Balalaika tutorial review

  • Balalaika 2

I recently posted about having bought some video tutorials for the balalaika. I was pretty happy to have got them and, now that I’ve had some time to watch them in a bit more depth, I’m still very happy. I thought I might jot down a few impressions.

As I said, one of the main benefits was to simply get me motivated to try again with my balalaika….

Play that bal

I’ve been taking it rather easy, as the steel strings are fairly brutal on my fingertips. I want to avoid the blistering which I suffered when I originally tried to learn in St. Petersburg, as that would force me to stop. So far, although the fingertips of my left hand constantly hurt, I’m succeeding.

So, how about the tutorials?

Both tutorials are fairly static. Andrey Karimov sits centre-screen, flanked on both sides by students sitting in a semi-circle. Occasionally the camera pans around to show more students sitting on benches, but basically the focus – as one would expect – is on Andrey. The students are of varying levels, from beginner to moderately accomplished.

The first tutorial begins with Andrey showing how to tune the balalaika. As I mentioned before, the tuning here uses here is a bit different to what I’d expected, but he explains how it can be varied, depending on the player’s voice. He also shows how to hold the instrument. There is a “proper” way to do this, which you’ll find in every book and will be taught by every tutor; you’ll also see it done this way in the majority of YouTube clips as well. This is sitting, with the balalaika positioned firmly between the legs, and the neck pointing outwards. However, Andrey plays while he’s walking in systema classes, so he holds it differently, more in a ‘guitar’ position (which you’ll see in the photo above). I personally find this much easier (*cough cough* possibly because I have the appropriate body shape – he jokes about this).

After this, he gets into the songs. The first song in the first tutorial, “Russian” is the one he first showed me in his apartment in Pushkin. It’s only got two chords, so it’s not exactly rocket science. Even so, the balaika uses the thumb for chords on the top string, and my hands just aren’t used to forming the shapes which are needed. Andrey mentions in passing that gripping the neck to form the chords is good practice for squeezing water from stones – or throttling an enemy…

The first two songs on the second tutorial, ‘Pozherevistskaya’ and “Zavidovka” are tunes that I’ve always associated with the Caucasus (based on my YouTube viewing); what the actual history of the music is, I have no idea, of course. Still, when I first imagined learning to play the balalaika, these are two of the tunes I most wanted to learn, so I’m delighted to find them here.

Andrey plays each tune first in a fairly complex manner, and then shows, slowly, how to play them chord by chord. This is done by showing how he’s holding the strings. This allows the students in the video to note them down in notation; I gather that most of them, like me, can’t read music.



Andrey then goes through the tune again in a simple manner, and then builds up the complexity again. This works really well, as it shows the beginner how simple it is to get started whilst also showing how this basic level can be developed to impressive levels. As well as the finger positions for the chords, he also explains how many strokes are needed. I’m pleased to learn that, at their most fundamental level, these seemingly complex tunes are – like Welsh or Irish reels, for example – simply repetitions of very short tunes of just a couple of bars.

Most of the tunes are instrumental; a few have songs to accompany them, and we see the assembled students join Andrey in singing them. Unfortunately, the words aren’t provided, and we aren’t given any pointers as to where to find them, Towards the end of the second tutorial, Andrey shows some folk dance steps to accompany one of the tunes; the camera follows him closely as he dances, but this isn’t a dance tutorial. I guess it would be possible to deconstruct what he’s doing without two much difficulty.

Overall, the technical standard of the tutorials is excellent. Visually, the focus is excellent; very sharp, never blurry or wobbly. The cameraman keeps the shot reasonably static, but when he needs to zoom in on a detail or move around to show what people are doing, it’s done very stably and without causing any surprise to the viewer. The reactions of, and interactions with, the various students help make this a good learning experience; it’s not like some video/DVD lessons in martial arts etc where something is shown and the viewer is left thinking “Wait, what?” Here, we see people at our own level trying things out, making mistakes, getting it right. For me, at least, this works very well.

Throughout, Richard Starseeker provides an excellent English translation, which really helps non-Russian speakers to follow what Andrey is saying. I have some of Andrey’s earlier DVDs which have no English, or an amateur translation, and the difference is huge. Richard’s contribution is what turns this into an incredibly useful resource.

Of course, nothing is perfect. If I have a gripe, it’s about the sound balance. The voices in the video are much quieter than the sound of Andrey’s balalaika. If you’re watching at home and listening on speakers, you probably won’t notice this. If, like I have been much of the time, you’re reviewing the videos in a cafe with headphones on, the transition from speech to music may lead to exclamations, spilled drinks, and feverish clawing at the volume key.

That, however, is a fairly small quibble. As always, a caveat is in order; as the title on the cover image says, this is how to play the balalaika for *folk* music; for concert or classical techniques, you’ll want something more formal.

Overall, I’m really pleased to have bought these tutorials; when I’ve made some progress, and my fingertips have hardened up, I’ll certainly buy more in the series.




Disk 1:

  1. Russian
  2. Barynya
  3. Kamarinsky

Disk 2:

  1. Pozherevistskaya
  2. Zavidovka
  3. Podgornaya
  4. Tsyganochka
  5. Lazy

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