The UW-Madison Russian Folk Orchestra (RFO) held its 20th anniversary concert on April 8, 2017, performing to an enthusiastic, standing-room-only crowd in Mills Hall. One of the featured soloists at the concert was Ukrainian musician Tetiana Khomenko, a virtuoso of the balalaika, which is a three-stringed instrument with a distinctive triangular body. During Khomenko’s visit to Wisconsin, CREECA arranged for her to give demonstrations to music students at local schools, one at Patrick Marsh Middle School in Sun Prairie and one at Oregon High School.
Khomenko has been playing balalaika for 22 years, ever since her first music teacher came to her classroom and asked, “Who wants to play the balalaika?” She earned her master’s degree from the Tchaikovsky National Music Academy of Ukraine and has traveled the world performing solo and with her quartet, BRAVO Band.
Whether performing in a public concert or for a school group, Khomenko tries to use her instrument to teach. “It doesn’t matter who your students are–children or adults,” Khomenko said. “If you speak with them, you can share the things that inspire you. And often they will become interested in the music, art, and culture that you love.”
Before she played her balalaika for music students at Patrick Marsh Middle School and Oregon High School, Khomenko gave a brief overview of Ukrainian history and culture. She uses this context to help others understand the origins of the folk music she plays. Although Khomenko focuses on her native Ukraine, she believes in the importance of preserving all folk music because it provides a connection to cultural and geographic history.
“I really liked how Khomenko went beyond performance to teach culture,” said Erin Barnard, a teacher at Patrick Marsh. “That is a sign of a good music educator–going beyond just teaching the notes and connecting the music to its roots in culture, society, and the reason for its being.”
Khomenko plays a variety of styles that showcase the balalaika’s versatility. With BRAVO Band, she plays songs ranging from the Renaissance to the present. For Wisconsin students, she played Russian classics like Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” alongside George Gershwin compositions and a selection of music written for the banjo.
Khomenko likes to use her selections to expose listeners to new music. The message was well received at Oregon High School, where teacher Jennifer Yancey said, “We thought Khomenko’s visit would be a wonderful way to expose students to an internationally recognized balalaika player who could not only teach students about Ukraine, but also about an instrument that most of our students have never heard of.”
Barnard concurred, “I think it’s good for students to see someone play instruments other than the Western classical instruments so that they are aware of the varied and rich traditions in string music.”
At the RFO anniversary concert, Khomenko performed “Nocturne” by Ukrainian composer Trostyansky and the Russian folk song “Woolen Boots.” When asked what inspired her to make the trip from Ukraine to Wisconsin, Khomenko said, “[I] want to show people all over the world this unique instrument.”
As part of its mission to support outreach and public service, CREECA sponsors appearances at local schools by visiting musicians, artists, writers, and scholars. Educators interested in arranging a program at their school are invited to contact Kelly Iacobazzi at email@example.com.