Can song help children learn Armenian? Karenn Chutjian Presti of the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music certainly thinks so, and she’s written and recorded My First Armenian Songbook to prove it.
Why did you create My First Armenian Songbook?
My children were born abroad, where I would be there one and only source of Armenian, God help them! I wanted to use every resource at my disposal, and I knew from my studies how important and powerful a role the genre of song can have in teaching language, so I wanted to take advantage of that. Of all the languages that my children were being exposed to, it seemed that we had an inexhaustible number of English, German, and—to a lesser degree—Italian songs to choose from, whereas there wasn’t a large choice of children’s songs in Western Armenian. I began composing my own songs, plus translating songs from English and German into Armenian in order to serve as a cultural bridge for my children, and my hope is that through the publication of the Songbook, my work can serve other children as well.
What do you think are the challenges of teaching children Armenian?
Children can learn any language with enough exposure. I would say the trouble is getting enough exposure. You can find thousands of resources in the more widely-spoken languages, and the abundance of those resources sends a message to our children about how important that language is to their life. The more exposure our children have to other languages, the more they find that Armenian is appropriate only for very limited use. I wrote and translated these songs so I would not have to tell my children, “We don’t have that song in Armenian,” or “I don’t know how to say that animal in Armenian, they probably don’t have it in Armenia.” I felt protective about Armenian and wanted my children to know that it’s every bit as relevant and rich as the other languages they speak. With maturity and education, they will learn that Armenians have music, literature, and other elements of culture that are equal to their European and American counterparts. But the first step was for them to actually learn Armenian, and if I can use familiar American melodies to teach them Armenian, I’ll do it!
Who collaborated with you on the project?
My British friend Alastair Sadler is a very talented illustrator, so I was thrilled that he agreed to work with me on this project. He didn’t let the language barrier stop him: he intuitively and easily managed to find an illustration appropriate to the subject matter of each song, yet utterly original and even humorous. As for the singer, Stephanie Betjemann just happens to be my sister. I wanted a native speaker of Western Armenian to sing, and I am surrounded by a huge number of talented singers in my profession as a pianist and vocal language coach, but I opted for a lovely non-operatic voice in order to give the music more of a folk feeling.
What can you tell us about the music on the CD?
I arranged the music, all for piano and voice. Being a classical musician, I think that the exposure to original, classically-based piano arrangements and a clear singing voice is also very important to children, because any time we expose children to music, we are teaching them artistic taste. Yet many recordings for children are overproduced, where even I cannot tell what the synthesized instrument is supposed to be, and the timbre of the voice is impure. I wanted a more intimate recording—something evoking the parent-child bond more than a pop setting of children’s music.
How have the reactions to the book been?
I feel very lucky because the response has been overwhelmingly positive. I was afraid that purists would argue that the songs, besides “Song of the Partridge,” are not traditionally Armenian, but I think that many parents are happy to find an additional Western Armenian language-teaching resource. It’s an added bonus that American children already know many of the melodies and can focus on the Armenian lyrics.
What is the best part of having put together My First Armenian Songbook?
I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to hear these songs sung by other children, especially when those children don’t speak Armenian but are learning through these songs.
Where can people find My First Armenian Songbook?
Armenian bookstores such as Abril, Sardarabad, AGBU, NAASR, and Berj Books all carry the book and accompanying CD. It is available through the Western Prelacy in Los Angeles, St. John Armenian Church in San Francisco and the greater Detroit area, and St. Vartan Cathedral in New York. Online, the Songbook is sold through Amazon and Dadiva Shop. Proceeds of books purchased from Dadiva Shop will be donated to AIWA-SF.
Promotional videos and song excerpts are available at www.karennpresti.com.
About the Author
Karenn Chutjian Presti is on the faculty of the Herb Alpert School of Music at UCLA, where she teaches Armenian music and serves on the voice faculty as a pianist teaching song interpretation and lyric diction of German, Italian, French, Spanish, and English to singers. Dr. Presti has served on the faculties of the Munich International School, Pasadena Conservatory of Music, Lark Musical Society, Artetonal Schule für Musik, and San Domenico School. She has performed extensively as a soloist and collaborator, winning competitions including the US Open Music Competition, the Leni FéBland Foundation Competition, and the Armenian Allied Arts Awards. She holds a doctorate degree in keyboard collaboration with an emphasis on music education and a masters degree in piano performance from the University of Southern California, along with a bachelors degree in piano performance from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
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