Help learning vibrato?

Posted: 1/13/2009 9:12:11 PM

From: Boston, MA

Joined: 1/13/2009


I'm a very new thereminist. I got the Etherwave (of course!) and I've watched that dvd several times as well as lots of great thereminists on YouTube. (Eyck's book and Pringle's dvd are on the way!)

In the meantime, I was wondering if there were anything that made playing vibrato really click for you. I've tried Kavina's suggestion but I only get any audible vibrato when I go really over the top with it.

Any suggestions?
Posted: 1/13/2009 9:14:47 PM

From: Boston, MA

Joined: 1/13/2009

I just noticed that there's a subforum for newcomer's; sorry about not posting there.
Posted: 1/14/2009 8:26:17 AM

From: Canada

Joined: 8/1/2008


Welcome to Theremin World, and to the world of the theremin.

Newcomers to the instrument often make the mistake of trying to absorb several different theremin techniques at once. They think they can take it all in, learn everything they can from everybody, and then straighten it all out later.

This can be very confusing and a waste of time.

The technique you use to play will ultimately determine your style. That is why beginner thereminists should try to learn, right from the start, a method of playing that is conducive to the kind of music they want to make on the instrument.

If you want to sing opera, you do not want to study voice with a blues singer (and vice versa). As Clara Rockmore once said, the most important thing for newcomers to the theremin is to know where they want to go before they start.

The best thing to do is to follow the example of the thereminist who has most inspired you. Imitate that person's approach and method as closely as you can until your own style and musical personality begin to emerge naturally.

You mentioned that Peter Pringle's DVD and Carolina Eyck's book are both on their way but remember, the techniques of these two thereminists are fundamentally different. It will be up to you to listen to these two artists and decide which one you like best.

While you're at it, you should listen to every other thereminist whose work you can get your hands on, and decide who you like best. That is the artist whose method you should emulate as closely as possible. DO NOT TRY TO RIDE TWO HORSES.

Never take any advice on how to play the theremin from anyone whose playing you have not heard or do not enjoy. REMEMBER: Everybody is an expert but few know what the hell they're talking about.

Beware of imitating Show & Tell theremin videos that have been posted to YouTube - you know, those videos from people who proudly point out that they have been playing for almost two weeks and are anxious to show everyone how far they've come.

There is no "right" or "wrong" technique for playing the theremin but there are definitely techniques that will help you get where you want to go, and others that will hinder you.

You have decided to learn an instrument that is arguably the most difficult one to play well that has ever been conceived. It is also one of the most rewarding and exciting (not to mention MAGICAL).

"Don't expect it to happen over night." Clara Rockmore

Good luck, Starry

Peter Pringle
Posted: 1/14/2009 8:51:15 AM

From: Kingston, NY

Joined: 2/13/2005

Welcome to ThereminWorld, starrykitten great question. It is an essential and subtle part of theremin technique. Of all the things involved in precision playing vibrato has probably been the most challenging for me. But it is well worth the attention.

The Lydia Kavina ( training tape from Moog (on "Two Theremin Classics") has good coverage of it too (that used to ship with the EWStandard), again hers is yet another school of playing.

That Moog "Two Theremin Classics - DVD" also includes
"Clara Rockmore - World's Greatest Theremin Virtuosa" the most footage available of Clara Rockmore playing. And though not an instructional tape, that one got many of us started!

Vibrato and how to play comes up for us a lot so check the search to for more gems from our members.

There's also more good discussion in the
Vibrato and Tremolo ( Thanks Peter for adding to the gems, I'll link this page into that one.

And it came up in the Aerial Fingering Technique ( too.

Hope TW helps you and please keep us posted.
most of all, listen hard, play every day and...
Just Keep Playing!
Posted: 1/14/2009 10:22:33 AM

From: Boston, MA

Joined: 1/13/2009

Thank you for the welcomes and help!

I've definitely been paying attention to Clara Rockmore's hands, namely during vibrato, both in the dvd and in YouTube videos. The other posts in the linked thread seemed like they had some good ideas too--I like the idea of keeping the note at the center being the most important thing.
Posted: 1/14/2009 1:18:28 PM

From: Croxley Green, Hertfordshire, UK

Joined: 10/5/2005

Hi starrykitten.

In accordance with Peter's excellent suggestion regarding from whom to take advice, I present my credentials...

FYI My vibrato on this piece is a constant one semitone wide (I checked) and a constant speed - in fact it is completely unrelenting - I really must work on that! :-)

Now for my advice (just in case you're still reading.) I had a lot of trouble keeping my vibrato fast and tight at first - until I remembered that I already did something that required similar control - namely shading a drawing with a pencil. So, just for a few minutes, and just the once, I stood in the theremin control zone with a pencil in my hand and shaded an imaginary drawing, until I was confident that I already had the necessary fine motor skills. From then on it was just as easy without the pencil.
Posted: 1/14/2009 3:19:27 PM

From: UK

Joined: 4/15/2008

Hello Starrykitten,

I hesitate to offer advice, as I've only been playing the theremin just a few weeks short of one year, (although I'd like to think that by now I've settled into a style of playing that suits me best, even if I still have much to learn). Anyway, rather than advise, I'll share a few of my observations; make of them what you will.

The width of vibrato is, to an extent, a matter of taste. Don't expect your playing to ever please all listeners; try to find what sounds right to you. But that needn't, in my opinion, be just one vibrato sound.

Personally, my handling of vibrato tends to vary according to either the theremin I'm playing or the piece of music. With one theremin I favour a flute-like whistling "voice", (for which I use the least vibrato) and sometimes a voice that reminds me of a human soprano, (which seems to work better with a little more vibrato). My other theremin suits a mellow brass-like tone that suits a slower narrower vibrato, and a very cello-like voice that works best for me with a wider more noticeable vibrato. (Although all are slight variations on the same technique). The style or period of a certain piece may also affect the style of vibrato I opt for.

The actual technique of the vibrato might vary depending on your playing style, (or way of finding the notes in the field). If my memory is correct, in the demo that comes with the Moog E-Standard Lydia Kavina moves her hand back/forwards towards the antenna (to play), and her vibrato is sideways, at right angles to her movement through the note field, (not unlike Gordon's fantastic pencil-shading explanation). Others, who move through the note field to and fro in a sweeping sideways arc, would probably do their vibrato at right-angles to this by moving their hand forwards/backwads slightly, (like preparing to through a dart). In short, you can't easily mix and match; your vibrato method needs to "fit" your style of play. Which is why Peter Pringle's advice "to follow the example of a thereminist who has most inspired you. Imitate that person's approach and method as closely as you can until your own style emerges" is so spot on.

All of PP's advice is excellent. At risk of being presumptious, though, I will just add that while you should not try to ride two horses, it's worth having a good wander around the stable before chosing your mount - and, once you're riding, if things don't feel right, don't be afraid to start over if you're certain the first horse you picked was the wrong one! Early on, I opted for a playing-style used by a player I admired, but after a short while I realised it neither suited the music I wanted to play nor comfortably allowed for an old injry of my right hand, so I started over ... and I'm glad I did, because I then tried a method that seemed to suit me much better.

I'll also just add that, personally, I think that you can learn as much watching the inexperienced Youtube thereminists, as the truly excellent ones. If you watch something that, to you, doesn't sound right, it's just as worthwhile looking closely to work out what the player is doing that you'll want to avoid, as it is to observe and replicate the good habits of those whose performance you admire.
Posted: 2/2/2009 5:56:43 PM

From: Chillicothe, Ohio USA

Joined: 1/29/2009

To Thereminstrel:

Just curious--what was the extent of your injury? I sprained both of my wrists in August of 2007, and sometimes I still feel fatigue set in after only an hour of practice time. I notice that the tension required to center a pitch within the context of vibrato can significantly wear me out. Any thoughts on learning to play through the tension and pain (aside from obviously taking frequent breaks)?

To Peter Pringle:

I am so glad that I read your reply, because I, too, as a neophyte thereminist, have been soaking it all in, and learning the precepts of various styles truly can be confusing. I believe my path may be more narrowed now, in a good way.
Posted: 2/2/2009 9:07:39 PM
Jeff S

From: N.E. Ohio

Joined: 2/14/2005

As someone who has been dealing with an "injury", I think I can help a little here.

I have chronic tendonitis in my right forearm directly linked to my middle finger. It is the result of over ten years of constant computer "mousing". At its worst, there was a constant, searing pain along the back of my forarm. To this day I still cannot use it for mousing for any extended period of time. I now have to use my left hand.

I was taking piano lessons for a little while a couple of years long ago, but I was forced to stop because of the pain.

My right hand is my pitch and vibrato hand. It wouldn't take long before my wrist would hurt, which really killed much of the joy of playing the theremin.

At the beginning of 2008 I spent six weeks (and $1000) for physical therapy. To make a long story short, it helped immensely. If I knew then what I know now, I could have saved myself a large chunk of change.

The moral of the story is that for the injured, and especially those of us who are middle-aged or older, proper, regular exercise is the best way to minimize and/or prevent serious injury.
For playing such a sensitive instrument as the theremin, having greater strength and better control of your body can't hurt either.
Posted: 2/2/2009 9:59:20 PM

From: UK

Joined: 4/15/2008

Hello theremin_ohio,
You asked about the injury to my right hand. I broke my little finger, (it happened quite a while ago, long before I heard of theremins). Once it healed up it became much less mobile. When I started to learn the theremin, I initially opted for an in/out method of play extending bent knuckles towards the antenna - the old injury never gave me any pain/tension, however, I found that the little finger now only had two "settings" ... completely bent and completely straight ... "popping" instantly from one to the other, (this never used to happen; as a pianist I'd learned to bend all my fingers independantly). The result was that when my little finger "jumped" I tended to overshoot the note I was aiming for by quite a bit. Consequently, I decided to adapt my style of play to a more sideways method, keeping all my fingers straighter, and always keeping my little finger clamped to the one next to it, (that way it doesn't jump at all!)

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