Clara's technique - Drawing parallels with the violin

Posted: 10/3/2007 11:19:22 PM

From: Kansas City, Mo.

Joined: 8/23/2005


The best way to see Clara Rockmore's technique is to view the video of her (Moog provides this with the Etherwave Standard).

I use a four-position method. I won't claim that it is Clara's method exactly, though.

I made some short videos that are on my website:

(actually, I need to update them... they are old and I've made some slight modifications to my technique since then, I still use a four position technique, though.)
Posted: 10/4/2007 2:37:52 AM

From: Fresno, California USA

Joined: 3/26/2006

Thanks, Kevin--I will take a look at your videos. The video of Clara R. is really of little use to me, because it is a performance video, not an instructional video. She doesn't say "this is my fingering technique; here is position 1 [demonstrates]" and so on. That's what I desire.

On another note, I got my Theremax case assembled, puttied up, sanded and partly stained. Wonder of wonders, it's going to look OK! I was able to conceal almost all of my mistakes.
Posted: 10/4/2007 3:09:03 AM

From: Fresno, California USA

Joined: 3/26/2006

Sorry, Kevin, it's still about as clear as mud. Another problem is that I am a musical philistine; just as a matter of principle, I see no particular reason a frequency of 440 Hz (or 410 Hz) should be called "A" rather than "Q" or "bletz." Neither do I see why a doubling of frequency should be divided into 13 steps (as on a piano) rather than 24 (as in the Arabic system, derived from the oud) or 53 (as in the Turkish system), or however the Persians or Maya do it. For me "fifths" and "fourths" [quarts] are volumes of typical whiskey bottles. So you have to be a little more elementary for me. When I was a kid my folks had me take piano accordion lessons; that is no help with the theremin, because there is a key to push to produce a note with a particular name. I see no way for me to learn to play the theremin other than by ear, just like singing (the way I do it, anyway). I have no expectation of ever learning to play music on the theremin by reading piano music, any more than by reading the notation for ku-ch'in [pinyin "guqin"] music. So I am a philistine--or a universalist. But I still would very much like to know how people control the pitch of the theremin by using four different hand positions combined with movements of the arm.
Posted: 10/4/2007 5:33:22 AM

From: Croxley Green, Hertfordshire, UK

Joined: 10/5/2005

Hi Alan - I'll field the "why are notes what they are" part of this - I had the same questions when I got my first theremin.

OK - a bit of semi-factual history. Ancient Greek über-nerd Pythagorus was making a damn nuisance of himself at the local ironmongers, trying to get them to play D&D and adopt Ubuntu and stuff, so naturally they set about him with hammers. So, being a total brainiac, Py noticed that the ringing sound when they impacted his skull was rather pleasant, and most fortunately, these were Acme Inc. hammers with their weights written on the side in big letters.

Aha, thinks Py, those hammers are simple fractions of each other's weights. Twice as heavy. Two thirds as heavy. Et cetera. So he rushes home and, in between making up rude limericks about Archimedes, develops his musical theory of niceness. It goes like this...

The posh name for "sounds nice together" is consonance. The opposite is dissonance. The simple the ratio of two frequencies, the more consonant they are. (I.e. 2:1 - an octave - very consonant - is a simpler ratio than 45485749735:324732948984 - very dissonant)

Pick a frequency at random. Call this note the key. Now figure out some more notes by doubling, halving, two-thirds, half-as-much-again and so on. Now, once you have a whole bunch of notes, select a manageable number of them that are fairly evenly spaced and include the simple ratios. He settled on a "scale" of 12 notes to an octave. It worked. So did other numbers, but he liked 12. Back in those days numbers had magical properties and 12 was a [i]significant[/i] number.

Brilliant. Everything sounded like a Barber Shop Quartet. Lovely. Nice. Ultra-consonant.

Oh boy did the idea catch on. Suddenly everyone was consonance-crazy. Consonance was the new coolness.

And so it stayed that way for several thousand years. Almost.

Trouble is - simple fractions - 2/3, 3/4 etc. not so simple as you might think. Yeah, you did them in primary school, but you remember how the numbers tended to get larger when you added or multiplied them - more dissonant. And they aren't evenly spaced along the number line either. Which means that if you choose a different key note - even one from your original scale, the notes of the new scale won't line up nicely with notes from the old scale. And changing keys is musically interesting, gosh darn it to heck!

So for thousands of years musical theoreticians have been jiggering about with the system, making little tweaks to the frequencies, ironing out the wrinkles, coming up with new takes on the theory, smoothing out the beats (beat frequencies caused by very small deviations from a simple ratio - a good thing or a bad thing depending on your opinion. In classical Western music they are A Bad Thing.) and so on and so forth. Long and short is - the composers got what they wanted - a system where they could change key on a whim by moving every note up or down in pitch a smidgeon - tempering them - until they were completely evenly spaced. And perfect consonance be blowed. The current version is called 12TET - 12 tone even temperament.

(At the same time they were also working on increasing the amount of dissonance in their compositions. Back in the day you could get a visit from The Inquisition if you introduced a less than completely lovely note into a sacred composition. And musicians, rebels all, were all for finding ways of giving the Pope the finger on this issue.)

The upshot is - if you want to stick with the notes that your audience are expecting to hear and fit in nicely with less flexible instruments that are tuned to 12TET, then that's what you got to play. If you want to play nicely with a gamelan band, then you got to play the notes they play, and so on. Or you could go with Harry Partch et al and say, Stuff the lot of you - I've got every note, I'm gonna use every note!
Posted: 10/4/2007 5:39:21 AM

From: Bristol, United Kingdom

Joined: 12/30/2006

There's a parch harp in my flat. It sounds nice.
Posted: 10/5/2007 12:35:47 AM

From: Fresno, California USA

Joined: 3/26/2006

Quite possibly so, Gordon. And long before Pythagoras the Chinese developed a system of music from (according to legend) the pitches of a set of bamboo pipes with a particular geometrical arrangement. (Interestingly, we REALLY know what the pitches were, because we have tuned musical STONES from ancient chinese aristocratic tombs.) And they were far from the first, surely. But when I learned how to sing (e.g.) "No More Beer on Sundays," I didn't worry about any of that--I just experimented until I got the sounds and tempo down right and committed to memory. Perhaps less efficient than reading written piano music, but very traditional and it works. (As memory serves me, George Gershwin learned piano by ear, lacking both teacher and knowledge of how to read piano music. Not that I expect to rise to his level with the theremin.) But I have still to find a clear exposition of Rockmore's four-position technique.
Posted: 10/5/2007 1:32:10 AM
Brian R

From: Somerville, MA

Joined: 10/7/2005

Hi, Alan--

Please excuse if this is information you already know.

Any aerial fingering technique exploits your ability to control the movements of small muscles (e.g., in your fingers) more precisely than those of large ones (e.g., in your arm).

Within any one position of your arm, the range of available pitches is defined by two extremes:
a) The lowest pitch is produced by closing your hand; this represents arranging the mass of your hand farthest from the pitch rod (that is, farthest [i]without[/i] moving your arm or wrist).
b) The highest pitch is produced by opening your hand; this represents extending the mass of your hand closest to the pitch rod (again, closest [i]without[/i] moving your arm or wrist).

That much may be intuitively obvious. One of the major non-obvious aspects of the technique (whether you opt for "four," "nine," or whatEVERrrr) is that if you literally open your hand, extending all your digits, then four of them (the fingers) move closer to the pitch rod, BUT the fifth (a.k.a. your thumb) is moving [i]away[/i] from it. Ergo, for consistent control of pitch, it's important to keep your thumb and forefinger together. So, absent photos, let's refine the above:

Within any one position of your arm, the range of available pitches is defined by two extremes:
a) The lowest pitch is produced by closing your hand--not into a fist, but with your thumb and index finger forming a circle, and the tips of the other three fingers (let's call them "the active fingers") resting comfortably on the base of your thumb.
b) The highest pitch is produced by opening your hand--not completely, but by maintaining that thumb-and-forefinger circle, while extending the active fingers toward the pitch rod, so that your hand forms the traditional "Okay" gesture.

So, them's your extremes. Intermediate pitches are produced by extending your knuckles, without fully unfolding your active fingers. Try moving your active fingers as slowly as you can from closed to open position, and back. Your next step is to find the intermediate positions that correspond to the pitches you want to produce, and then to train your muscles to go to those intermediate positions instantly.

I think it's safe to say (and I trust others to correct me as needed) that the above features are common to the aerial techniques we've been discussing. The fundamental differences lie in how you calibrate the pitch control field of your instrument.

Opting for the "four"-position technique means setting your control field so that moving from closed position to open position (without moving your arm or wrist) would produce the first two notes of Wagner's wedding march ("HERE COMES the bride..."), a.k.a. the first two pitches of "Shenandoah" ("OH SHENANDOAH, ..."), a.k.a. the first two pitches of "Loch Lomond" ("OH, YOU take the high road...").

Opting for the "nine"-position technique means setting your control field so that moving from closed to open position (without moving your arm or wrist) would produce the first two notes of "Over the rainbow" ("SOME-WHERE... over the rainbow..."), a.k.a. the first two notes of "Bali Hai" from [i]South Pacific[/i], a.k.a. the first two notes of "Singin' in the rain" ("I'M SING-in' in the rain...")

I hope this helps. In particular, I hope that you can better follow what Kevin demonstrates in his videos, especially the one where he demonstrates how to handle large melodic leaps using a "four"-position technique (this video provides an excellent, protracted close-up shot of his pitch hand).

P.S. The number labels come from the basic seven-note scale that underlies most European music (Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Ti-Do, a.k.a. "only the white keys on a piano keyboard"). I put the quotation marks around them, because in each technique you're actually learning to find other notes in between, such that
Posted: 10/5/2007 11:11:10 AM

From: new haven ct.

Joined: 7/8/2005

...lets all callibrate ya'll..

i used to do quality control and was in charge of the callibration of the shops measuring tools, guess what I use to sing while i did my calibrations....

Posted: 10/5/2007 1:13:43 PM

From: Brooklyn, New York

Joined: 11/25/2005

I dig it.

Calibrate good times, come on! (Let's calibrate)
Calibrate good times, come on! (Let's calibrate)

There's a party goin' on right here
A calibration to last throughout the years
So bring your good times, and your laughter too
We gonna calibrate your party with you
Posted: 10/5/2007 2:40:06 PM
RS Theremin

From: 60 mi. N of San Diego CA

Joined: 2/15/2005

Hello all,

I hear qualities in Alan that bring back fond memories of our rebellious James Dean here in California who’s passing took place just south of Fresno, Alan’s home. That was fifty two years ago. It happened on September 30, the same date this thread began… Is there a coincidence here, probably not, maybe an unsettled ghost? (-;

Brian R. and Kevin K. you both contribute to the finest writings on the subject of the theremin and I wish you would put your posted masterpieces (writings) on webpages where I could direct people to them. You’re both good at using words this non-musician can understand. Sharing knowledge is the key to evolution, even creation.

(If I have overlooked your theremin links due to my own illusions forgive me)

While I am at it, “all of you” tube/valve theremin builders, I’m jealous of you.


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