Theremin Quest: Getting Started

As a lifelong musician/cheesy movie fan, the theremin has always had a special place in my heart. The only thing that kept me from getting one was the instruments notorious difficulty.

That and the fact that I had no idea where to begin.

So, what is a theremin? The history of the instrument is worth checking out, and the science behind it is wild. Long story short, a contactless musical instrument where you change pitch by interacting with the theremin’s electrical field. To some, it is a hellish noisemaker — a love child born after David Bowie got freaky in a room full of Furbies. The sounds of sci-fi movies and Devo ripoffs. That’s what I thought at first, and is one of the reasons I wanted to explore the instrument.

After months of being almost completely deaf, my hearing aids came back from the shop. I dove into Spotify and basked in music. At some point in my binge, Clara Rockmore came up.

Clara’s music is like one of those paintings you might walk by dozens of times. Only when you stop to take it in do you realize it is a masterpiece. There is incredible emotion in Clara’s phrasing, and great precision.

Clara Rockmore

I explored a bit more and discovered even more amazing artists using this odd instrument.

Even though I couldn’t afford it, I went ahead and ordered a Moog Etherwave Theremin and a Peavy keyboard amp. I was burning to get started. How hard could this be?

“No Mr. Bond I expect you to die!”

How hard could it be? Well, holy crap. Playing theremin is like performing self dental surgery on the deck of a tall ship in high seas while wearing roller skates as a person — a person who holds no warm feelings for you, clobbers you about the head and shoulders with a fungo bat.

Reading about theremin is like reading about bull fighting. It is easy to speak of bulls until you stand in front of a charging beast. It is easy to talk about theremins until you try to play one.

I turned on my Etherwave and brought my hands to the theremin’s antennae. The result was akin to placing a coronet to the anus of an elephant that had been eating Kramer’s Beef-A-Reeno. Screeching wails that were worse than nails on a chalkboard. Buzzing, clicking, farting, and other hellish noises filled the air.

I stepped back and tried again. Slower this time.

It may help if you understand the challenge. Music is twelve notes. I know that seems like a limited pallet, but everything beautiful has a simple heart.

Musicians label the notes with the letters A through G with a half-step between each pair of letters except between B and C, E and F.

Your half step is either a sharp (#) or a flat (b.)

The half step between A and B can be called either A# or Bb. A# means that the A note is raised one half step higher. Bb is the B note lowered one half step. A# and Bb are the same note and the other half steps follow the same pattern.

So, with all twelve notes laid out you have the chromatic scale:

A  A#/Bb  B  C  C#/Db  D  D#/Eb  E  F  F#/Gb  G  G#/Ab

This pattern repeats in either direction in higher or lower octaves

Imagine a single guitar string tuned to a D note.

If the string had frets, we would know that the fretboard follows the half steps of chromatic scale.

D  D#/Eb  E  F  F#/Gb  G  G#/Ab A  A#/Bb  B  C  C#/Db  D

Even playing slide guitar we have the frets to help us move from note to note.

With the theremin, I need to move my hands within the electrical fields of the antennae to play the notes. With a limited range, this would be hard. I am pretty sure my Etherwave has at least three full octaves between me and the antennae... Let me put it this way: I need a hug right now.

I stopped for a couple of days to ask myself if I wanted to forge ahead. My skills on the banjo put me in a unique category. In some circles I am famous — and that is nice. In other circles I am infamous — and that is freaking awesome. The theremin was going to strip that away and take me back to basics. While that is a scary prospect, terrifying even... I fought through my handicaps to make music in a search to communicate. Banjo and guitar got me close to that, but not enough. I taught myself to write, but not well enough. The raw simplicity of the theremin, manipulating a single tone with nothing but your body and mind… This could be the voice I have been searching for. Better to start over to reach my goal than to stay safe and stagnate.

So, I went back to it. Headphone pressed hard against my one semi-functional ear. Breathe deep, move oh so slowly and find. One. Clear. Note.

I closed my eyes dialed it in the way lefty taught me.

When I was in high school, I would skip school to hang out in this sleazy guitar shop. I would give Lefty, the guy behind the counter, banjo lessons. In return, Lefty would help me with the guitar.

One long-ago afternoon, Lefty tuned his banjo without an electronic tuner. The coolest thing I had ever seen. Like a magic trick. I asked him how he did that, he said, “Pay attention to how things feel and imagine the display from your tuner in your mind.”

It sounded like the ramblings of an old stoner —and it was, but Lefty could play guitar. So, I started playing attention to how sounds/notes felt and imagining the dial of my tuner in my mind.

It took a long time, but now I can tune my instruments without a tuner. It’s not perfect pitch, at least I don’t think it is, but, over time, I learned how to feel the intervals in a scale. I was confident that I would be able to do the same with the theremin.

One. Clear. Note.

The world is full of unused instruments gathering dust. People usually start with a head full of daydreams and quit when it turns out that it takes work. Not me.

Take a break. Make some tea. Go back to it. Lather, rinse and repeat.

After trying over and over, I could get individual notes. I felt like a man in a room full of flying mud trying to stay clean. Every motion set the instrument off. Every note was sour. Even with my hearing aids, it was going to take time to make music with this contraption — and I was up to the task.

Never give up. Never quote Tim Allen! That’s my saying.

Once I could get a clear note, the next challenge was playing scales and modes.

Scales and modes are sequences of notes selected by a pattern from the chromatic scale. Think of it as the color pallets musicians use to paint melodies.

On fretted instruments, scales and modes are easy to visualize — and multiple strings ensure the player will not need to perform acrobatics to play a scale.

On the theremin, you have to move your hand in three dimensions of space in the proper number of half steps to play a melody in key. It is incredibly difficult.

Katica Illényi

Watching a video of Katica Illényi playing the theme from Once Upon A Time in the West, I can’t help but be blown away by the precision — but this is like musical Kendo in that the precision is effortless and deeply emotional.

Carolina Eyck
Pamelia Kurstin

I started making some progress, but then my hearing aids went wonky again, putting me in the situation where I can hardly hear myself talk.

Not being able to hear made my theremin aspirations akin to a Chihuahua in love with a Great Dane. Even with a ladder, this was going to be complicated.

So, I put my Etherwave aside and promised myself that I would return as soon as I could. I needed my hearing aids!

A few weeks ago, I read about the Moog Theremini:

The Theremini’s sound engine captures the vast sonic vocabulary of Moog synthesizers and effects allowing for an infinite range of styles and tones. The front panel features a multi function LCD screen which displays a chromatic tuner with real-time feedback of each note as it is played. This is a useful tool for correcting a player’s position and pitch for each note. https://www.moogmusic.com/news/introducing-moog-theremini

In other words, I would have visual feedback and help to finding the scale intervals.

Already in possession of one theremin I could not play, I started looking for a Theremini. A friend helped me locate one. After a few hours agonizing over the raw impracticality of it, ordered the Theremini.

At first I thought this an as-seen-on-TV hair removal device, but it’s actually a powerful musical instrument!

I now own two theremins. I named them both Darryl. “Hi. I’m Patrick. This is my theremin Daryl and my other theremin Darryl.”

Out of the box (and after reading the manual), the Theremini is as temperamental as the Etherwave. You can’t just wave your arms like a Muppet at it… Well, you can wave your arms like a Muppet at your theremin, but there is a good chance your cat will attack you. Trust me on this, I have scars.

Slowing down and experimenting with the controls, the Theremini is allowing me to begin finding melodies. I love the ancient sounds of Turlough O’Carolan on this electronic instrument. “Old Joe Clark” and “Soldier’s Joy” is fun too.

I have a long way to go with the theremin. Eventually, I will get my hearing aids working and get back to learning how to control the more responsive Etherwave. I also want to pick up some effects pedals to experiment with. The great thing is that there is both no rush and no end to the process.

Clara Rockmore wrote a book on theremin that is worth reading. She writes, “you don’t need hammers to work with air.” I am both inspired and challenged by that statement. I have been using my hands as blunt instruments for the last 51 years. Now I am learning an instrument where I need to let strength go and be gentle. That is pretty cool.

I will post updates from time to time on my progress with the theremin. I hope you give this amazing instrument a try. It is challenging, but in all the good ways.

Patrick Costello
Crisfield, Maryland
2/27/2021

A broken cyborg awaiting repairs.