Theremin Quest: Midnight On The Ether

Patrick Costello
5 min readMar 19, 2021

In 2009, while I was still waiting for my Bone Anchored Hearing Aid (BAHA) to be activated, I spent a week in the tropical heat of a Kansas summer teaching music at a special needs summer camp.

Patrick giving a banjo lesson at Camp Adventure 2010
The author with a student at Camp Adventure. Kansas, 2009

Playing music when you are nearly deaf is a challenge. Teaching music in such circumstances presents an even greater degree of difficulty. Teaching at Camp Adventure took things to an almost surreal level of complexity.

I had to develop the entire music program on the fly. Just setting up all of the instruments took me nearly two days of around the clock work.

My students… They humble me to this day. No matter what they were facing, each little victory was cause for celebration.

I won’t piss down your back and tell you it’s raining. The music that week was never perfect. Life is not like the movies where anything can be learned in a montage. The music was rough — but I got them playing. Where it had seemed impossible, there was hope.

I think a lot about that trip lately. With my bilateral BAHA not working, I am trapped in near silence again. My hands hurt when I pick up a stringed instrument — and playing was my security blanket. When I can’t play, I get like Leo Bloom without his blue blanket.

It sucks. There are days when it is so frustrating. Thankfully, the Theremini has been a source of solace. Having pitch correction and a display allows me to keep practicing even when I can hardly hear the notes.

The display on my Theremini showing the current setting, note/octave, tuner, scale, root, and effects menu.

I wrote the folks at Moog to let them know how much I love my Etherwave and Theremini. They wrote back! I love that a company making such wonderful instruments actually cares about their customers. I guess it’s time to start saving up for a synthesizer… Maybe a music studio in a hollowed out volcano.

I’m Patrick. This is my theremin Darryl. This is my other theremin Darryl.

Eventually, I will get vaccinated for Covid-19 and be able to safely visit Johns Hopkins to get my BAHA repaired. I’ll be able to send the sound from the theremin to the BAHA, blasting the music directly into my skull. When I can hear, the more powerful Etherwave will be plugged into some effects pedals, and I’m gonna boogie.

Until then, I have the tools Moog built into the Theremini to assist me.
After then, I’ll still use the Theremini because it’s freaking awesome.

The song I am playing today is Midnight on the Water, an old Texas waltz. I have included links for more information on the song as well as sheet music and ABC notation.

I almost always play by ear, but the ABC notation is pretty cool when used with the Theremini display.

I love songs like this because the melody is just an idea. It is up to the musician to expand on that idea. The song has been recorded and performed countless times. Every version is a bit different. Listen to as many arrangements as you can. Get the song into your bones. Dance to it with someone you love.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Explore for more great versions of Midnight On The Water.

In folk music the goals are not lofty. The song is a means to an end. The melody is an idea that can be played with. The song can be different each time it begins, with just a sketch of an outline for the musician to color in with artistry, technique and emotion. The joy of the moment in the moment. Being alive and using your body to manipulate twelve tones to tell our stories. To sing. To get so lost in the craft so that the limitations of our bodies, minds, and imaginations fall away like tears in soft spring rain.

There is a poem by a Buddhist monk named Ryōkan Taigu, where he describes intentionally getting lost to find your way.

A single path among ten thousand trees,
A misty valley hidden among a thousand peaks.
Not yet autumn but already leaves are falling;
Not much rain but still the rocks grow dark.
With my basket I hunt for mushrooms;
With my bucket I draw pure spring water.
Unless you got lost on purpose
You would never get this far.
Ryōkan Taigu

When I practice, I do not strive for perfection or anything else. I am playing with sound until a melody charms me and draws me off like the fairies in Yeats’ The Stolen Child.

Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a theremin, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

Woah, the lights flickered a bit when I wrote that joke. I think the spirits of my Irish ancestors don’t like me messing with Yeats — but I inherited my arthritis from them, so they can forgive me this one little tease.

It is not hard to find Midnight on the Water in the Theremin. It’s there if you are patient. I have tried practicing along with backup tracks, while singing Jim Crozat’s heartbreaking lyrics or just humming the song and allowing the Theremini to slide into the notes.

There are times when I am blue
Thinking of you and me
At midnight on the water
And how it used to be
There are stars among the trees
In some old memories I know
At midnight on the water,
Not so long ago.

Though they’re gone like floating dreams
The scenes were there as in a mirror
Made by the moon upon the water
And our love was never stronger
But the picture was broken by the waves we left behind
At midnight on the water
Once upon a time.

It’s not going to be perfect. Nothing in this world is perfect, but I am making music. In such a transient medium, a bum note only matters if you get hung up on it. Let go and just fall into the song like a leaf drifting into a still pond. Like midnight on the water.

Practice never makes perfect. Practice makes familiar.

As familiar as home.