by Indra Ekmanis
Cleveland native Nadia Tarnawsky can make your body vibrate with the sounds of East European folk song. Born to Ukrainian émigrés in Ohio, Tarnawsky’s first language was Ukrainian. Now a Seattleite, she shares her passion and profession with the community, leading workshops and performing around the city. This fall, Tarnawsky has performed in “50 HEARBREAKS (AND I’M STILL IN LOVE WITH YOUkraine),” a dance-theater show, as well as hosted a Ukrainian singing workshop at Dusty Strings Music Store and School in Fremont.
Tarnawsky grew up attending Ukrainian Saturday school, Ukrainian summer camps, folk dance rehearsals and — of course — singing. “For a while I resented it, but eventually Ukrainian folk music pulled me into my culture like nothing else had done in the past and then I was grateful for all of those Saturdays spent in Ukrainian school,” she says.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, she tested her singing by seeking out Ukrainian groups and choir coming to the U.S. “I would ask … ‘Can I sing at you, and can you tell me if you hear anything horrible?’” Tarnawsky says. “There’s nothing like sitting in a room of five or six men and women just singing at you.” At age 19, about a year after Ukrainian independence from the USSR, Tarnawsky made her first trip to Ukraine to participate in an English as a second language program sponsored by the Ukrainian National Association. “I fell in love with Ukraine and the generosity of her people — especially in the villages — on that trip,” she says. “I had also been working on my folk voice for a few years by that time, but being able to be there and sing with the women in that style in Ukraine, truly helped me to find my voice.”
A professional singer with a B.S. in music education and a B.A. English from Case Western Reserve University, Tarnawsky works in a variety of difference genres, including classical and musical theater. In 2011, she received a fellowship from Artist Trust for folk art. Prior to that, she taught Ukrainian folk song at the Center for Traditional Music and Dance in New York City. Tarnawsky makes a point of singing with her whole body. “The way that I teach voice involves a lot of resonance. … The thing that you use to make sound is your bones and your body. Your voice is not just this thing in your throat,” she says. “It’s kind of like saying a violin is just strings. … You need everything to make the sound.”
Participants in her workshops feel the full-body singing workout, as well. Tarnawsky starts off with a series of exercises that allow all parts of the body to vibrate when singing. She says that loud nature of folk singing is something to be felt from head to toe. While a personal connection to Ukraine or the ability to read Cyrillic is not necessary to learn Ukrainian folk singing, several individuals at her Sept. 28 workshop had some familiarity with the style. John Patrick is a self-taught folk musician whose father is Ukrainian by decent. “Nadia teaches in the way music has been taught before academia,” Patrick says. The call and reply method that has been used for singing and instruments for centuries and work well for rustics like myself.”
Patrick also sings with the Seattle Ukrainian community choir, as well as plays traditional Ukrainian folk instruments. He said learning to sing in another language can be challenging. “My approach is to know what the song is about, understand it’s appropriateness to yourself and your audience,” Patrick says.
UW Russian program alumnus and current University administrator, David Miles, says the workshop was a new insight on Ukrainian singing. “I sang some in school and at home as a child. I began guitar lessons in my twenties, then sang in a UW Russian choir, a men’s Balkan chorus, and the Seattle Peace Chorus,” Miles says. “Nadia’s class was a unique and rewarding experience. She shared a lot of knowledge of how to sing as well as what we were singing and where it came from.”
Jenna Veatch, a dancer who stars with Tarnawsky in “50 HEARTBREAKS (AND I’M STILL IN LOVE WITH YOUkraine), also attended the workshop. “I have done a fair amount of bluegrass singing, and the styles are surprisingly similar, so in some ways, singing Ukrainian music feels oddly natural for me,” she says. “Singing this music with other people is completely thrilling. It makes my soul buzz.”
Tarnawsky averages three to four workshops a year, and may be pursuing a more regular offering at Dusty Strings Music Shop in the future. She currently sings in a band called Alchymeia that blends folk music from around the world. “I sing a fair number of Ukrainian songs with that ensemble along with Albanian, Bulgarian, Celtic and Cajun pieces,” she says. Alchymeia’s next performance will be in Shoreline on December 1. Tarnawsky encourages her students to work towards opening their vocal abilities. “Playing with your voice is an extraordinary thing,” she says.