Blessed by the Survachka

Assen Assenov (right), with his wife Simona Assenova, explains the tradition of the survachka to the Revels chorus.
Assen Assenov (right), with his wife Simona Assenova, explains the tradition of the survachka to the Revels chorus.

Last week Assen Assenov, a leader in the Washington-area Bulgarian community, and his wife Simona Assenova stopped by rehearsal for the Christmas Revels.

First they taught our Wednesday Night Work Party volunteers how to make a survachka, a stick that Bulgarian children use to bless their elders on New Year’s Day. (And by “bless” I mean “tap.” Or “beat.”)

Children make their own sticks, and each has its own unique flair. So did the sticks the volunteers were putting together last week.

After the rehearsal, Assen told the chorus about the tradition of the survachka, and Simona demonstrated the blessing, tapping him on the shoulder with her decorated stick.

He also shared this lovely thought:

“Thank you for taking my culture and spreading it to more people. If you could spread my culture to just one more person, you would be my hero. I love my culture, but I also love learning about other cultures, too; that’s what makes us richer.”

If you want to be blessed by the survachka this December, buy your tickets for the Christmas Revels now!

Dancing (and singing) children

Children dancing
The Christmas Revels children’s chorus learning the “podaraki” dance from tradition-bearer Olga Vonikaki.

This year, the children will not only sing in Greek, Bulgarian, Turkish, Croatian, and English… but they will also dance! Our children’s directors Kat Toton and Jenni Voorhees (along with children’s stage manager, Emilie Moore) couldn’t do all of this without help from our amazing specialists and tradition-bearers.

Last Wednesday, the kids had a visit from Olga Vonikaki who taught them the Greek podaraki dance, and I was lucky enough to get to watch the process.  The children worked hard (and had lots of fun) learning the new dance–one of three that they will perform in the show.  During previous rehearsals, Larry Weiner (another of this year’s tradition-bearers) taught the children two other dances for the show.

Olga is the perfect teacher for our Washington Revels kids.  She was born in Kavala, Greece, where she studied Greek dancing and performed with many groups across the country. Since moving to the the US more than twenty years ago, she has been teaching Greek traditional dancing, specializing in leading children’s dance groups, one of which won the silver prize at the East Coast Greek Youth Competition.

Our Christmas Revels children range in age from 8-11, and come from Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia.  Each year in September, we select about 14-16 from the total of 60+ who audition. And, in addition to selecting children for The Christmas Revels, we also select 25 additional children for our May Revels chorus.  The kids begin rehearsing in mid-September on Wednesday afternoons and join the Adult and Teen choruses during one weekend rehearsal in October, and another in November.  Soon after that, in December, everyone will be together each and every night for an entire week.

These kids are looking and sounding great already… and soon they will be fully costumed by Cecily Pilzer (their own costume designer)!  The children usually “steal the show” each year, and this one will likely be no exception.

Learn more about the 2013 Christmas Revels: Echoes of Thrace
View the Schedule of Performances and Purchase Tickets

Eleven-Sixteen? What?

One measure of this year’s music, in 7/8.

Overheard in rehearsal: “Eleven-sixteen? Whaaaat?”

One of the challenges for this year’s Christmas Revels chorus is singing in unusual time signatures.

If you don’t know what a time signature is, let me take a moment to enlighten. A piece of music written in the standard way has a couple of pieces of information at the top left. One looks like a fraction, with a number on top and a number on the bottom. The number on the top tells you how many beats there are in a measure. (A measure is sort of the basic unit of a piece of music—each one starts with a strong beat, normally. That’s one measure in the example above.) The number on the bottom tells you how long a beat is. So music in 7/8 has seven beats to the measure. Music in 11/16 has 11 beats to the measure.

Almost everything I’ve ever sung was written with two or four beats to the measure.

Until now. The people of Thrace use a ton of different time signatures. In the first three weeks of rehearsal, we’ve already worked on several songs with seven beats to the measure, one with five beats, and one that alternates between eight and eleven. We’ve danced to at least seven and nine beats, and maybe some other time signatures that I’ve forgotten about.

When working on this music, it’s pointless trying to count to five or seven in your head. Instead, the counts are grouped into beats of different lengths. A seven is actually sung as an uneven three: ONE two THREE four FIVE six seven becomes short short long, short short long. A five is called the limping rhythm: ONE two THREE four five becomes short long, short long, short long, like someone limping down the street.

The only way I can get the time right is to get the swing of the music into my head. In rehearsal, Tzvety Weiner, our fearless leader of Bulgarian music, keeps us in line with her laser-precision clapping. Most of the chorus is so used to singing with beats of even lengths that it’s easy to nudge the music that way, even we don’t mean to. At home, I’ve been wearing out the “Christmas 2013” playlist in my iTunes, listening to the new beats over and over.

When I’m in the weeds with 5/8, trying to keep that second beat on time, singing in a new time signature can be frustrating. But one of the great privileges of being in the Christmas Revels chorus is having a window into the music and dance of other cultures. In 2005 we sang the music of Scandinavia and I got my first introduction to the uneven beat and unfamiliar drone of Norwegian fiddle music; the dances that go with that music turned into a years-long interest for me. It’s daunting to think that I need to get 11/16 into my bones by our opening show on December 7, but it’s thrilling, too.

Learn more about the 2013 Christmas Revels: Echoes of Thrace
View the Schedule of Performances and Purchase Tickets