Posted: 10/21/2012 11:38:23 AM

From: Canada

Joined: 8/1/2008

More and more thereminists seem to be getting into the habit of "pumping" with their volume hands when they play. "Pumping" is when you automatically dip your hand toward the loop for an instant between each note you play, in order to produce an instant of silence and thereby erase any hint of a slide or "gliss" in your articulation. What many people don't seem to realize is that this detaches the notes and makes them "staccato".

When composers want to disconnect notes in a melody, they write it into the score. Otherwise, notes are connected and played "legato", without any space between them. When we pump on every note, or 90% of them, our playing becomes irritatingly predictable, disjointed and bumpy, it fights any attempt at phrasing, and we lose one of the most valuable resources thereminists have - what Clara Rockmore called our "infinite bow".

When violinists do the equivalent of "pumping" it is called "sawing" because they change the direction of the bow, causing a slight micro-gap between notes. It is as bad a habit on the violin as it is on the theremin!

Any musical technique for expression that you use all the time, on every note, is a bad habit, and it is very easy for thereminists to fall into these traps because most of us are self-taught and we are often in a "bubble" isolated from any potentially valuable feedback from other musicians. 

If you want to avoid that annoying slide between notes, learn to move so quickly and accurately that the ear doesn't hear it. It is over before the ear is aware that it was there. The challenge of being able to do this increases with the size of the interval between the notes you are playing. 

Listen to yourself objectively to hear if you are pumping or not. If you are, ask yourself if this is something you actually like, or a bad habit you have fallen into. There are thereminists who consciously and deliberately disconnect notes because they like it. That's fine, although it is something that no decent teacher of any instrument, or voice coach, would put up with. 

There ain't no accountin' fer taste. The important thing is that you KNOW what you're doing and why you're doing it, and that you be aware of the effect it is liable to have on your listeners. 



Posted: 10/21/2012 12:49:37 PM

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

Joined: 12/17/2010

I tend to dip my volume hand often, i have to admit. But it seems that even if I dip my hand, the notes are not totally cut off and still are connected. I know it is not really a desired trait . But it is something I am working on every day :)

Posted: 10/21/2012 1:20:14 PM

From: A Coruña, Spain

Joined: 9/26/2010

I have that bad habit too. When I play a slow, easy piece, or a medium-difficulty (for me) piece that I've trained a lot, I don't do it (or at least not a lot). But when I play something that is fast or that I'm not very familiar with, I do it all the time.

I think it's because it takes some concentration to use the volume hand well. So if the melody is hard enough that it takes 100% of my concentration to try to get the pitch right, my left hand automatically pumps because it's something that can be done almost without thinking.

Posted: 10/21/2012 4:08:43 PM
Jeff S

From: N.E. Ohio

Joined: 2/14/2005

Next to hitting the right pitches and playing in key, "pumping" is one of the biggest challenges a beginning (and perhaps intermediate) theremin player has to overcome.  It is apparently a natural tendency since it seems everyone does it at first.  I think the problem most people have is we are so anxious to "play something" that we ignore practicing on playing technique.  I have to admit, I am as guilty as the next person.

I recently listened to some of the last recordings I made of my playing (a few years ago), and I was amazed how much I was still "pumping", although not to an extreme, even after years of practice.  I'm happy to say I have largely overcome that tendency.

Some may say I am not qualified to offer advice, but I will offer this.  To overcome "pumping" you must spend time practicing only your expression technique.  That would mean you must play some thing relatively easy and simple and not allow yourself to think about hitting the right pitch during that time.  You must practice crescendo's, decrescendo's, and volume control (expression).

The next step is to add phrasing and vibrato control to the mix.  The goal is to make a single, sustained note sound interesting.  Again, playing something very simple and not thinking about hitting the correct pitches during this time.

Then,...slowly...insidiously, your new skills will be infused into your playing.

Posted: 10/21/2012 4:29:47 PM

From: Hillsborough, NC (USA)

Joined: 2/13/2005

I'm glad you brought up this subject.  So much attention is paid to pitch antenna technique when we discuss theremin performance that the volume hand technique is often ignored.  Perhaps it's because the volume technique doesn't matter all that much if pitch is too far off key :)

Posted: 10/21/2012 4:31:40 PM

From: Eastleigh, Hampshire, U.K. ................................... Fred Mundell. ................................... Electronics Engineer. (Primarily Analogue) .. CV Synths 1974-1980 .. Theremin developer 2007 to present .. soon to be Developing / Trading as WaveCrafter.com . ...................................

Joined: 12/7/2007

A question.. Is there any merit (from a perspective of learning) in playing the theremin without using the volume antenna at all?

If one is focussed on getting the pitch right, without the distraction of controlling the dynamics, and then when one has mastered the pitch and can move from note to note without the "gliss" being objectionably noticable , moved on incorperating volume dynamics - would this help?

I have never mastered even rudamentary control of dynamics - I am "ok" when playing pitch - but as soon as I try to move my volume hand in a useful way, everything collapses into a tuneless mess.. So I am certainly not trying to give advice here (unusually, LOL ;-) just asking a probably lame question..


Posted: 10/21/2012 4:48:34 PM

From: Scotland

Joined: 9/27/2012

Fred beat me to it I think.
For much of the time I have my theremin set up as a pitch only theremin which means that although I still have my hand above the volume antenna (well it has to go somewhere), the volume remains the same.

With this arrangement I try to work on getting the pitch right.

Now and again I'll put the volume antenna back into function and have a shot at doing both but I have to say that I have seen videos of people playing the thing and have been aware of the 'pumping' affliction and do try to keep well away from doing that.

I think it is pretty natural for the volume hand initially to drop because it's not doing anything so the result is a kind of slow oscillation from quiet to loud when the person realises that they have dropped the hand. Also as Jeff S above mentioned, moving the volume hand about seems like the thing to do because at least it's doing something.

My theremin is configured so that dropping the volume hand increases the volume so my problem (well one of them at least) is to keep quiet rather than loud.

Posted: 10/21/2012 5:33:47 PM

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

Joined: 12/17/2010

Can I post a video of mine and you all can tell me if my volume hand acts "normally" or I could improve much more its behavior? I want to ask permission before I just post it...

Posted: 10/21/2012 8:43:26 PM

From: Canada

Joined: 8/1/2008

Amey, go ahead and post your video. I'm not sure why you are asking permission - but YOU GOT IT.

I'd be happy to rip it to shreds!

"I don't need anyone to tear my theremin playing apart. I can do that quite nicely myself, thank you very much!" Charles Richard Lester  (LOL)

Posted: 10/21/2012 9:07:57 PM

From: Colmar, France

Joined: 12/31/2007

I tell my students (who are mostly amateurs) to work on a new piece in the following manner:

1st phase (pitch and rhythm): turn the amp's volume low, put the left hand behind your back and learn to play the piece in pitch (and in time) without "sliding and smearing" between the notes.

2nd phase (right hand articulation): use still only the right hand to add the most possible phrasing to the piece (vibrato speed and depth, shaping the transitions between tones).

3rd phase (left arm dynamics): Use the left arm for dynamics and more distinguishable shaping of the musical phrases. The height of the elbow should be an indicator for the absolute volume (the louder the higher) and the forearm should vary within the given range to shape the phrases.

4th phase (left hand tone shaping): Now, and only now, slight movements of the left hand may be used to optimize the shaping of only those individual notes there where a satisfying result could not be obtained during phase 2.

I found this method working best for myself, even when it takes much time and you go through boring episodes. Thus I decided to transmit it also to my handful of students and (up to now) none of them is pumping.

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