Bonding with the theremin

Posted: 8/11/2013 12:47:35 AM

From: Canada

Joined: 8/1/2008

We should probably have told poor PBO that one of the defining characteristics of the wonderful world of the theremin is that nobody agrees with anybody, and everybody is RIGHT.


Thierry, the question here was about "bonding" with the instrument from a "mental/psychological, ideas/rituals" point of view. This was not what we might think of as a scholarly question. It was more of a psycho-emotional question, and it seemed appropriate to give a psycho-emotional answer, rather than some absurdly haughty advice about the importance of first studying the violin and "refreshing" one's knowledge of music theory and history!


I looked at PBO's picture (zany and cute) and offered an answer I thought fit the question and the questioner.


As for painting and decorating the cabinet of an Etherwave theremin, Bob Moog himself thought it was very important, and made it a major part of his personal Etherwave-building workshops (I attended one of these back in 1997 in Portland, Maine). It is not true that people do not customize violins, cellos, pianos, and other so-called "traditional" instruments. Many highly successful, professional musicians have done exactly that! Since the Etherwave theremin has no tradition, and it's cabinet has all the flair and panache of a shoebox, I see no reason why someone should refrain from using their imagination in putting their own stamp on it.


I do not see this as treating the theremin, or its inventor, with disrespect. On the contrary, it often seems to be quite the opposite - an act of love of the instrument. One of my RCA theremins was once the property of Julius Goldberg, personal assistant and business partner of Lev Termen, and he customized his instrument by removing the conventional antennas and replacing them with wildly Art Deco "lightning bolts"! Was this "complete idiocy"? I don't think so.


I think it was wonderful!


PBO, YOU GO FOR IT! And as the Wizard said to Dorothy, "Pay no attention to the little man behind the screen".  LOL



Posted: 8/11/2013 1:50:46 AM
randy george

From: Los Angeles, California

Joined: 2/5/2006

 I agree with what Jason said. but I would add to that.  If your intention is to play tonal/melodic  music with the theremin, then it is very important to begin building a sensitivity to interval widths... for this, you will need a fixed note reference instrument.  a tuned piano or digital piano will be best.    Play the long notes, as Jason suggested, but only after playing the reference tones for your ears with the piano.

play two-note intervals on the piano to build an aural memory of the width of the intervals, then play them on your theremin, record yourself with a digital recorder, and compare your intervals on the theremin with the intervals as you played them on the piano.

the next thing that would be good would be to sustain a note on the theremin, while a single fixed pitched instrument is holding the same note, (maybe a sustained flute-like sound, with no vibrato on a digital keyboard with a sustain pedal... maybe get a friend to help) and increase your awareness of the 'beating' that occurs when the two instruments playing in unison are out of tune. 

 this will eventually help you to hit the center of notes that are part of the intervals, because your pitch hand/arm's muscle memory will develop according to what you 'hear' internally. eventually, the goal is to rely more on your muscle memory than your ears to hit notes on center or correct missed notes as quickly as possible while you are in the middle of a performance. 

there's my couple of cents,   good luck in your journey!


-edit- I just realized these suggestions are not really for bonding with the instrument in a mental/psychological/ritualistic way, but maybe it could still be helpful...

Posted: 8/11/2013 2:04:31 AM

From: Bowling Green, Ohio

Joined: 7/29/2013

Ha, zany and cute. That's the first time I've ever heard myself described as that!

Anyway, thanks everyone for the advice. Musically, I know I might be a bit in over my head, as I haven't studied the piano seriously in almost ten years, but I do my fair share of reading up on music theory and like to think I have a decent ear, at least. I really do appreciate everyone's input on developing an attachment to the theremin. As silly as this may sound, I like to bond with instruments as I learn them and treat them almost like a pet. In my opinion, having that connection to the instrument itself helps the player to really emote through their music and play with more passion than one who simply picks the instrument up and hammers out a few lifeless notes.

Oh, and don't get me wrong. I may have a rather silly photograph, but I do take my music somewhat seriously. My favourite genres to play and study are jazz (maybe not quite as easily on the theremin, but I can always try), and musical theater/classical (a bit more fitting, I suppose) along with old folk tunes.

Again, thanks for the input. I might be thinking up some new decorations for her.


By the way, coalport, I do agree that the lightning bolts make for an interesting touch. I read on your website that they don't work quite so well with precision playing; exactly how much does it distort the ability to properly play? I find the idea rather fascinating.


Oh, and yes, the suggestions for sustaining notes are helpful. I may be looking to grow closer to my theremin, but I'm also learning how to play her! Every suggestion helps.

Posted: 8/11/2013 11:04:36 AM

From: Canada

Joined: 8/1/2008

PBO wrote: By the way, coalport, I do agree that the lightning bolts make for an interesting touch. I read on your website that they don't work quite so well with precision playing; exactly how much does it distort the ability to properly play? I find the idea rather fascinating.




What you get with a "lightning bolt" pitch antenna is what I call "the Christmas Tree Effect". 


Normally, with a straight, vertical pitch antenna, your electromagnetic field is a barrel-shaped zone that extends outward 360 degrees evenly around the rod. If you hold your pitch hand at a distance of 8 inches from the antenna and then raise and lower your hand (up and down) it is still consistently eight inches away regardless of how high or low it is.


The electromagnetic field surrounding a lightning bolt antenna has an odd configuration that seems to be something like the shape of a Christmas tree. If you raise and lower your hand within the field, there will be subtle fluctuations in pitch that do not happen with a standard rod. This is because with the lightning bolt the distance of your hand from the antenna will vary because the antenna itself is configured so that the distance is not consistent. 


I have found that I can use the antenna effectively and minimize the "Christmas Tree Effect" by turning it in its socket so that the angles are not pointing straight at me. The lightning bolt volume antenna does not interfere in any way with control. 


BTW, another thing you can do to "bond" with your instrument (I hope this doesn't further horrify poor Thierry who is already sufficiently disgusted with all of this) is to give it a name. You know, sort of like B. B. King and his guitar "Lucille". Many classical musicians do this but they don't advertise it because they feel for many of their fans anthropomorphizing in this way might seem childish, or lacking in dignity and "gravitas".







Posted: 8/11/2013 12:10:54 PM

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

Joined: 12/17/2010

Sheeesh... Some people are really... really uptight! "Loosening up" might be a really good first advice when it comes to play the theremin. Ooh, and make sure you don't play elevator-ish kind of music on the theremin cause doing this might be a disgace to Clara Rockmore, and the instrument. :P Anyway...

I like what Coalport wrote "Give your theremin a name". All my theremins have names :) and I also have decorated mine too to some extent. I have a ritual when I start playing ~ maybe for 5-10 mins, I have a candle burning near me, and I just start playing random notes, intervals, vibrato, no vibrato, staccato, legato, high, low... Just to warm up my fingers, sharpen my senses and re-vive this intangible bond between me and the theremin :) Believe it or not, I keep a word document on my computer titled "Theremin Journey ~ started April 2011" And write my feelings, what I've discovered, what made me laugh, and cry etc. 

Another piece of advice is to look up as many thereminists on YT (or the net) as possible so you start getting a concise idea of you you like as a player/performer etc. Cause when you start playing, you'll somewhat copy part of their technique. You'll make wonderful self discoveries while playing the theremin... I hope you will share them with us :)

Posted: 8/11/2013 2:15:29 PM

From: Canada

Joined: 8/1/2008



Keeping a theremin diary or journal is a great idea. I have kept one for years, but it is public.....a.k.a. Theremin World & LevNet.


Don't be too hard on Thierry. The great thing about him is that he is totally honest and says exactly what he thinks. I love that - even when I am on the receiving end of his negative criticism (as I am in his above post). He has the heart and soul of an artist, he is a kind and gentle person (I'll bet he's a fabulous dad) and he feels passionately about music in general, and about the theremin in particular. 


He has also been a tremendous boon to the technical world of the theremin because he has expertise that few possess and a willingness to apply what he knows, in a practical way, to the instrument. 


Thierry is EXTREMELY sensitive and contrary to what you may think, he can be very easily hurt and/or upset. This is part of what makes him such an interesting and complex person. I value everything he says whether or not I agree with it. I've been in show business so long that everything washes off me like water on a duck. Unfortunately, I have never fully realized that this is not the case with others and I can be unintentionally hurtful without ever knowing it (but I guess you know that already).


I take nothing personally and probably should. Others do take things personally and probably shouldn't!



Posted: 8/11/2013 4:06:17 PM

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

Joined: 12/17/2010


I am not being too hard I think... I am also being honest with my feelings as you or him (or anyone willing to share what the feel like on this forum or net for that matter). You reap the seeds that you sow :) When someone is living by these rules, it comes down to also "what ever you fling out, you must be able to take it back as well".

I do agree with you that he has contributed to the theremin technical part of it, that he seems to be a good father and all of that good stuff. I do not doubt that he is a great person; A little relunctant to see alternate ways to viee things and a little crude in how he puts it out there, but A Nice fellow overall :)

Posted: 8/11/2013 5:27:33 PM

From: Brooklyn,NY

Joined: 12/1/2009

I'd recommend getting familiar with how the instrument works (basically)   and  how to perform the  retuning procedure.   You should check out the EM magazine article by Bob Moog- 'building the EM theremin'  and the  Etherwave Hotrodding manual.

Posted: 8/11/2013 6:17:57 PM

From: Bowling Green, Ohio

Joined: 7/29/2013

Thanks again. I do like the suggestion of naming my theremin. I like to give all my instruments names and wasn't sure if there were any other musicians (besides guitarists, of course) who gave names to them. I'm still trying to find a name that I think suits her, but soon enough, she'll have one!

The journal is also a great idea. It never occurred to me to actually write down everything I feel and accomplish while learning to play with the theremin.


I do appreciate Thierry's honesty. He definitely sounds like he knows what he's talking about and I respect him for speaking his mind. Of course, I might deviate a bit from his advice since I'm stubborn about carving my own path and don't like to be told no, but like Coalport said, wutcanyadoo. :)

Posted: 8/11/2013 6:27:53 PM

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

Joined: 12/17/2010

For me, writing a journal is all about how I feel on a certain day... like what will help contribute to a session of great playing and also to a not so good session. Lots of same things come up; tiredness, headache, hard day at work... but also one thing I've learned, is that what you feel ~ will show through your theremin playing. The theremin is totally translating your feelings. There is no hiding!

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