Volume Hand question

Posted: 5/11/2012 5:20:40 PM

From: In between the Pitch and Volume hand ~ New England

Joined: 12/17/2010

Well, lately i have been finding myself trying to keep my volume hand really still and avoid dipping when i play... i think as a vocalist, it is rather hard for me to not wanting to shape each note as if I am singing. basically, I try to bring to the theremin what I've known in my short singing career lol. I find that adding dynamics with the volume hand is awesome, but if you are doing a lot, it can pull you away from being on pitch with your other hand.

When I view Carolina Eyck's volume hand, it is all over the place, up~down~sideways~. I feel that she is also trying to shape pretty much each note that she plays, while Pamelia's volume hand is pretty static in a spoon like hand shape and goes up and down only. I am confused on how I should go about?

Any of you have any insights on the matter? :)

Posted: 5/12/2012 11:24:20 AM

From: Canada

Joined: 8/1/2008

Probably the strangest volume hand antics of any thereminist ever, were those of Paula Mary who played on the 1950's TV show, YOU ASKED FOR IT. Her technique is a bit bizarre and her instrument (an RCA) was waaaay out of alignment and its pitch had slipped way below where it should have been, but all things considered she played very well.


I have two pieces of general advice on volume hand movement. These are my own thoughts & opinions and in no way reflect the opinions of the management.

1. Avoid dipping toward the antenna on every note. There is an increasing number of thereminists who do this. They seem to believe that it is necessary in order to separate the notes and overcome the theremin's often annoying portamento, but unfortunately it also disconnects the notes. This gives a jerky, staccato "beep-beep" feel to everything they play.

Here is a video of thereminist Kip Rosser playing the Lennon/McCartney standard, BLACKBIRD. The volume hand is highlighted in this performance and you can see that every note is staccato. This is an artistic choice but I would argue that anything you do all the time, on every note, on everything you play, is bound to become irksome no matter how skilled you are at doing it. I'm not trying to criticize Kip specifically, I'm sure he is a fine artist, but this is a perfect illustration of something I think all thereminists should carefully consider. 


2. Stay away from unnecessary movements that you may seem prompted to make but that do not directly affect the sound. One of the keys to good (and pain-free) precision theremin playing is EFFICIENCY and ECONOMY OF MOTION. The best way to produce the sound you want is going to be the simplest way.

The longer we persist with a bad or unnecessary habit, the harder it becomes to get rid of it. Constant repetition over several years will create pathways in the brain that are inextricably connected so that you can't get rid of the habit without interfering with your ability to perform the task it is associated with.

There was a very famous opera singer who would go noticeably cross-eyed on high notes. She tried to avoid doing it because it didn't look good on TV but she found she couldn't hit the notes! 


Posted: 5/12/2012 12:34:39 PM

From: In between the Pitch and Volume hand ~ New England

Joined: 12/17/2010

Coalport... I watched the video.... I think she played very well... Her volume hand movement reminds me of when you roll down the freeway and you stick your hand out of the window and you make all those funky movements in the wind :)

THank you for the comment and tips...

Posted: 5/12/2012 2:08:25 PM

From: Northern NJ, USA

Joined: 2/17/2012

"There was a very famous opera singer who would go noticeably cross-eyed on high notes. She tried to avoid doing it because it didn't look good on TV but she found she couldn't hit the notes!"

That's hilarious!  Reminds me of a local guitarist when I was a kid - whenever he did a "lick" his breathing circuits got co-opted and he would pant like a dog.  Not exactly photogenic behavior.

Posted: 5/12/2012 6:05:44 PM

From: Canada

Joined: 8/1/2008

I have been told that popular singer Joe Cocker's weird, spastic arm movements (which became a signature of his style) were the result of the fact that when he was young he would sing with an imaginary electric guitar in his arms. The strange staggering around and bizarre gestures in the air were all part of his imaginary guitar accompaniment which he eventually couldn't get rid of.

Posted: 5/12/2012 8:48:17 PM

From: Colmar, France

Joined: 12/31/2007

I allow to add from my modest experience: 

Having got many lessons with Lydia Kavina and Carolina Eyck and in the meantime teaching 3 students myself, I found that the tendency to dip each tone with the left hand is often correlated with a bad right hand technique. The more precise your right hand and its fingers may realize the transition from one tone to another, the less unwanted portamento will we audible and the less you will feel the need to mask it. 

When I or one of my students wants to learn a new piece, the first step is always to turn the amp's volume down, to put the left arm behind the player and to learn to play the piece with the right hand only as on a pitch only theremin, until there is no more "smearing" between the tones. In fact, your fingers have to learn to snap precisely from one tone to the next. In the next step, the left hand will be used, but only with very slow movements for musical phrasing. When this works too, the third step is adding articulation or shaping single tones where it is needed. 

The idea behind that method is to free the left hand in order to make it available for real musical expression. And following the German proverb "Only those who master the form may occasionally neglect it", one is also free later to add some glissando or portamento to specific notes without loss of precision.

Posted: 5/13/2012 7:09:27 PM

From: Canada

Joined: 8/1/2008

I think that for serious thereminists, when you want to learn a new piece of music for the instrument, you should be able to hear the entire composition, melody and harmony, clearly in your head from beginning to end before you even attempt it on the theremin. 

One of the things I loved about the practice tapes that Nadia Reisenberg made for Clara, is that you can hear Clara singing the theremin part "sotto voce" in the background with all of the nuances, rubato and sensitivity that she would eventually bring to her polished theremin interpretation.

These recordings were released on cassette back in 1996 by Reid Welch as part of the Rockmore "Gift Tape" interviews but were immediately recalled because he presumably did not have authorization to make them public. Of course, recalled or not, once the cat was out of the bag......

I wonder how many thereminists can sing their theremin repertoire, "a cappella", correctly, and from beginning to end of each piece. It's surprising how many people get lost in a performance and seem to think that it's O.K. That somehow it is part of artistic license. I'm all for artistic license, but I think it behooves us to know a composition correctly before we take it upon ourselves to deliberately screw it up!

I like that German proverb above!

Here's a proverb of my own.

The real value of a fine music teacher is not so that you can learn the notes. A piece of paper can teach you that. It is to teach you what to do with those notes so that people who hear you play can meet the composer in the sound. 


Posted: 5/27/2012 11:40:20 PM

Joined: 3/18/2012

All of the above suggestions sound very good reguarding the volume hand in relation to the pitch hand.Now I'm still a beginner in the technique of theremin playing...so what I'm about to say might in fact be a bad habit to be avoided...but here are my observations drawn from my limited handy work.For me the volume hand is like a pair of scissors that cut out the stuff you don't want.That doesn't mean I use too much staccato and pull out the notes all the time..I position the volume hand in such a way with fingers out with flat palm down and then I can curl my fingers to shape the note..this is a sideways movement rather than an up or down movement..in this way I find I can with economy of movement control the volume in subtle ways and pull notes out cleanly and start off notes quietly etc. all with a minimum of movement.Also I've found that the note spacing on the pitch antenna greatly affects the whole playing technique including the volume side.If the notes are too close together ie more than five octaves then it is harder to find the notes and so more attention has to be played to vibrato to fiddle around the note..this pulls attention away from the volume hand and the subtleties of expression that can be had there.I like about 4 octaves which make it much easier to find the notes.So my pitch hand is more relaxed and so I can use the volume hand more for better shaping of the notes.So is this a bad habbit..theremin experts?

Posted: 5/28/2012 10:38:41 AM

From: Canada

Joined: 8/1/2008

Nothing that you are happy with is a bad habit.

A bad habit, by definition, is something that you do regularly (and often unconsciously) that is in some way counterproductive. What might be a bad habit for me could well be a conscious artistic choice for someone else. 

There are theremin players who dip their volume hand into the loop on every note. This is the way they choose to play, so in their case it would be a bad habit if they DIDN'T do it!

No one can judge your theremin playing from a written description - particularly one that you wrote yourself. 

The predicament of the self-taught thereminist is that he/she is not only both the student and the teacher but also the final examiner and adjudicator of his/her own success. 



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