Music: How it has saved me in Mongolia

It is no secret that I LOVE music.  I love it in all of its genres:  classical, pop, rock, indie etc.  It is a part of my daily life.  I was a bit worried when coming to Mongolia that I wouldn't have access to making music or musicians.  Boy was I wrong!  I am so lucky that I was placed in UB.  UB has a thriving classical music scene.

There is an opera house on the east side of Sukhbaatar square.  It is a stately pink building that has been dwarfed by surround buildings but provides amazing music.  During my time in Mongolia I have visited it to see the following performances:

  • Scheherazade  [ballet by Rimsky-Korsakov]
  • The Nutcracker [ballet by Tchaikovsky]
  • Aida [opera by Verdi]
  • Requiem [Verdi]
  • Madama Butterfly  [opera by Puccini]
  • Swan Lake   [ballet by Tchaikovsky]
  • La Bohème  [Opera by Puccini]
  • A concert of various Mozart works
  • numerous Mongolian operas and ballets
Each of these performances was really well done.  I am still in awe of Madama Butterfly and Verdi's Requiem.  Stunning!

I also came to Mongolia with an interest in throat singing (хөөмий in Mongolian).  This was at the prompt of my organ instructor who introduced me to the documentary "Genghis Blues."  I was able to study хархираа (harhiraa) for a few months with a student from my university.  We didn't get very far but I can do it!  Harhiraa is the really deep undertone style of throat singing.  It produces a note that is an octave below the note sung.  Quite fun . . . but hurts your voice.  Thank heavens I'm not a singer!

In November of 2011 I bought a morin khuur (horse headed fiddle) and took lessons from a professor at the College of Dance and Music.  Mind you . . . I had never played a string instrument before and learning from a professor at this college is like studying at the Juilliard Institute of Mongolia.  My teacher, Ganbold, was great.  He was quite expensive from a volunteer's point of view but he taught me a lot about the instrument and the basics of it.  He taught me the Mongolian proverb эзэн хичээвэл заяа хичээнэ which, when roughly translated, means: If you endeavor to do something, fate will be with you.  He told me to never forget it so I had it tattooed on my left arm.

I was only able to study with him for one month but I learned a lot and am eager to study again once I get back to the states and have more money and some time to devote to it.

 Being surrounded by new musical experiences was exhilarating to me.  I learned so much about Mongolian culture through its music.  Mongolians love to sing and they taught me many of their traditional songs which I now sing in karaoke to their great delight!

One of the greatest points in my Mongolian musical career began in December of 2012.  I saw a Mongolian friend on facebook talk about a choir concert in Mongolia.  Aside from Verdi's Requiem I hadn't heard of a choir in Mongolia so I was really eager to see and hear it.  I asked him about it and he invited me to attend the rehearsal that night.  The choir was part of the Church of Latter-Day Saints in Mongolia. I attended the rehearsal and met the director, Unurjargal.  She is a famous opera singer in Mongolia and is very kind, generous, and caring.  That night their pianist wasn't able to make it so my friend volunteered me to sight read their Christmas program.  It was such a treat for me to sight read excerpts from "The Messiah" and play hymns and carols that were so familiar to me (although the hymns and carols were sung in Mongolian).

From that day forward until May 2013 I worked with the choir at every rehearsal.  They rehearsed twice a week (Thursday and Sunday evenings) for about 90 minutes.  It was a lot of work having to do it all in Mongolian but I was allowed to be their rehearsal pianist, assistant conductor and I helped them with their English diction.  Being around choral music again was such a needed activity for me!  When I would have a bad day in Mongolia I could always turn on my ipod and listen to a bunch of choral music which was great but being able to perform it and help shape musicians was beyond amazing.

In February 2013 I had a nasty safety and security incident that really rattled me.  It made me question why I was in Mongolia, did Mongolians even care about me, and what was keeping me here.  After weeks of contemplating leaving Mongolia the answers to some of those questions became clear.  My teachers and students at my school needed and wanted me, they and all my new friends in the Mormon choir cared about me, and music and English was keeping me in Mongolia.

I continued to stay with the choir and helped them prepare for an Easter concert held on March 31, an anniversary festival held in April and I was able to play with them for the 8th annual Mongolian Choir Festival held on May 1.  They are a great group of musicians and it was an honor to work with them.

They may not ever know it but the friends I made in the choir saved me from myself.  They pulled me out of a really dark place and surrounded me with love, music and so many smiles.  I am so grateful to them for their musicianship, eagerness to learn and grow in music and for their friendship.  Unurjargal, their director,  Buted, their artistic director (who is a VERY famous Opera Singer) and Otgonchimeg, their pianist, allowed me to express myself in music and share my love of music with everyone.  In January Buted went to America to sing with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.  Hearing her stories about the music, the pipe organ and American culture was fascinating.  She is so talented!

I am lucky that my Mongolian was good enough to communicate my ideas in music but even if I didn't have the language skills required, music would communicate for me.  It has a way of combining and blending two very different cultures, people and ideas into an amazing musical experience.

To all of the musicians in Mongolia who have guided me, taught me and become my dear friends I say THANK YOU!  Маш их баярлалаа!  You are amazing people and I will cherish every memory and every moment spent with all of you.  Thank you for adding such gorgeous music to my Mongolian life.

The Opera House of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.  Such gorgeous music is made there!

Me and Unurjargal.  She is such a kind and fabulous person!

A. Buted (famous opera singer) Unurjargal and Me after the Christmas Concert December 2012

A. Buted, Unurjargal and choir members

They look great at their Christmas Concert!

Ankhaa and me.  He introduced me to the choir.  

A. Buted and me taking the reigns of the rehearsal.  Their "fearless" leader?!

What fun to conduct and lead in a foreign language!

Easter Concert March 2013

Look at them boys!  Easter Concert March 2013
Ulzii and me.  He has become a dear friend of mine.
Ulzii and Zuluu

Dancers from the April Church Festival Concert

The Morin Khuur player at the concert.  Great player and great guy!

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