were wrong, and the tuning pegs weren’t set deep enough. He changed the strings, and told me where I could take it to have someone try to fix the other problems.

Well, it didn’t happen. My work schedule is crazy these days, and there was never enough time to get to this craftsman. Furthermore, it would have cost at least 1000 roubles, and I was reluctant to spend the best part of a day’s work to try to remedy the problems of a balalaika that really wouldn’t ever be much good. Buying even an entry-level instrument at the music shop around the corner from my apartment would cost at least 6,700 roubles. In comparison, a battered but sound balalaika for 1500 roubles would be an ideal solution! So, I bought it, took it home, and tuned it: it was great 🙂

In fact, I was so impressed I went back the next day to look again at the other one, thinking that I could transfer the top part of the bridge, and the strings, from my original balalaika. It turned out, though, that the pegs for the strings had been snapped off, with part of them still filling the holes, and that meant it would all be more work than I wanted to make it playable.

A few stalls down, though, I noticed a domra malaya, the smallest member of the domra family. I fancied it, and bought it. It’s also pretty beaten up, but it has character, and the cheapest I’ve seen in the shops is just under 10,000 roubles, so hey.

So, here’s the new balalaika.

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As you can see, it’s been through a few escapades:

 

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When I bought it, it had three steel strings, E-E-A. It’s now normal for the E strings to be vinyl and, since the A string wouldn’t tune up, I bought a new set and restrung it completely. You’ll see that the bridge is the correct height:

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Compare this to the other one:

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This, of course, is based on what the tutor told me. After all, I have no clue  – but, after looking at quite a few in the shops, all of them have bridges like my new acquisition, and not one has a very high bridge like the first one.

Here are the two side by side. The new one has the classic shape, with the sides being curved rather than dead-straight.

 

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And here’s the domra:

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It came with an army-green canvas carrying case. I wonder what its story is?

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As for the balalaika tutor, we’ve parted company. He won’t teach on weekends, when I’m working but at my least busy, and our free time during the week only overlapped for a few hours on Monday afternoons – but, then a student of mine moved her lesson into that slot for one week, then the following week something else came up… He announced that he wanted a more dependable student, and that he didn’t want to teach me any more… I can understand his point of view, since I’m also a tutor… but I don’t have a stable job with regular hours, so what can I do?

There we are. He wasn’t cheap, so at least I’ll save that cost. I’ll just have to teach myself. I bought a booklet from the music shop, and there’s some good material on YouTube. At the moment, I’m working with these two clips of basic material, which are ideal for where I am at the moment. Once I can remember the finger positions (and my fingertips have hardened!) I’ll go on to something a bit more advanced.


 

Domra (prima, not malaya):

Balalaika:

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