Theremin Quest: The Electric Fields of Rosin The Beau

The first thing I learned over the last two days is that a Moog Theremini through a Peavy KB1 amp can produce sounds that only exist in the section of hell where they punish bagpipers. I am sure it will be lovely once I have some control over the instrument, but, right now, it sounds like a cat trying to verbalize the ugliness of a vintage polyester leisure suit.

My neighbors two houses down are still mad.

Besides, with the little speaker built into the Theremini, I have enough volume to practice.

Practicing, it was tempting to turn the pitch correction knob all the way on and have the notes come out with no effort. I still have to fish around in the ether to find the note I am looking for, but the autocorrect snaps every note into tune. It works well, but if used heavily it starts to feel too precise. Even vibrato, the heart and soul of this lovely buzzing box of melodies, becomes impossible as the note remains in place.

Backing off the correction knob, the playing experience become precarious. The Theremini still nudges my notes back to pitch like a sheepdog keeping its flock in formation, but there is a lot of room for sliding and vibrato and little slides like bends on a fretted instrument.

My cats were not as enraptured by the tones as I.

Meatball, a massive feral Maine Coon that decided to live here (he’s too big to argue with) gave me a long glowering look of disapproval before marching off to trash my bathroom. Pooka, a mean tortoiseshell calico, howled and clawed at my leg — then, hours later as I was getting something from the bottom shelf of the pantry, the beast jumped on my back forcing me to scream like a child while running in a circle waving a bag of flour over my head. The neighbors caught a glimpse of the fracas and thought we were creating a three-dimensional recreation of Picasso’s Guernica.

Sure, Beethoven wrote symphonies when he was deafer than I am — but I doubt that even Ludwig had to learn the theremin while a tortoiseshell calico named after the most fearsome spirit of Irish folklore plotted bloody revenge.

The moral of this story is: headphones are your friend. Use them, if not for your sake, but for everyone around you. It will also keep your cat from kicking your ass — and don’t tell me you can win a fight against an angry house cat. I have been beat up by professionals and did not bleed as much as when I make Pooka mad.

Once I was ready to practice, the question came up: what do I practice? How do I practice?

When I play other instruments I use my voice as a starting off point. Even when I play an instrumental, I am singing inside my mind. Dyscalculia makes reading sheet music tricky (in a Quigley Down Under kind of way), so I use my voice as a guide. I don’t remember notes or chords or even lyrics. I sing the song, and it just sort of happens.

And that’s what I did. I placed my left hand on the volume antenna of my Theremini and sang one of my favorite songs.

I‘ve traveled this wide world over,
And now to another I go,
And I know that good quarters are waiting
For to welcome old Rosin the Beau.
To welcome old Rosin the Beau,
To welcome of Rosin the Beau.
I know that good quarters are waiting
to
Welcome old Rosin the Beau

When I’m dead in my coffin,
A voice you will hear from below,
“Send down a hog’s head of whiskey to
Drink with old Rosin the Beau.”
To drink with old Rosin the Beau,
To drink with old Rosin the Beau.
Saying send down a hog’s head of whiskey
to
Drink with old Rosin the Beau.

Then get a half-dozen stout fellows,
And stack them all up in a row.
Let them drink out of half-gallon bottles
To remember old Rosin the Bow.
To remember old Rosin the Bow,
To remember old Rosin the Bow.
Let them drink out of half-gallon bottles
The memory of Rosin the Bow

Then get these half-dozen stout fellows,
And let them all stagger and go,
And dig a great hole in the meadow
and
In it put Rosin the Beau.
And in it put Rosin the Beau,
And in it put Rosin the Beau.
And dig a great hole in the meadow
And in it put Rosin the Beau

Then get ye a couple of bottles,
Put one at me head and me toe,
With a diamond ring scratch upon them
The name of old Rosin the Beau.
The name of old Rosin the Beau,
The name of old Rosin the Beau,
With a diamond ring scratch upon them
The name of old Rosin the Beau

I fear that old tyrant approaching,
That cruel, remorseless old foe,
And I lift up me glass in his honor
Take a drink with old Rosin the Beau.
Take a drink with old Rosin the Beau,
Take a drink with old Rosin the Beau.
And I lift up me glass in his honor
Take a drink with old Rosin the Beau.

“Rosin The Beau” is one of those folk songs so old I would not be shocked if some prehistoric paintings were accomplished by a Bob Ross looking caveman humming the melody.

I set up the Theremini on the third effects setting. I think it’s called Eire. It sounds a bit like a tin whistle. I set the tuning to a minor pentatonic blues scale with a root of C. This is a five note scale, making it a bit easier to get the feel of the intervals.

Once I was set up, I worked on my breathing a bit to calm down, and drew a C note out of the instrument. Holding that note for a reference, I sang the song until I was comfortable with the key. Then I started feeling out the melody.

It took about five or ten minutes, but I found the melody notes. The trick now was to get through the tune without too many bum notes.

Anybody who tells you practice makes perfect is repeating a saying without stopping to realize how silly it is. Nothing is perfect. In fact, perfection would be inhuman — as if life was a video game with cheat codes enabled.

No, practice makes familiar.

Perfection ain't gonna happen, but familiarity is waiting for you to show up. You want the melody of the song in your bones and the instrument should be like a big friendly dog you can wrap your arms around. So, I sang the song and had fun trying to get the notes on my glorious Moog electric tin whistle. I had so much fun that I found the melody and how to move from note to note through a combination of blind instinct and dumb luck.

The best part? I was happily making music without worrying about my arthritic hands. I even forgot that I was only hearing out of one ear or that I was standing on neuropathic feet. For that time, I was free.

If that is as far as I ever get, I would still count myself a lucky man.

After a bit, I dialed back the pitch correction. This made finding notes trickier, but it also allowed me to add that wonderful bumblebee vibrato.

I love the way I have to move my body to play this instrument. Getting the low note in “Rosin The Beau” requires me to step back, and I found myself falling back into the old karate stances — not to imply that that stances had any musical impact or import, I thought it was interesting how my past training was lending itself to this new regimen. Beyond moving my body, my right hand has to be still while my left flutters over the volume antenna. This is different from my other instruments where the right drives the rhythm, but I do not find this to be an issue. It’s refreshing.

I made progress today. You might say that I am a long way from Carnegie Hall, but any bum can rent that place. It’s as exclusive as a fleabag motel.

I’m not a long way from The Grand Ole Opry, either. I have already played on that stage. The to be expected twist (if you know me) is that wasn’t supposed to be there, but I played my banjo on that stage. It wasn’t that different from a Methodist Church covered dish supper, except frumpier.

I have made music long enough to know that goals blind you from the important stuff. Don’t worry about what you will do down the road, focus on this moment.

Today, with a Maine Coon the size of a German Shepard wrapped around my feet and a howling mad tortoiseshell clawing my back, I played one of my favorite waltzes by moving my hand through electric fields. I also had hot coffee and one of my homemade buttermilk biscuits (I bake, make music and get my ass handed to me by my cat. I am what they call a Renaissance man).

A good day, and a good song. I call that a win.

A broken cyborg awaiting repairs.