Zurna FAQ

Armenian Zurna: Instructions



History / Background:

The Armenian Zurna (pronounced “zoor-na”) is an ancient, traditional woodwind that can most easily be described as being a doudle-reeded trumpet. While the instrument is generally believed to have its’ origins in China, variations (along with their various names) can be found throughout Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East, the Balkans, as well as in the Caucasus. Despite the many variations of form and tuning, two things that they all have in common are their loud, piercing, nasal sound and the fact that they generally accompany festivities and important events. This is most definitely the fact in Armenia, where the zurna has deep roots in the traditional culture. In fact, there is specific mention of the zurna in Armenian literature as early as the IX century in the epic story “David of Sasoun”. In the past, zurna was played during harvests, holidays, outdoor gatherings, weddings, and is even known to have accompanied tight-rope walkers in traveling circuses! Today, just as it did in the past, the zurna still has an important place in the musical culture and can be heard at weddings and festivals throughout Armenia. As with the duduk, the Armenian zurna is most commonly played in pairs, with one musician playing the lead melody and the other playing a continual drone note (called the “dam”) that is held by circular breathing. However, unlike the duduk which often plays without percussion, the zurna is almost always accompanied by the dhol (the traditional, double sided drum).

Armenian Zurna / The Instrument Itself:

As can be seen above in the photo, the zurna is made up of two parts: the reed and the body.
The Reed, called “Ramish” in Armenian (pronounced “rah-meesh”), is technically made up of two parts: a reed and a metal mouthpiece. The reed itself is basically the inner part of a small cane tube that has been flattened on one side in order to vibrate against itself and create a tone, while the other end connects to the metal mouthpiece. The mouthpiece is actually a conical tube and thereby acts as an adaptor by allowing the small diameter of the reed’s hole size to be fitted to the larger hole diameter of the instrument itself. It should be noted that once the reed gets fitted to the metal piece, it is treated as one unit and stays attached until it wears out or splits. It is important that the reed only be open to the point that it can sound it’s note without pinching and squawking. It will probably be necessary to wet the ramish to get it to open. This is done by actually putting a small amount of water in a glass and (with the closing cap off…) and just putting the reed into the water. You should check it every thirty seconds, or so, and once it begins to open you should finish the job by placing the reed in your mouth and breathing hot air on it until it opens up enough for you to play. However, keep in mind that if the aperture becomes too open, it will be even harder to play and keep in tune. In order to regulate this, attached to the reed is a small, closing cap that fits on the end of the reed and serves to keep it from opening too much when it is not being played. It should be noted that the reed should always be stored with the cap on.
(2 zurna’s: top + bottom to show holes)
The Armenian zurna itself is basically a long, narrowly tapered cone made of apricot wood, and as you can see in the photo above, it has seven playable holes on the top (plus one extra below the 7th finger hole for tuning), with a single thumb hole on the back for the top hand (see above photo).

The range of the instrument is roughly a single octave, and as with the other Armenian wind instruments (namely the duduk and the shvi), the notes are laid out diatonically. It is important to note that you do not use a “forked tuning” with the zurna, as it will only cause the reed to pinch up and squawk. Therefore, in order to get chromatic scales you have to “half hole” each note. To make this easier, however, the holes have been made relatively large compared to the overall size of the instrument. This not only gives the instrument a loud, clear sound, it also allows for more play between the notes.

Set Up and Playing the Instrument:

Setting up and playing the instrument basically comes down to preparing the reed so that it is open enough to play, and then attaching it to the zurna.

What to look for:

To begin, make sure that the reed is not cracked, is in good shape, and is securely attached to the metal mouthpiece.

Connecting the Ramish to the Zurna:

Opening the reed:

As discussed above in the reed description, the goal of the player is to get the reed just moist enough so that it stays open and does not pinch up on you when you are playing (see photo above), but not to let it become too open as this will make the instrument very difficult to both blow and keep in tune. If for some reason the reed opens too much, just place the closing cap on it and wait a few minutes, it will then start to close back up and will be easier to play. It is important to remember that a reed is an organic, changing element and will need to be constantly monitored and compensated for.

Connecting the Ramish to the Zurna:

Once the reed has opened it can now be attached to the zurna’s main body. It is important that the reed fits snugly into the socket of the zurna, and to this end you may need to wrap or unwrap some of the thread wrapped around the metal tube (beware that this will also affect the tuning, more on this in the next section). Insert the reed into the zurna and connect the two with a slight twisting/rocking motion (this serves to help lock the reed in). Align the reed so that it is on a vertical plane when it is being played (see above photo).

Tuning the zurna:

If you are lucky enough to get a hold of a good instrument that has been matched to its’ reed (ie. in tune and already fitted!), then you are doing great. However, if this is not the case, or you acquire more reeds as time goes by, it will be more likely that you will need to adjust them to your zurna. First, you will need to replace the actual reed itself and then you will need to tune the new configuration to the instrument. This is made necessary by the fact that each individual reed is different and will be sharper or flatter than the reed that was previously attached, and this difference must be compensated for in order for the instrument to be in tune with itself. The basic concept at work is the fact that if you remove thread from the reed, it will go further into the instrument and therefore shorten the distance between the sound source and the holes, thus sharpening the tuning. The converse is equally true, in that if you add thread to the reed it will not go as far into the instrument, thereby increasing the distance between the sound source and the holes, and thus flattening the tuning. To this end, some zurnas have a sliding end piece that allows the player to tune the instrument up or down (see photo below). However, that is mostly used to match it’s pitch to another zurna so that they can play together, and in general, you will have to adjust the tuning by wrapping and unwrapping the thread on the metal tubing.

Playing the Zurna:

The zurna does not really have any possibility of subtlety in that it is basically all “on”, or all “off”! However, what it lacks in dynamics it makes up for in responsiveness. To begin, it requires a great deal of breath, so proper posture and being relaxed while playing is important. The breath control is exactly like that of a singer, or an orator, in that you should breath from your diaphragm, and not your chest. Do not slouch, or bow your head, this will only block your breath/energy and make you work even harder to play the instrument. The reed itself actually goes all of the way into the mouth, and does not come into contact with the lips. To this end the metal mouthpiece has a built in stop that is often augmented by an additional disk that serves as a kind of brace to press the lips against in order to maintain air pressure on the reed (it should be noted here that while the zurna has sometimes been descried as a “folk oboe”, the actual way the sound is generated is not like an oboe, but rather like a bagpipe).

Finger Positions:

A) top hand side view for thumb and 3 fingers
B) top view straight down for top 3 and lower hand 4 finger positions

The fingers are relaxed, at ease, and slightly curved. It may help to think of this looseness as originating in your arms, then flowing down into your wrists, and hands. The top hand only covers the top 3 holes along with the thumb hole, and uses the tips of the fingers (see photo “A” above). The bottom hand covers the final 4 playable holes, but unlike the top hand, the middle sections of the fingers are used to cover the holes (see photo “B” above). There is an 8th hole at the very bottom and that is left open for tuning.

You should begin by playing the notes all the way off and on. What you will probably notice is that you will need to adjust your breath in order to keep the notes in tune. In general this will mean that you will have to push progressively harder as you go higher up on the instrument or else the notes will become flat at the top. Each note will have its’ own different needs and you will have to adjust your playing to get them to work (ie. be in tune and not pinch up and squawk). You should probably work on all of the completely open notes on an individual basis and in a progressive sequence. Then once you have these clean, start to run intervals and then basic melodies. Only after you can do this should you start to look at the half holing technique of getting a chromatic scale. You then work on the same things as you did with the open hole technique.

It is interesting to note that in Armenia, zurnas are traditionally played in pairs, with one person playing the melody and one person playing a continuous drone note called the “dam”, or “damkesh”. In Armenia, it is common for a student to hold the note for a teacher as part of his learning the instrument because it helps to develop their muscles as well as to perfect their intonation. This “circular breathing” is done by puffing up the cheeks with air while you areplaying, then when you need to breath, you cut off the air in your throat. At this point, you simultaneously use the reserved air in your cheeks to keep the note going as you refill your lungs through your nose. You then reengage your lungs and the note never falters…It may help to use an analogy here: think of the whole process as if you were releasing and then reengaging the clutch in the manual transmission of a car, while keeping it in the same gear. Your cheeks are the clutch.

Caring for the Zurna:

When you are done playing, you should remove the reed from the main body of the zurna and put it in a safe place. The reeds should be closed with their closing cap and allowed to dry out (or else the reed might become moldy). Most zurna players have some kind of a jewelers box with holes drilled in it to accomplish this. Remember to always keep the closing cap on the reed when it is not being played.

As for the zurna itself, from time to time it needs to be lightly oiled on the outside only (never put oil on the inside, as this will change the sound). Sweet almond oil generally works well and does not become rancid or tacky as some other vegetable oils will.

Some Final Words:

One word regarding the zurna and tuning: it should be realized that this is a folk instrument that was designed to be played outdoors, in a solo type setting and that it is neither tempered in a “Western” sense, nor will every note be absolutely in tune with a keyboard/orchestra no matter how much you may try to tune it. In fact, depending on the individual instrument, the maker, and the reed it gets matched with, you may get fairly close, but most likely not all of it will be dead on. However, that is also what gives the instrument its’ edge, and these qualities should be respected and appreciated rather than maligned. One thing is for certain, and that is that you will certainly save yourself a great deal of headache and frustration if you can learn to see it for what it is!

Hopefully, this text will help you on your way to being able to play and understand your instrument. While it covers only the very basics, it does give you enough to go on to get you started. One thing to keep in mind, however, and that is that nothing can replace a live example. If you have the chance to seek out and work with a professional teacher/player, you will really be able to see and hear what the zurna is really about.

In addition to that, if you really want to learn how to play the instrument, you should listen to all the sources you can find! Absorb the music, get familiar with how they phrase their passages, and how the masters are swinging their tunes. Then, once you’ve got an idea of what you want to do with it, warn the neighbors and start blowing!

Congratulations and good luck !!!
Shea (“Sheram”) A.J. Comfort