Saturday, October 25, 2014

That one time I joined a Bulgarian choir

Last year, while taking a leisurely walk through my town, I heard singing. Beautiful, powerful voices drifting out from one of the faded but stately buildings lining our central walkway.

I wondered...A choir, perhaps? If so, could I join in? I had immediately felt potential excitement welling up in my soul, and had scribbled a reminder in the tiny notebook I carried on my most leisurely of walks. I was bound and determined to find out more about the singing I'd heard that day, and began straight away my search for vocal art. One colleague, an angel of a friend, was kind enough to help me investigate. She diligently asked around about the singers, but to no avail. The mystery choir remained mysterious.

During university, I had fully intended to sign up for a choir, but was never able to fit a course into my schedule. Instead, I got my fix by performing Bohemian Rhapsody at numerous karaoke clubs. And yes, I was phenomenal on all occasions.

I'd had the fleeting hope that perhaps Bulgaria could be the place I'd get back into singing, as it was a great passion of mine in high school. I had even written about this in my original Fulbright application. What with teaching and my commitment to coaching speech and debate, though, this aim fall by the wayside. The tiny flare of possibility I'd felt during that walk disappeared after my no-such-luck inquiry, and I felt kind of bummed. 

Timing is everything though, right? This past Monday, that same helpful friend called me over in the teacher's room and shared that the new math teacher was a member of the town choir. THE CHOIR! IT EXISTS! Our new colleague invited me to attend practice the next day, and I felt ecstatic to say the least. One might even say my hopes were beginning to...crescendo...

So, I recently attended my first choir practice in five years. Before arriving, I hadn't really given details much thought. I love to sing, and I can read music. I love the Bulgarian vocal tradition, and I am now able to read cyrillic. Not much else to it, right?

Oh, Sarah.

Readers, do YOU know the word for choir in Bulgarian? I certainly didn't. Nor did I realize I didn't know this most vital of words until I found myself in the building that housed the choir practice room.

I arrived on practice day and quickly felt panic set in. I tapped a lady on the shoulder.

"Ummm...Izvenete? Kude e....ah...lalalalala?"

Excuse me. Where is....lalalala? These are the great communication skills I presented to a total stranger. Sorry, lady. Lady was helpful, though, and ushered me into the choir room, a small space with two tiers of metal chairs and a well-worn piano. And lots of microphones.

Once in the room, slightly reassured by all the kind faces and mild exclamations about the "angleeski" teacher attending practice, I relaxed a bit...THEN PANICKED SOME MORE. The ladies told me they had performed in Ohrid last year. And Belarus. And I think the Czech Republic and Poland?? My God, these women must be AMAZING singers. They are a small number, they MUST have tried out to be here. Bulgarians have wonderful voices and a strong vocal tradition, what was I doing in their presence? Was I being presumptiuous, just walking into their midst and declaring "tuka sum!" Here I am! Should I have asked to try out instead of just showing up? What if I can't pronounce the words correctly? What if they realize I AM A FRAUD AND I CAN'T ACTUALLY CARRY A TUNE I HAVE BEEN DELUDING MYSELF ALL THESE YEARS BECAUSE I PROBABLY NEVER COULD.

HEAVY. BREATHING. Heart racing. Face turning red. Shoulders tensed. Toes curled. Older lady taps me on the shoulder.

"Sa-rah. Az sum Baba Vaska."

Baba Vaska. She's a grandmother. Oh bless the good Lord, grandmas don't make fun of people. I might be okay.

"Kvo class? Sopran? Purvi? Vtori?" 

"Yes. Da. Uh, kind of...both? Purvi ee Vtori..?"

"Da. Sopran. Tam." Soprano. Go sit there. Smiles, indicates. Hands me sheet music. The class starts to warm up, and I start to chill out.

Warm-ups in Bulgarian are ...exactly the same as warm-ups in America. Scales, weird made-up words. Emphatic gestures from the director. This particular director had very, very emphatic gestures, and I found myself laughing over her contagious energy.

The choir was small, but the women sang from the gut. They created a powerful, room-filling sound. I felt like I could fit in with their singing style, though, and I let my curled-up toes ease comfortably back into the front of my boots, let my shoulders drop down a bit. I straightened up, and joined them. Very quickly, I realized what one of my 8th graders told me recently. Music unites people, and really, music is a universal language.

Learning to sing the evening's selection was just like learning a Latin or Italian song in high school choir. The pattern of the words takes a little time to pick up, and I had to do more listening to sound than making sound for the first few run-throughs, but I eventually got it and "joined the choir". Chuckle, chuckle, dad joke. I walked home accompanied by the choir members and promptly forgot the words I'd just learned. I remembered the notes, though, and I've been humming them since Thursday, the melody of my weekend. I'm so excited for this newest of endeavors!

Monday, October 20, 2014

I feel as though I can finally breathe again...

For the past two weeks, I have been planning like a mad lady for two huge speech and debate training events, all because I got coffee with a friend in March and started discussing a silly little dream we shared.


In the early spring of this year, I found myself sitting across from a fellow ETA at a cafe in Plovdiv. We were trying, in a most vague of ways, to put together a budget and basic outline for an idea we had hatched just two weeks before, a student leadership retreat for Bulgarian speech and debate students. 

Before sitting down to plan, I'd just been ridiculed by the most hipster man in Bulgaria for trying to order my дълго кафе c мляко with my broken language skills, and my face was still American flag-red from the sad experience. In shame (me) and somewhat clueless (both of us), we got to work, sketching up rough plans for this hypothetical retreat. 

I think our guiding goal was something along the lines of "we should find a location that feels retreat-like. Yeah, that'll teach 'em... skills..." We really had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.

You see, we were both first-year coaches of speech and debate clubs at our respective schools, through an organization called the Bulgarian Forensics League (BFL). BFL was founded a little over a year ago by Fulbright Bulgaria teaching assistants, such as myself. Last year was their first full year in existence, and BFL amazingly acquired NGO status over the summer, becoming the BEST (Bulgarian English Speech and debate Tournaments) Foundation.

My friend and I were hoping that, if we outlined this student leadership event, BEST could find a way to create and host the retreat. Thinking about this now, I have to stop and laugh, because that whole implementation part fell onto our shoulders when they somewhat unexpectedly asked us to join the exec team in the spring, right after our naive and blind coffee shop planning session. So yeah...I found myself planning and dreaming as a team member of this brand spanking-new NGO in Bulgaria over the summer. Haha?


So far, it's been an amazing ride. We have four national tournaments planned for the year, and we just wrapped up the new coach training. I had the pleasure of watching the student retreat come to life in the form of the first annual BEST Student Ambassador Leadership Retreat two weeks ago, and couldn't have felt more happy! Two students from each participating BEST school came together for a weekend of brainstorming, planning, idea sharing, team building, singing, dancing, frisbee, pine trees, name tags, ice breakers, and reflection. 

We sang silly songs about pizza hut and jabba the hud, the princess pat and boxes of mixed biscuits. We danced our hearts out to ABBA and classic rock, we threw frisbees and bumped volleyballs, we got to know one another over shopska salad and action plan templates. Most importantly, we got to see a glimpse of the great things that can happen in Bulgaria when we give bright teenagers the chance to share their ideas and collaborate with their peers in new, challenging ways. 

I went home exhausted, but happy. I have great enthusiasm for BEST and for its potential to literally change how students view themselves and interact with their world.  If you'd like to learn more about the wonderfulness that is happening in Bulgaria, you can view BEST's website and learn more about the organization. Be sure to read about mah babies, the Student Ambassadors! You can learn more about my school's speech and debate team on our gofundme account

 Students and I spreading the word during school!

My goofball little friends