Alternating Knuckle Extension Method

Posted: 6/24/2012 8:33:46 PM

Joined: 12/26/2011

Hi everybody!

I'm trying to improve my aerial fingering tecnique and so I decided to learn form the "Theremin Lessons" DVD by Thomas Grillo. As far as I've seen, the best method seems to be this knuckle extension method, but I'm not seeing a lot of improvement.

Before, I used a probably wrong way to move my fingers - I moved mainly my little finger, alternating sometimes with the middle and ring finger.

Now, two questions.

1) Is alternating knuckle extension a very good way to improve theremin playing and do I just need a lot of exercise to use it well? Or maybe I must find another way that suits me more?

2) The substance of this method is just alternating knuckles from one note to another (from thumb+index finger to middle finger+ring finger to little finger)? Doing a scale isn't that difficult, but playing a musical piece is different and more complex!

I hope to have advices, I'm feeling a bit down...


Posted: 6/25/2012 1:17:54 AM
Jeff S

From: N.E. Ohio

Joined: 2/14/2005

Sorry you're feeling down.  Everyone feels frustration now and then.  But, you need to keep your expectations realistic.  You didn't say how long you've been working on changing your method.  Regardless, it is unrealistic to expect instant results, especially when making a change from your established technique.

Several fine players use "knuckle extensions".  I prefer them myself, although I don't include myself in the aforementioned group.  I haven't seen Thomas's tutorials, and I don't feel the need to. Personally, I wouldn't take any one person's recommendations too literally.  Everyone I've seen seems to use their own slight variation of the same method and that is to be expected.

"Doing a scale isn't that difficult, but playing a musical piece is different and more complex!" kidding!

Posted: 6/25/2012 2:26:30 AM

From: Nashville, TN, USA

Joined: 12/22/2011


I agree with Jeff S when he says that everyone has variations of technique, even when they mainly use one style.  I personally use three general styles of playing right now, one of which is similar to the knuckle extension technique described above.  My current technical struggle involves integrating these three methods.  Each has its own advantages, and its own drawbacks.  I call these "closed", "medium", and "open" styles.  

In my "closed" style, my right hand is mostly closed (I play right-handed) with the thumb and index together, and my other fingers curled with the finger tips pointing towards my palm. This style is very accurate for musical fragments where the notes are close together and/or repeat a pattern several times rapidly.  It is also good for transitioning up and down scale patterns, kind of like "crossing over" in piano technique.  The disadvantages are in making large leaps, or in doing slow slides across a larger interval.  I believe my "closed" variant of playing is similar to the knuckle extension method you are describing.

   My "medium" method is a lot like the form demonstrated by Lydia Kavina in her demonstration DVD which was included with my Etherwave. This method also involves holding the thumb and forefinger together with the fingers curled toward my palm, but in this variant, the middle, fourth, and pinky fingers open from completely closed, with the fingers touching the palm, to completely open, with the middle, fourth, and pinky fingers extended to almost straight, pointed towards the pitch antenna.  This method has the advantage of allowing larger interval jumps, as well as allowing pitch bends up or down by curling or uncurling the fingers.  I usually tune my theremin in the medium method so that I can cover an octave by opening my hand from mostly closed to mostly open. I try to keep my third, fourth, and pinky fingers separated and curved as I open or close my hand, as I find that this gives me the best pitch control.

     My "open" method involves holding my hand kind of like a cat flexing its claws. I only use this method sparingly, but it has the advantage of allowing very slow controlled bends up or down. In this method, the thumb and forefinger are not touching, and I open or close my hand as if gripping a ball, again with all fingers curved. This method is not good for doing fast controlled repeated patterns or general playing (at least for me).

  I have come to my own style(s) of playing by watching videos of players I admire, and trying to borrow elements of their playing that might work for me.  You will have to do the same...This instrument is difficult, wonderful, and demanding. Part of theremin's attraction for me is the challenge of trying to master small elements of playing style.  Try as many variants to your playing as you can, so you can find what works for you.  The bottom line is whether your method allows you do what you want to do and play the things you want to play.  

  What Jeff S said about not taking anyone's recommendations too literally of course also applies to what I have just said.  Above all, don't let the difficulty of this instrument get you down.  Have as much fun as you can.

Posted: 6/25/2012 2:54:26 AM

Joined: 5/15/2012

I haven't been playing very long (maybe two months or so now), but I've been using a system kind of similar to how you're describing Thomas Grillo's method, but draws on my previous experience with woodwinds, and at least for me it was really easy to pick up and surprisingly accurate.  My first position is the same, thumb and index finger forming a loose ring with the other fingers closed, and my fourth position is all three (pinky, ring, and middle finger) knuckles extended, but flaired out with a loose curl in my fingers. I do positions two and three by extending one knuckle at a time, pinky first, then ring finger.  The effect looks very similar to the right-handed fingerings on a saxophone, from low C up to F, using half positions for half-steps.  This worked very well for me the very first time I tried it, after tuning my theremin so the interval from position one to position four was a perfect fourth.  I can't say it will work as well for everybody, but the point is to try to draw from something you're already used to doing so it feels more natural.

Some beginner-to-beginner advice I would offer is to find positions you're comfortable with and don't cause you any pain, limit your practice time for the first couple of weeks until you're used to holding so still (I experienced some muscle soreness in my upper back. It went away as those muscles adapted), and once you're set on your fingering positions, do the daily warmup exercise from Clara Rockmore's method book at least once a day until you can play a jump of any interval within an octave without thinking about it.  That exercise, along with the earlier ones in the book, will help you out way more than they feel like they are.  Good luck, and don't get discouraged!

Posted: 6/25/2012 2:22:06 PM

From: Nashville, TN, USA

Joined: 12/22/2011

@ jo:  I am also a woodwind player by training (clarinet, saxophone, flute) and I have made the exact point you made about the right hand fingerings being familiar because of the habit we have acquired of making the pitch higher by opening our right hand fingers to make the pitch go up, and closing our right hand fingers to make the pitch go down (this was in a discussion with coalport re whether any previous experience as a musician could help when learning theremin).  It's good to meet another woodwind player here at TW...

Posted: 6/25/2012 3:21:42 PM

Joined: 5/15/2012

@ mollydad: Good to meet another woodwinder as well!  I don't feel like I know the forum well enough to disclose my location yet, but we are within a couple of hours of each other geographically as well.

I learned to read sheet music in general on the saxophone, and the fingerings got so deeply impressed into my mind that I find myself playing air saxophone to learn sheet music for piano and guitar (both of which I've been playing much longer, though mostly by ear).  That makes my theremin style come pretty easily out of sheet music, even if I can't yet hear every note in my head. 

Not sure how well the same approach could work for a string or brass player, but I do feel like if you play some instrument or another already, AND can sing on key (or at least play a continuous instrument such as violin or trombone), you're in worlds better shape learning the theremin than if you pick it up without any real previous experience.

msilvestro: Keep in mind that I myself am still very much a beginner, and my advice may be very off base, but hopefully it will at least help to compare notes with someone at a similar level.

Posted: 6/25/2012 7:51:45 PM

Joined: 12/26/2011

@Jeff S @mollydad @jo

Thanks everybody! Maybe it's just that I feel a bit discouraged... I'll just keep practising!

Thanks again for the advices! :)

Posted: 6/26/2012 5:45:09 PM

From: Canada

Joined: 8/1/2008


Beware of advice on how to play the theremin from anyone whose playing you either haven't heard, or do not like. REMEMBER, everybody is an expert and everyone's opinion is as valid as anyone else's - and that applies even to people who haven't the slightest idea what they're talking about! 

Aerial fingering, as it was practiced by the late Clara Rockmore, requires a high degree of flexibility of the entire pitch hand and an ability to spread your curled fingers, in a relaxed way, instantly into a perfectly spaced "fan" shape. There are people who have found that their hands are not well suited for this because their fingers are too short. 

Pencil fingers are better at this than cocktail sausage fingers, and Clara's fingers were exceptionally long and thin. 

"First, have music in your soul. If you have this then you will find a way to do it." Clara Rockmore


"I think it would be wonderful if everyone could play the theremin as well as I do, but they don't! I know this sounds arrogant but I don't have much time left." C.R.


Posted: 6/26/2012 7:50:28 PM

From: Nashville, TN, USA

Joined: 12/22/2011

"REMEMBER, everybody is an expert and everyone's opinion is as valid as anyone else's - and that applies even to people who haven't the slightest idea what they're talking about!"

I guess that means that I haven't the slightest idea what I'm talking about....nor Jeff S.....nor Jo...

All three of us qualified our abilities, and all three of us encouraged msilvestro to keep trying.  That counts for something in my book. You did NOT encourage him/her one bit.  To the contrary, you pointed out how unlikely it is that he/she will ever be able to play well.  That doesn't help promote the instrument.  While it's true that very few will ever master the instrument to the level that you and Clara Rockmore have, it's still possible that there are some more good players out there.  I just hope they will not give up trying to learn because they have been told repeatedly that they will never be able to play. 

I said this in my post, and I will cut and paste it here once again:

  "What Jeff S said about not taking anyone's recommendations too literally of course also applies to what I have just said.  Above all, don't let the difficulty of this instrument get you down.  Have as much fun as you can."

  There.  You have it.  Take what I've said with a grain of salt.  OK?

Posted: 6/26/2012 8:15:41 PM

Joined: 12/26/2011

Ok, thanks, I really appreciate all of your opinion! And, well, I suppose that the best way to learn is to take what someone said - because I think that anyone has something interesting or useful to say, and that there is some truth in every opinion - without taking it too literally! Well, let's say, to be inspired but not to be heavily influenced!

So, again, many, many thanks to all of you, you really helped me, and, well, if we have to find a moral, it could be:

"Be yourself and have fun!"

EDIT: This is a great forum; and I'm a (young) man ;)

You must be logged in to post a reply. Please log in or register for a new account.