How much music theory is necessary to learn the theremin?

Posted: 4/8/2010 12:32:00 AM

Joined: 4/4/2010

Hello theremists! I have some questions about learning the theremin. I know that Clara Rockmore believed in learning the piano first. Does anyone have any thoughts on this? Is it really necessary?

I should mention that I do have past experience playing the violin, an instrument which seems to bear some similarities to the theremin. Unfortunately my background in music theory was never strong, although I was good at sight-reading so I was able to muddle through. But when it comes to intervals, chords, etc. I am lost. Also my relative pitch is weak, but I do hope to improve with practice.

I plan to dedicate a lot of time to practicing the theremin -- I love everything about it! But do I need to learn another instrument as well, for the sake of music theory?
Posted: 4/8/2010 5:11:39 AM

From: Croxley Green, Hertfordshire, UK

Joined: 10/5/2005

Hello Lexiboo! Welcome to Theremin World.

Clara Rockmore is not the only one to reach that conclusion. Another well respected thereminist has recently commented that what most thereminists need is not theremin lessons but music lessons. (As this is a rather sweeping assertion I will let him claim attribution himself, if he wishes.)

The upside is that another assertion that I have heard many times is that theremin practice has a beneficial effect on the playing of other instruments too. So it's a two-way process.

(I should note that this is purely hearsay on my part - I am one of those oddballs who concluded that as an electronic instrument the theremin is probably best suited to electronic music, and as a continuous pitch instrument it is probably best suited to continuous pitch music. This puts me in an area in which there is not a great deal of conventional music theory. Consequently I spend a certain amount of my time inventing my own theories and trying them out.)

Posted: 4/8/2010 7:53:27 PM

From: Canada

Joined: 8/1/2008

What Clara Rockmore actually said was that "the theremin should never be anybody's first instrument". It sounds to me like you have already had experience with other instruments, so don't fear diving head first into the theremin.

The advantage of having learned a bit of piano is that you will be able to provide your own accompaniment. That could turn out to be a valuable asset depending on what sort of music you want to make with your theremin.

Good relative pitch is essential for precision theremin playing (not so essential for FX, "Free Music" and aleatoric improv compositions). If your relative pitch isn't great, it will get better as you progress with the theremin. Playing the theremin is terrific ear training.

My standard advice to all who are embarking on the great theremin adventure is to emulate as closely as possible the method of the thereminist you most enjoy. Don't try and "wing it" on the assumption that you can figure it all out as you go along. Your own innovations and style will kick in by themselves in good time.

TAKE NO ADVICE FROM ANY THEREMINIST WHOSE MUSIC YOU HAVEN'T HEARD OR DO NOT ENJOY. We are in a world where everyone is an expert, including those who don't know their rings from their rods!

"The most important thing for learning the theremin is to have music in your soul. If you have this, then you will find a way to do it". Clara Rockmore
Posted: 4/9/2010 3:53:48 PM

Joined: 4/4/2010

[i]"The most important thing for learning the theremin is to have music in your soul. If you have this, then you will find a way to do it". Clara Rockmore[/i]

Wow, thank you so much for this. It gives me great hope, as I feel like I have finally found my musical voice with the theremin. :)
Posted: 4/9/2010 7:37:04 PM

From: Canada

Joined: 8/1/2008


Having music in your soul is not synonymous with loving music. Almost everyone on the planet loves music, but comparatively few have it in their soul.

Do you have a piece of music playing in your musical imagination every waking hour?

Would you prefer not to exist at all rather than live in a world entirely devoid of music?

Has a piece of music ever opened the door for you to understand a great mystery of Life, or of the Universe?

If you can unequivocally answer "YES!" to all these questions, then you have music in your soul.

On the other hand, what the hell do I know, and just who the hell do I think I am anyway?

Posted: 4/9/2010 10:27:58 PM
Jeff S

From: N.E. Ohio

Joined: 2/14/2005

Whew! I'm glad to hear it...I thought I was just crazy!
Posted: 4/20/2010 1:08:11 AM

Joined: 4/4/2010

Just a quick update:

I am absolutely in love with my new theremin (Moog Etherwave)! I have been practicing a lot of scales and intervals, some simple tunes (Twinkle Twinkle, Ode to Joy). So far I have experienced [b]no[/b] hand or wrist pain, which is a big relief since that is one of the reasons I stopped playing the violin.

Shifting seems to come naturally, maybe from my violin background. I am still trying to fine tune my aeriel fingering and make crisper finger movements. I started with 8 finger positions, but I have since switched to 4 since it is easier for my small hands.

Now I would like to know if there are any common beginner mistakes which I need to avoid? I have been practicing a lot, but I don't want to reinforce any bad habits. Thanks in advance for all your help!
Posted: 4/20/2010 10:41:14 AM

From: Canada

Joined: 8/1/2008

It's impossible to tell if someone is doing something that is putting them at a disadvantage without actually seeing and hearing them play. Since there is no established technique as there is for traditional instruments, there is no "right" or "wrong". There is only "what works" an "what doesn't work" relative to your own theremin goals and aspirations.

Can you make a video of yourself?
Posted: 4/22/2010 9:53:39 AM

From: Kansas City, Mo.

Joined: 8/23/2005

[i]"Now I would like to know if there are any common beginner mistakes which I need to avoid? I have been practicing a lot, but I don't want to reinforce any bad habits."[/i]

How much music theory to learn depends on your goals -- that is, if a lack of music theory creates an impediment to your musical/artistic goals, then by all means get a music-theory book and have at it!

The challenge for beginners (besides intonation) is to play a good legato. When you practice scales, do them WITHOUT using your volume hand. Just put your left hand at your side and practice.

Once you can play cleanly, then use your left hand for crescendi and dimenuendi while avoiding the temptation to seperate every note with the volume hand.

When you move from one note to the next, avoid overshooting then correcting back to pitch. 'tis better to undershoot and correct to pitch -- less noticeable and easier to work with.

Learn to correct every note to pitch. Don't hit a sharp or flat note and play it in the misguided notion that the intonation won't be noticed. If the note is a little off pitch, then adjust it to pitch.

People tend to carry their musical standards into the theremin. That is, if one's approach to music is thoughtful and with great attention to detail, then it is likely that the person will approach the theremin similarly.
Posted: 4/23/2010 7:29:13 AM

From: Canada

Joined: 8/1/2008

The most common mistake that beginner thereminists make is to believe that lessons aren't necessary and that they can learn to play simply by experimenting until they find what works for them. No one would do this with a violin or a harp (or any other traditional instrument) but this is the approach of most newcomers to the theremin.

A technique that a newbie has spontaneously come upon in his or her first few weeks with the theremin may actually hamper further progress. That's what happened to me. I played with the old "chicken peck" method which initially seemed to be fine, until I hit a brick wall and Lydia Kavina told me I wasn't going to be able to progress any further unless I started over from scratch.

It's all very well to tell a beginner whose playing you have never heard to adjust to the correct pitch, but there is an assumption that the person in question is able to recognize the correct pitch in the first place. Often what new thereminists (and singers) need most is ear training. No one likes to be told this, and it can make some people very upset.

The world of the theremin is primarily a world of self-taught adults. What I tell people is to imitate as closely as possible the playing and technique of thereminist they most admire until their own style and characteristics begin to kick in spontaneously.

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