Pulkā eimu, pulkā teku – Programme to promote the acquisition and inheritance of traditional culture and intangible heritage

PEPT has been at the centre of an extensive and diverse educational programme since its launch at a concert featuring seven folk groups in the spring of 1984.

Since its inception over thirty years ago, PEPT has grown to encompass five folklore based competitions for children and youth. These include:

  • contests for storytelling “Teci, teci, valodiņa” and “Anekdošu virpulis”
  • singing “Dziesmu dziedu, kāda bija”
  • folk dancing “Vedam danci”
  • folk music “Klaberjakte”

They all proceed through quarterfinals and semifinals in their respective counties. Finals are held in Rīga along with fourteen regional events and a nationwide event to conclude the school year which present fulsome opportunities for self-expression and the exchange of ideas and experiences among participants.

The Storytelling Competitions: "Teci, teci, valodiņa" and "Anekdošu virpulis"

The storytelling competition “Teci, teci valodiņa” is held to draw the attention of the younger generation to storytelling and the power of the spoken word. It also serves to develop facility with speech and excellence in public speaking, to introduce less familiar lexical structures, unique dialects and expand diversity in language use. On April Fool’s Day, storytellers relate anecdotes, tell jokes, and develop their sense of humour. Learning to participate in these genres of folklore develops communication skills and introduces youth to their potential for use in interpersonal communication. The stories are selected to allow youth to be more than listeners or viewers-to find themselves as tellers of tales and to learn to use stories as a way to understand situations and explore the complexities of interpersonal relationships and the historical realities of work in earlier times. They are also encouraged to adapt stories to modern understandings of the world. It is not uncommon for the story chosen, along with the storyteller’s intonation, context and comments about contemporary culture to take the story from metaphysics to irony. The storytellers then become able to understand the story in a broader way beyond literal interpretations, compare it with their own life experience and take teachings that are compatible with modern cultural codes.

As it turns out, we tell each other stories of varying length every day both about our successes and failure. We tell stories to laugh together, to express fear or simply to talk about something unusual or exciting. Sometimes storytelling is idle chitchat to drive away boredom and provide entertainment. People today have access to all kinds of stories every day through radio, television, newspapers, and the internet. News broadcasts, stories in the form of television series, soap operas and film, science programming, and expert analyses are all readily available. The storytelling is smooth and compelling, reliable and not so reliable, some factual, some not so much, but what they have in common is that, one may choose to listen or not, but it is not possible for oneself to become the storyteller and alter the storytelling process itself. It is often difficult to differentiate between a true story and a relatively believable one where the facts have been altered. It is different in real human interaction, when each one of us has to speak well in order to be heard, to discuss ideas briefly, succinctly, coherently, precisely and attractively. Some are good storytellers and have no trouble finding the right words to tell their stories, while others have trouble putting words into the right order and getting their ideas across, or speaking in public. Some fail to notice when their long confusing locutions put their fellow human beings to sleep, or in a worst case scenario lead to violent reactions which drive them from the lectern or to noisemaking to drown out the speaker.

In today’s high pressure environment, it is crucial for people to learn how to accurately formulate their ideas well, be able to speak well at the right time and place , to know what to say to resolve interpersonal conflict. In the context of the PEPT project, participants learn to do so in dialogue with traditional stories and other narrative genres. The wisdom found in these stories continues to fascinate people today. The stories have not lost their currency and their themes continue to play out in modern life A wide variety of situation are presented in traditional stories, along with human relationships in a range of recognizable situations which are instructive and transferrable to one’s own life story, from both the perspective of the past and the future.

To learn and tell one’s own age cohort a traditional Latvian tale is an altogether interesting experience. Who does not know the story of the golden steed, the hedgehog’s coat or the three wishes granted by Laima, but to tell the story in a way which captures the attention of the audience and oneself, is actually not so easy. The storyteller must know the plot well and tell it coherently and fluently, emotionally connect with the story, understand the storytelling context and correctly judge the audience. It is sometimes easier to tell a lesser known or an entirely unknown story, but good storytellers are capable of even telling a story everyone knows and still capturing their attention. The delivery which is determined by a sense of the language, its rhythms and tempo, vocal timbre, and other more elusive details all add the storyteller’s own life experience to the mix.

Telling stories about events which do not have the strong storylines of traditional stories is a different stype of storytelling. The choice of subject is entirely left to storytellers and it reflects what they consider worth telling. The significance of the event to the teller is important, as is the question of whether the event resonates with the experience of the listener and whether they are able to capture the event with the vocabulary at their disposal. It is one thing to describe an event orally and another to write about it. This reflects the well known difference between spoken and written languge. There have often been situations where children have carefully written out the events they are describing but the spoken performance devolves to a series of cliches characteristic of student essays. In any case, event storytelling develops direct speech and demonstrates the importance of clarity, emotional expression, and allows storytellers to learn in practice about the power of the spoken word, ambiguous silence and the role of intonation and cadence in speech.

Good storytellers are characterized by clarity of though and expression, as well as the ability to speak, control the tempo of their speech, mode of articulation, without losing coherence or precision. The best way to test oneself and to demonstrate one’s own speaking ability to others is to practise rapid speech and tongue twisters.

Given the dominance of visual culture in this day and age, spoken language is recognized as being vulnerable. To counteract this tendency, more attention is being devoted to storytelling at PEPT. It is one of the Society’s goal to ensure that storytellers have the opportunity to meet regularly more than three times annually in order to consolidate their skills and the ability to express themselves. They are also encouraged to create multiple variations of stories tailored to particular performance contexts and audiences, which is an essential feature of oral tradition. The next step will be to develop storytelling skills in foreign languages to facilitate participation in European and North American storytelling movements, which are extensive and diverse with traditions of their own.

The Traditional Singing Competition: "Dziesmu dziedu, kāda bija"

Traditional singing competitions have been held annually since 1998. Their purpose is to advance the development of traditional singing skills of individual members of folklore groups. Singers are given the opportunity to sing unarrangd songs in traditional styles alone or in small groups. Singers sing may sing solo in their own natural voice (unless tradition requires multiple voices, as it does in drone singing) or accompany themselves on traditional instruments.

The goal of this competition is to facilitate the acquisition, inheritance and promotion of a diverse repertoire of folk songs strongly rooted in local traditions among other youth. The competition is designed to encourage the learning of both of the songs themselves and styles native to specific locales. This is accomplished through in-depth study with traditional singers where they are expected to learn that singer’s repertoire and benefit from their singing experience. They may also study with a voice coach using archival recordings to study specific documented singing styles. Preparation for the competition requires a a great deal of work and commitment on the part of the participants to develop musical and singing skills.

The competition is open to all folklore group members, as well as children in rural areas who are not members. If their singing is judged to be adequate, they are invited to participate in the finals which are held in Rīga.

Ethnomusicologist and jury member Anda Beitāne expressed this opinion in 2007:

… the inheritance and acquisition of traditional singing has always occupied an important place in the Latvian children’s and youth folklore movement “Pulkā eimu, pulkā teku”. Thanks to goal oriented and systematic efforts over many years, it is entirely possible to speak of real results in the learning and performance of local singing styles. The annual competitions have brought effectively brought about brilliant and effective results in the maintenance and promotion of traditional singing. A number of factors have been crucial, which include successful cooperation with teachers in the organization of the semifinals, the inclusion of a wide range of specialists in the field invited to evaluate the results of each competition, and the consistent application of their analyses to subsequent competitions. Having observed the development process over the course of seven competitions, I conclude that … it has achieved a sufficiently high level at both the artistic and conceptual level that the organizers are faced with a serious challenge in how to further advance this process …

Five years have elapsed since Anda Beitāne made these observations and the competitions are still taking place. There were 97 finalists at the 2012 competition: 42 in the youngest group, 43 in the middle group, and 12 in the older group. Clearer criteria for evaluating traditional singing have been developed and this is undeniably the basis for increasing interest in traditional singing among the younger generation and increased demand for new professional development programmes for folklore teachers. In collaboration with ethnomusicologist and traditional singing expert Zane Šmite, the Society has upgraded and implemented the professional development programme for folklore teachers “Latviešu tradicionālās dziedāšanas pamati un dziedāšanas prasmju pilnveide bērnu un jauniešu folkloras kopās” (Foundations of Traditional Latvian Singing and the Development of Singing Skills in Children’s and Youth Folklore Groups). This programme has been accredited by the Latvian Ministry of Education and is ready for implementation in the coming academic year.

The process of learning to sing traditionally offers tremendous opportunities for the involvement of non-governmental organizations in the organization of masterclasses and specialized summer camps both for the purpose of curriculum development, documentation, and training in the context of extracurricular programming and lifelong learning opportunities.

Traditional Dance Competition "Vedam danci"

The traditional dance competition “Vedam danci” was founded and directed until 2008 by traditional dance specialist Ernests Spīčs. Under his leadership the study of traditional Latvian dance forms was emphasized along with a focus on the development of dance skills and the conceptual understanding of traditional Latvian dance. In 2007, Ernests Spīčs made the following observations about the circumstances facing traditional Latvian dance:

the direct transmission of traditional Latvian dance is complicated by the small number of individuals with these skills and their advanced age;

the high profile of folk dance as stage performance has created stereotypical notions of dance as soley performative, undervaluing genuine interpersonal communication on the part of dancers;

traditional dance is always about communication, whether it is between dancers, between dancers and musicians, or between dancers and onlookers. The onlooker is primarily an observer, who is enjoys this communication and is involved to a certain extent.

Since 2008, the Competition has been led by Dace Circene. New guidelines have been developed which find room not only couple’s dances, regional dances, and polkas, but also for singing games and quadrilles. The 2015 competition concluded with great acclaim on the part of the participants and jury. An innovation in programming this year were the presentation of seven minute long dance programmes in the finals which were recognized as potential material for the programming for the future national PEPT events. There were overall 162 dancers participating.

The goal of the event is to facilitate learning and skills acquisition for individual dancers and the inheritance of traditional dance in dialogue with tradition. Both these goals were met. Each performance was evaluated by a number prominent experts with significant achievements of their own, representing a variety of institutions interested in the development of the field.

Musicians' Competition "Klaberjakte"

Since 1996, children and youth have been able to compete in a competition for traditional music, which is open to be other individuals and groups. In the 2011/2012, 29 performances were assessed by the jury of traditional music experts.

In collobaration with Ilmārs Pumpurs, two training programmes for the professional development of music teachers were developed. “Latviešu tradicionālo mūzikas instrumentu spēles prasmju apguves un pilnveidošanas metodika” (Methods for the Acquisition and Development of Music Skills for Players of Traditional Latvian Instruments) and “Latviešu tradicionālās instrumentālās mūzicēšanas un dejošanas prasmju pilnveide bērnu un jauniešu folkloras kopās: kopmuzicēšanas un aranžēšanas principi, deju mūzikas specifika un deju folkloras apgūšanas metodika” (Skills Development for Latvian Traditional Instrumental Music and Traditional Dance: the principles of arrangement and ensemble playing in children’s and youth folklore groups, the specifics of dance music and methods for teaching traditional dance.] The programme was accredited and its implementation was met with favourable reviews and proposals for further development.

This competition also involves a component dedicated to singing games and mumming traditions, but these have been suspended temporary for financial reasons.

The PEPT National Event

This is an annual culminating event whose structure and events are developed in conjunction with folklore teachers, the festival director and the directors of individual events. The Society is responsible for its presentation in cooperation with the regional coordinator council, the National Education Centre and municipal governments. The municipality hosting an event has a special role.

The National Event comprises a wide range of activities with special interactive assignments and many opportunities for self-expression, including storytelling trails, workshops, demonstrations of traditional trade skills. In 2009, storytelling trail took place at Sarkankalns in the Rēzekne area. One group of children had the opportunity to try their hand at pottery, explore and discover the sounds, smells and materials of the local forest, participate in a kokle workshop, and experiment with singing in the open air from the top of a hill. Another group explore local historical sites. In Lēdurga in 2011, the festival theme was “Cepu, cepu, kukulīti, ko braukt ciema”, focusing on the bread traditional baked in preparation for visiting. In a more a extended way, the focus was on taking the best we have and sharing it with others. This was seen as a way of savouring what the regions of Latvia have to offer in terms of song, dance, singing games, and to teach an appreciation of the diverse and different “flavours” of Latvian dialects, all the while enjoying each other’s company. There were activities relating to milk production which included assembling a milk machine (separator), turning cream, churning butter, bake a pie and treat your friends. In 2014 in Viesīte and Jēkabpils children were introduced to urban traditions through hands-on activities. Since Jēkabpils was a settlement for raftsmen in the 19th century, the children were taughts about their trade and the songs and food traditions associated with them. In Viesīte, chidren visited the Sēlija Country Cultural History Museum, which was originally the local narrow gauge railway depot.

The major concert events run concurrently with these interactive, hands-on activities. These include:

  • the concert featuring the finalists of the singing, dancing, and traditional music competitions;
  • the regional concert, where each region demontrates its achievements in relation to the theme of the year;
  • storytelling sessions featuring the best storytellers;
  • massed dancing open to all participants with live musical accompaniment;
  • massed jam sessions for the musicians;
  • meetings for the teachers to discuss issues and sing together in a more casual setting;
    singing game sessions;
  • other events such as parades, sungazing with appropriate sun songs, or sunrise singing sessions.

The theme of the 2011/2012 academic year was “Birds in Latvian folklore”. That year there were 923 participants from 99 folklore groups. Bird calls and imitations of bird language are a particular sub-genre of Latvian folklore which serves well to develop speech skills. A collection of this material along with singing games from a number of regions was collated in a volume dedicated to the theme of birds, which formed the basis for instruction that year and the programming at the festival. The high degree of cooperation observed throughout indicated the willingness of the children to learn from each other and work together in various spheres, including dancing, making music and participating in the “President’s speech” contest. The 2014/2015 season was devoted to preparation of a folklore event for the XI Latvian Youth Song and Dance Festival.

The Role of Folklore Competitions in Traditional Communication

In conclusion, it is apparent that the contemporary forms of competition adopted by PEPT have been successful in bringing to life traditional forms of communication and practice.

Children learn traditional culture and folklore (traditional singing, dance, and music) and in folklore groups at school, in extra-curricular settings or culture houses (a holdover from Soviet times). This often takes place in post-functional contexts where the transmission of traditional culture has been interrupted or altered. It is clear that preparing for regular folklore competitions galvanizes skills development and advances learning in each field of practice. The skills possessed by group leaders are uneven, since they have varying levels of musical education and skill, knowledge of traditional singing, and general understanding of tradition and its local variations. Teachers and group leaders also vary in their pedagogical training and understandings of teaching methodologies for traditional arts. However, the involvement of professionals and scholars in the jury and the teachers’ professional development process has contributed significantly to broadened their understanding of traditional culture and honed their teaching skills.

A question often discussed among the individuals involved in this process is why is must be competitive, as opposed to gathering in more non-competitive settings such as youth or song festivals, song, dance and music jam sessions. It has been noted that the notion of competition goes against the spirit of folklore and traditional culture. Some worry that the format may even have a traumatic or adverse effect on child development. Others question whether it truly stimulates interest in learning traditional culture or does the opposite, formalizing it and making it “voluntarily mandatory”.

These are the reasons the organizers decided in favour of a competition model:

  • preparation for competition stimulates skills acquisition and the development of abilities in dialogue with tradition and offers opportunities for creative expression and the development of individual styles in various genres of folklore;
  • the participation of professionals and scholarly experts guarantees high quality assessments of the learning and inheritance process among the children and youth participating;
  • the assessments also reveal existing problems, fosters discussion and the development of future strategies and directions;
  • the written assessment provided by the juries are essential for the development of teacher training skills. Likewise video recordings of the competitions provide rich opportunities for self-assessment in conjunction with feedback provided by the juries. Individual consultations with specialists are available to all teachers and group leaders.
  • the goal of the competition is not solely to produce winners, but to help all participants find expression either individually or in small groups in folklore groups regionally and nationally, and develop an awareness of their achievements, successes and failures in the context of a wider experience;
  • competitions, academic olympiads, and contests are well established educational tools, which monitor quality, facilitate healthy understandings of competition and skills development in an ongoing and sustainable fashion;
  • preparation for competition is motivating for teachers and increases accountability on the part of both teachers and competitors for the subject matter;
  • competition results are also an indicator of teaching efficacy.

At this point in the PEPT process, many years of cumulative experience indicate that with respect to the development of individual skills and abilities, an increased focus should be brought to collaborative forms of instruction in the form of masterclasses, camps, and courses, involving experts, local tradition and knowledge bearers, teachers, and students. The goal now is to extend beyond simply learning of competition material and to further extend this process to encompass the wider cultural context, and foster deeper awareness of its cultural relevancy and significance. The development of an emotional connection with the material and a foundation for cultural experience promotes childhood development and personality formation, all of which support the sustainability of traditional culture in the long term.