Adventures in Ukraine

Adventures in Ukraine

When Kateryna Zavalko (above, far right) contacted me earlier this year to invite me to teach Dalcroze on her course for 10 -13 year olds on a camp 170 kilometres south of Kiev, I was surprised, thrilled and nervous in equal measure. I last met Katya, who is a professor at the Faculty of Arts of National Pedagogical Dragomanov Universityin Kiev, in Quebec City last summer at the third International Conference in Dalcroze Studies, where she had been awarded the Joan Pope Bursary. She has a special interest in string teaching and has trained in Colourstrings with Géza Szilvay (who told me at the NYCoS Summer School earlier this month that he thinks very highly of her.) It was with a modicum of trepidation that I accepted her invitation, but I am very glad I did.

The course was held at Kompas Park, where the previous camp had been on the theme of "The Gift of Christmas". So, we arrived on Sunday 12 August after a 3-hour coach journey from Kiev in considerable heat and unbroken sunshine to find the place decorated for Christmas. On top of my lost suitcase, the unfamiliar language, lack of sleep and absence of internet, this added to my sense of dislocation. However, the welcome I was given from the moment I stepped off the plane could not have been warmer, which made everything okay. I'd persuaded Katya that we should have an introductory Dalcroze session that evening for everyone, including members of Kompas Park's staff. This was a great ice-breaker and everyone went to bed that night knowing more of what they'd let themselves in for.

One of the many good things about the week was that the children came with some family, so there were plenty of adults around at all times. Some of the parents were also teachers who joined the pedagogical part of the course. The camp had plenty of space and outdoor activities for the kids. It was quite normal to find children practising under a tree beside the trampoline or hammocks. I came to greatly admire the freedom given to the kids by their parents and was very impressed by their sense of responsibility.

Katya had sent me some repertoire in advance so I had some ideas planned, but having heard the children play on Sunday evening, I was able to work out what needed to happen first. The main pieces I focussed on were Puccini's Crisantemi and a stylish Colourstrings piece in 7/8. There are no qualified Dalcroze teachers in Ukraine, where teaching is still heavily influenced by the former Soviet ways, so my way of working seemed pretty revolutionary. My worries about communication were dispelled fairly quickly. Katya was always on hand, but many of the children could speak quite a bit of English and as the week progressed, were keen to practice and develop their language skills. Particular thanks go to Grunia (short for Agrapina) who had attended an international school for a couple of years and became my right-hand interpreter.

This brings me to the learning of the names. I managed in the end, but it was difficult! Ukrainian is different from Russian and I was in constant danger of pronouncing names which I though I might have known already e.g. Igor (2nd from the top below) in the wrong way. I had particular trouble with Ksoosha (a phonetical approximation!) as what came to mind all the time was Skoosha. Ooops. I'm glad I thought to ask the children to write their names in both alphabets. It is sobering to think that these youngsters not only understand and are confident enough to speak another language, but that they also know how to spell in two alphabets.

Each day I taught the kids Rhythmics first thing, then later in the morning I did similar things with the teachers/interested parents. After lunch the kids and I did improvisation. The rest of the time they rehearsed as an ensemble, or in one of the two groups, and also individually with Dasha the pianist. Some of them asked me for lessons and I loved working with them in this way too. They listened carefully and were very responsive.

The tone the children produced made a big impression on me. Katya has been involved with teaching most of them at some point, but she doesn't have time to have many pupils. However, her influence was clear. I noticed the depth of tone particularly in the arrangement of a Ukrainian folk song which, like many of their songs, was about unrequited love. Here's a little clip from the concert.

I also loved the fact that the children were all expected to sing their parts properly, in harmony, and by memory. What a fabulous training! The first piece to start coming together was the one in 7/8. We kept working on this all week and by the end almost all of them had a properly embodied knowledge of the metre. A particularly satisfying moment was when they all managed to improvise in 7/8 over an ostinato played by their peers.

On Wednesday we had a long morning off. Katya and I had decided that they should do a Plastique Animée of Crisantemi so it was good to have time to think about this. The kids went out in kayaks on the river/lake at the bottom of Kompas Park, and I was taken out in the rowing boat. The water lilies were wonderful - and there I had the solution to Crisantemi! In the afternoon we worked on balance and trust in pairs and experimented with opening and closing like a water lily. After that, the rest fell into place quite quickly. I was pleased with what they achieved in the short time we had to devote to this, and they certainly played the piece better. (Video follows later in blog.)

In the late afternoon on Wednesday, my suitcase finally arrived. The kids and I did a celebratory dance around it before I retrieved my swimsuit and headed for a swim at last.

That evening everyone learned the Gay Gordons and Dashing White Sergeant. They all loved it, but these dances aren't designed for the heat so the adults melted away, leaving the children whooping. They were as high as kites!

On Thursday morning we did a lesson on phrasing. The kids worked very hard and I was impressed by their expressivity. At the end of the lesson they worked in pairs to show the little Gurlitt piece we'd been working on. I was delighted with their work, and the grown-ups were impressed too. There was a deputation at the end and Katya grinned as she told me that my status had risen to that of magician. Nice as it was to feel admired, it's important to realise that the stance we currently take in the UK in education in combination with Dalcroze approach was pretty revolutionary for my Ukrainian friends. I heard many stories of how some teachers are habitually negative about and to their pupils. The pupils are used to being told exactly what to do and how to play, so asking them to make creative decisions for themselves was quite new. It was an absolute delight to see them gain confidence in this as the week progressed.

Another stark contrast to home was the health and fitness of the children. Meals were simple, nutritious, with fresh local vegetables and fruit. Porridge made with a variety of grains for breakfast made me smile. There was always plenty of food, but people didn't overeat. Snacking didn't happen, other than mid-afternoon fruit. Everyone drank water, except at mealtimes when there was always a jug of "compot". As far as I could make out, this was diluted fruit puree. In the later evening, kefir was offered and most of the adults drank it.

Given that the children were strong and fit, it was a surprise to me that they couldn't throw and catch tennis balls when I used them in a warm-up activity. The parents were surprised that I expected them to be able to do this. Just goes to show, it's dangerous to assume anything.

Saturday, concert day, dawned slightly fresher. There was a calm and purposeful atmosphere, created by Katya's mix of high expectations and respect for everyone. The final session for teachers was filled with enthusiastic questions. After one final swim in the river, we all dressed for the concert at 5 pm. The performances went very well. I persuaded Katya to let them show their movement (Plastique Animée) of Crisantemi immediately before they played it. This worked really well. Here's a clip of the older children in rehearsal.


We rounded the concert off with an extravagant dance to Unsquare Dance by Dave Brubeck. Presentation of certificates, speeches and gifts followed, and then a lengthy photography session. After supper, I was dragged away to be driven back to Kiev by a couple who had come down for the concert. Thereby hangs another tail...... but 5 and a half hours later we reached their flat. Those roads........

I've been home now for a few days but my head is still full of all the new experiences. As my horrendous mosquito bites finally fade, my memories will not. The are many different kinds of richness, and the best ones have nothing to do with money. In Katya, I have found a soul mate. We are both passionate about music education as a way of developing sound human beings with high standards and empathy. I have come home with a wealth of new ideas, experience, understanding and inspiration. My sincere thanks go to Katya for inviting me, and to her beautiful family, friends and colleagues who all made me so welcome.

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