Woody Packard

Words + Pictures

Morin Khuur

Munkhjin, Demonstrating
Have you thought about learning to play a bowed, stringed instrument lately? How about one that is both fretless and whose strings are not pressed against a fingerboard, but lightly touched with the tops of the first and second fingers, and just the tips of the third and fourth. Most of the time you get to the high (right) string by reaching over the low, but sometimes, with your pinky, you must sneak underneath. Would you rather bang your head against a concrete floor or poke yourself in the eye with a stick? (I have recently tried one of these.) Learning this instrument seems better than these two other choices right now, but then I'm just getting started.

Of the many unusual musical instruments here, the most cherished is the Morin Khuur, an out-of-square soundbox that is perched between the knees, connected to a carved horse's head by a long neck that stretches a pair of horsehair strings. (F, B♭) It is held upright, something like a cello, which in my ignorance, I thought might give me an advantage. If so, I did not get much of a head start. My instructor, son of one of Mongolia's most celebrated musicians and teachers, went with me to choose an instrument, and after testing four and eliminating them one by one, he finally stood up and passed his choice to me. "En" he said as he nodded, passing it and the bow to me so I could pay for them. "This."

When I got home I took it out of its satin bag, sat down, and tried to play a few notes. Although I have seen them played by Mongolians on horseback, so offensive was the best sound I could make with it that I was convinced I had broken mine carrying it home from the music store. Twenty minutes earlier, in Munkhjin's hands, it had made the most magical music you have ever heard. Now it was a way to torture neighbors who had been celebrating a birthday for most of the night.

Working Out Some Details
In traditional Mongolia, each household is expected to have a morin khuur, as well as someone who knows how to play it. In modern Mongolia, many have resorted to facsimiles, either souvenir miniatures or elaborate but non-functioning wall hangings. On our first trip to Mongolia my students gave me a miniature, and on our most recent trip to Khovd I was presented with a framed likeness made of sequins. The truth is that it's easier to find morin khuurs than it is to find people who play them. Many of the Mongolian men that we know, and a few women, say that they intend to learn to play some day though they have not yet done so. For this reason, it is a little shocking for Mongolians to see someone who is so obviously not a Mongolian carrying their national instrument through the streets of Ulaanbaatar. The looks I get range from protective glares to mild amusement, with an occasional raised thumb and a laugh.

Right now, I've been working at it for about three months, and though my teacher, Munkhjin, has missed the last few lessons I've continued to make progress, carving off a new piece of a song, pushing back the upper range of what are notes and what are just squeals. I have a few simple songs under my belt, and as with all music, there is room for improvement in even the simplest task. During the first week of July there is an International Morin Khuur Festival, with players coming from several countries in the central Asia region. At least one, though, has been invited from the United States. Don't expect him to win any awards, but he is quite honored to be considered.

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A Fly Sits on the Window

I have heard this song in one form or another since I came to Mongolia. It's often used as a beginner's lesson because it stretches the upper end of the scale and requires some challenging leaps of the fingers. As always, what is hard for a beginner can be made to look easy by an expert. Here Munkjin, my instructor, takes it to another level. Read the story…