It is said that the Balalaika embodies the Russian people’s character, with its ability to switch from happiness to sadness with ease. It is a warm, three stringed instrument with a beautiful sound and deep roots in the traditions of Russia. The Balalaika most likely evolved from the Oriental dombra, but in the later 19th century the instrument underwent a number of changes, including the adoption of the classic triangular shape.
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History of The Balalaika
The Balalaika most likely evolved from the Oriental dombra. The dombra, which is still played in present-day Kazakhstan, has an oval shaped soundboard and two strings. Knowledge and use of the dombra was most likely spread to Russia by Mongol trade and conquest. After the dombra’s introduction to Russia in the 14th century, it underwent structural changes.
With its new form, the Balalaika was embraced by Russians and took its place in Russian folklore. It is said that the Balalaika embodies the Russian people’s character, with its ability to switch from happiness to sadness with ease. It was common for the peasant ballads, composed for the Balalaika, to irreverently poke fun at the authority of the times. For this reason there were times when the Balalaika was banned by both the Orthodox Church and the State. The instrument enjoyed its greatest folk popularity in the early 18th century.
In the later 19th century the instrument underwent a number of changes, including the adoption of the classic triangular shape. Reportedly, in the late 19th century, the Russian nobleman Vassily Vassilievich Andreyev, was responsible for the transition of the Balalaika from a folk instrument to a concert performance instrument. Andreyev’s chamber ensemble’s first public concert in 1888 was a great success. It was this ensemble that was renamed The Great Russian Imperial Balalaika Orchestra. As this orchestra toured, the Balalaika was introduced beyond Russia’s borders, even to the US. The Instrument was also carried by the common people when they fled Russia at times
Playing the Balalaika
There are several methods of playing the balalaika, with the most common being the strum. Strumming is the playing method used with most music. Unlike playing the guitar, you do not strum the balalaika over the center of the soundboard. The soundboard of the balalaika is a relatively soft un-finished wood. Strumming over the center of the soundboard would disfigure the soundboard. The balalaika is strummed high on the soundboard near the neck.
With the balalaika correctly tuned, try playing some down strokes with the fleshy part of the right thumb. Be sure to stroke with your entire forearm, not just your wrist. The thumb may be laid along the index finger for stability. Rapid up and down strumming on long notes produces the singing tone peculiar to this instrument.
The Tremolo consists of fast up-and down beats with the right hand index finger. It can be used both to play on all strings or just one single string. The beats must be of equal power, up and down. The tremolo can be interrupted after every note. The tremolo can also combine several notes.
With the Pizzicato, you use your right hand thumb to produce downward beats and your right hand index finger to produce upward beats.
Left hand Pizzicato - The Left Hand Pizzicato is when you pluck the strings with your left hand.
The above methods are just brief descriptions of several balalaika playing methods. For more in depth information and instruction on the balalaika, we recommend you purchase one of the many instructional books and videos available.