Different from the domra group, that plays the melodious role in the orchestra, the balalaika group can be characterised as the rhythmic and accompanying group. This group differs from the domra group by not using a plectrum on the instruments. With the exception of the balalaika bass and the balalaika contrabass on which you play with a leather plectrum, and the piccolo balalaika, where the playing method is the same as on the piccolo domra.
In the following overview of the single instruments, the playing methods are also described as they are very different from one another.
THE BALALAIKA PICCOLO
Is tuned as follows: 1st string: A in second octave. – 2nd string: E in second octave. – 3rd string: H in first octave.
Despite its’ small size, this instrument possesses a very big, penetrating tone. At the same time, it is very comfortable to play on, and it offers the possibility of executing run and different kinds of virtuous character in a fast speed. However, the instrument is rarely used and usually only in small ensembles with pure balalaika instruments.
THE BALALAIKA PRIMA
Is tuned as follows: 1st string: A in first octave. – 2nd string: E in first octave. – 3rd string: E in first octave (the 2nd and 3rd string are tuned the same way).
1st string A is made of steel and 2nd and 3rd are made of gut or nylon.
The clang colour is soft and it veils the metallic clang of the domra. The technical possibilities are many on this instrument and they offer a virtuous play in a fast speed.
The playing methods on the balalaika Prima are different. These are the most important ones:
- To Strum – is the most characteristic methods. It consists of regular and monotonous beats with the right hand index finger over all the strings, by turns up- and downwards.
- The Tremolo consists of fast up-and down beats with the right hand index finger. It can be used both to play an all strings and on one single string. The beats must be of equal power up- and downward. The tremolo can be interrupted after every note (detache). This is indicated with a short line over or under the note. The tremolo can also combine several notes and even bars (legato). This is shown with a curved line over or under the notes and the line is called the liga.
- The Pizzicato– here you use your right hand thumb to downward beats and your right hand index finger to upward beats by turn.
- Single beats over all strings (at for instance accompaniment).
- Vibrato – where you vibrate on the string behind the chair besides the right hand palm.
- Left hand Pizzicato – where you pluck the strings with your left hand. This is shown with a little cross above the note.
Besides these methods, there is the Glissando, where you glide from one tone to another and the Flageolets where you make the major tones with an easy touch of the strings on the points where it is divided in two, three and four equal parts. This is shown with an “o” above the note.
The left hand thumb strikes the 3rd string whereas the other fingers strike the 1st and the 2nd string.
The balalaika prima plays many different roles in the orchestra such as variations and run and harmony clang, accompaniment, the melody handling – independently or together with the domra prima. Often, the balalaika prima is used to play solo. (The composer S. Wasilenko has written a concert for the balalaika prima with symphony orchestra).
THE BALALAIKA SECUNDA
Is tuned as follows: 1st string: D in first octave. – 2nd string: A in minor octave. – 3rd string: A in minor octave (the 2nd and 3rd string are tuned in the same way).
The most important playing methods on a balalaika Secunda is:
- Single beat with the right hand thump on one single string or on all the strings.
- Tremolo with the right hand index finger over all the strings.
When the tremolo method is to be used on one single string, it is permitted to use a plectrum (in leather preferably).
The balalaika secunda is an overall accompanying instrument.
THE BALALAIKA ALTO
Is tuned as follows: 1st string: A in minor octave. – 2nd string: E in minor octave. – 3rd string: E in minor octave. (The 2nd and the 3rd string are tuned in the same way).
The playing methods are the same as for instance the balalaika secunda, and the balalaika alto is also an accompanying instrument.
THE BALALAIKA BASS
Is tuned as follows: 1st string: D in minor octave. – 2nd string: A in major octave. – 3rd string: E in major octave.
The playing method: Single beats downwards with a leather plectrum except of the tremolo and the arpeggio.
The function in the orchestra: Execution of the bass clang in a harmony and now and again execution with other bass instruments of the melody voice.
THE BALALAIKA CONTRABASS
Is tuned as follows: 1st string: D in major octave. – 2nd string: A in contra octave. – 3rd string: E in contra octave.
The playing method is the same as the playing method of the balalaika bass. However, the arpeggio is not used here. To obtain a harmonious and powerful tremolo without rattling, it is recommended to use a big and solid leather plectrum. The balalaika contrabass is the foundation of the orchestra and its’ harmonious and rhythmic support. The balalaika contrabass plays the same role in the orchestra as the bass.
THE BALALAIKA SUBCONTRABASS
Is an enlarged copy of the balalaika contrabass with a bigger and more voluminous clang. Atmosphere, playing method and function are the same as the contrabass.
All information is from the following sources:
V. Andrejeff: “Russisk folkeorkester”, Petrograd 1913.
N. Retjmenski: “Folkemusikinstrumenterne”, Moscow 1956.
V. Avksentjeff: “Orkester af russiske folkeinstrumenter”, Moscow 1962
and Evgeni Pavlovski’s own experience, as described in “Balalaika Blade” from 1963 to 1971, publiced by Evgeni Pavlovski.