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Most of the members of the Balalaika Orchestra had never played one before they came to the University. Some of them had never even seen one before Performing Arts Night their freshman year. Orchestra President Ivan Walrath had never even heard of one. But now, the 25 members of the Balalaika Orchestra are preparing to dress up in Russian costumes and play the triangular Russian folk instrument in public. At this Saturday's Vecherinka -- a Russian party -- the orchestra will play an hour-long program of folk music, followed by a Russian meal, dancing and a vodka tasting. The string instruments range in size from the hand-held prima domra, which is about 15 inches long, to the contrabass balalaika which stands five feet tall and is three feet in diameter. 1968 College graduate Steve Wollownik conducts the group, which he founded while he was a student here in 1966. Wollownik said that although he had learned to play the instrument through a group at his church, most of the people who join the orchestra have never played the balalaika. "Maybe three or four over the whole history of the group have played it," he said. "Mostly, we teach them." All of them, however, have had some musical experience. College junior Pei Pei Chung, who has been in the orchestra since her freshman year, said that performers of many different skill levels can play balalaika in the group. "It's easy to pick up a simple tune, but if you really want to excel at it, you have to work hard," she said. New members are not expected to be able to play all the songs at their first concert. Instead, the more experienced players carry most of the weight and the new ones are phased in gradually. Orchestra members said they provide an alternative to standard University performing arts fare. "A lot of the groups are a cappella, and I have nothing against that, but it gets kind of dry after a while," said College freshman Prax Tenorio. "[Balalaika] has a more international flavor." The orchestra's repertoire of Russian, Eastern European and Gypsy music is built from folk songs that members hear on records or at performances of other groups, and from sheet music that they receive from the Soviet Union, according to Wollownik. Because so many of the players are neophytes, group members said that emphasis is on learning and having fun rather than on just performance skills. "Rehearsals are very casual, very relaxed," said Tenorio, who had never seen a balalaika before he came to the University. "From what I gather, it's more having fun than anything else." Chung said the eclectic nature of the group, which stands out from other performing arts groups because it plays unfamiliar instrumental music, has created a social bond among the group members. "We have this bond because we play this weird instrument," she said. "We're just so different from the other groups that we have to have some kind of bond to keep it all sane." Wollownik said the group's size has fluctuated over the years, from four members to 45, and he added that its popularity has grown recently. "At the 250th celebration, we performed numerous times," he said. "A lot of the students were following us around from place to place." The group acquired two new instruments last year which were brought from Russia by a friend of one of the members, at a cost of $300 each, according to Walrath, a College senior. The Vecherinka will take place at 7:30 p.m. Saturday in the Christian Association. The performance is sold out.

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