Take the 2-minute tour ×
Musical Practice & Performance Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for musicians, students, and enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

The main problem I have with the Theremin is identifying "anchors" to help train my muscle memory for note accuracy.

My first violin, about 35 years ago, had tape added by my instructor for the first few months to help me visually confirm my finger position. This helped to drive the correct movements from the start, and when the tape was removed I was already pretty good at moving without needing to hear the note.

I wondered what techniques were used to help in playing the Theremin, as there is no physical contact with the instrument.

share|improve this question
1  
It might help to get some advice from someone who does play the Theremin... ;) –  American Luke May 4 '12 at 1:02
3  
It did amuse me that none of these answers are from a theremin owner, let alone a player :-) –  Dr Mayhem May 4 '12 at 1:04

7 Answers 7

up vote 5 down vote accepted

I don't have a theremin, so grain of salt here, but there are ways that I've seen and heard of.

First, there's the pedal approach. Take an autotuner, like the one mentioned in this video and use it to adjust your pitch for you. Yes, this is an incredible cheat, but if I was playing out with a theremin and I wanted to be sure, I'd consider it.

Second, there's the old-fashioned way. The way I learned to play lap steel and then violin (which I'm still poor at). Tuned accompaniment. I don't know your musical background, but coming from the guitar, my concept was that G was whatever came out when I fretted the 3rd fret on the 6th string. I had little to no concept of intonation beyond that. One day, I found C6 steel guitar tab for "Sleepwalk" and I woodshedded to the point that I thought I had it. Then a friend came by. He said he knew the chords and picked up my acoustic, and I started out.

Man oh man! Was I off! I had never taken any time to teach my ears what the notes were. I'm better now, not great but better, because I've developed internal intonation to some degree. You have to play along with something so you know what you're supposed to play. You have no recourse but your own ears.

Beyond that, watch videos of Clara Rockmore, of Leon Theremin, of other great thereminists (not Jimmy Page!) and you'll see that the shape of the hand makes a great deal of difference in how they play. I believe they "fine tune" the intonation of their notes that way.

Good luck!

share|improve this answer
2  
+1 for the "not Jimmy Page!" link haha –  jadarnel27 Sep 20 '11 at 16:08
1  
There's some really nice Theremin playing in the documentary on Bob Moog. –  luser droog Nov 21 '11 at 10:28
    
@luserdroog is that available on the tubes somewhere? –  cornbread ninja Aug 23 '12 at 17:08
1  
@cornbreadninja Not sure. I caught it on netflix. Also, any performance by Clara Rockmore is bound to be amazing. She collaborated with Theremin to make the instrument more playable. –  luser droog Aug 23 '12 at 19:51
    
@luserdroog thanks; I will look for it! –  cornbread ninja Aug 23 '12 at 20:02

There are lots of tips and discussions about how to play the theremin at http://www.thereminworld.com. There, you'll find people all over the world who have the same question and you can read through their tips to see what might work best for you. The best answer we've come up with seems to be - LOTS of practice in whatever works best for YOU. Another powerful tip - never emulate the playing style of a theremin player whose music doesn't sound great to you.

share|improve this answer
    
Are you aware of any particular threads on that site that address note accuracy? –  naught101 Sep 16 '12 at 7:31
1  
I'm sure there are many. Here is one example found by searching the site: thereminworld.com/Forums/T/24802/… –  Joe Future Sep 16 '12 at 13:49

After I read VarLogRant saying

...coming from the guitar, my concept was that G was whatever came out when I fretted the 3rd fret on the 6th string.

I sympathize.

While this may be slightly off-topic, I feel compelled to add a second answer that I think will be useful to musicians everywhere.

If you study music in music college, you have to take two years of lessons in what is called ear training. In this discipline you learn musical intervals, tuning and intonation without reference to a musical instrument. You learn to hear intervals and short melodies, and sing them back to the instructor. Then you go on to learn how to analyze the intervals and tunings in increasingly elaborate melodies, and to sing them back (tonal memory) and write them down (transcription). You also learn to recognize chords and chord progressions by ear and to write those down also. While you are doing this you have similar exercises at hearing and recognizing increasingly complex rhythmic patterns (temporal acuity), playing them back by tapping your hands on a tabletop, and writing them down.

Singers and players of fretless string instruments like violin have an easier time with ear training. I'm a singer so the intervals and melodies and being in tune came easy to me (while rhythms, temporal acuity and chord progressions were quite a bit more tricky for me to learn). But ear training was very difficult for some of my fellow students who were guitarists or saxophone players or what have you.

So to anybody on any instrument who realizes they need to intuitively find all kinds of intervals and melodies, and to be in tune with the other instruments and voices, I say: Pursue some ear training lessons. Learn to hear all that music in great detail in your head, not just to reproduce it under your fingers.

share|improve this answer
    
My introduction to ear training was that day with the lap steel, and it was a significant hit with the clue stick. That being said, YES. Ear training is crucial. –  VarLogRant Aug 23 '12 at 3:39
    
+1 to ear training. Too many theremin players take on the instrument without any sort of trained ability to identify intervals, let alone individual notes. I've played for about 15 years, and I still can't hit an individual note out of the blue. But, if you get me started with a reference tone, I can play any interval off that you wish. –  Joe Future Aug 23 '12 at 15:01

Hm! Interesting question, but I think you may be looking in the wrong direction--learning hand positions for different absolute pitches, like you were doing for violin with the tape, is neither practical nor necessary:

  • The concert theremin has a pitch knob, so the moment you change it, all of your positions are wrong.
  • The pitch generated is affected by far more than just your hand--your entire body's proximity to the antenna changes how pitches respond.

The theremin is just not possible to play well without a highly sensitive ear--which makes it just about as close to the nature of the human voice as any instrument, really. The technique you can develop, however, is that of relative pitch changes so that you are more accurate at the start of the note, before you adjust with your ear:

  • The hand positions you see professional theremin players make are used to effect changes in pitch of relative intervals, like a 2nd or a 5th. These are essentially using your hand's own anatomy as a physical reference point. The hand itself, though, is still placed only by aural reference.
  • This can be practiced by just going from one note to another, and then back again at a particular interval. You'll want a drone of some sort for tuning purposes to make sure your pitches don't shift gradually up or down.
  • It's impossible to start a note from silence without crescendoing into it from nothing, and doing this in the low register with lots of vibrato gets you some wiggle room since a listener will hear those notes less clearly than those in the upper register. You have probably seen this with many lyrical pieces played on theremin--they start low and only climax at a high point after spending much time working in the higher register--at that point you're working in the relative pitch zone in a much more constrained physical space, so it's easier to accomplish.

This isn't as much cheating as VarLogRant's autotune suggestion, but professional theremins do come with a non-amplitude-modulated preview mode, where the pitch will be piped through a headphone jack prior to it being affected by the left hand antenna. This allows the player to hear what pitch will be generated before lifting the left hand and allowing it to play through the speaker.

Outside of all the above, really the best thing to do is work on your ear training, sing along as you play, and work with a backing track or tuning drone whenever possible. The best technique to work on would be relative hand positions for interval motions, as mentioned above.

share|improve this answer

I don't play the theremin, but I used to be friends with the late Dr. Robert Moog (who developed and marketed the Etherwave Theremins) and his family. [I know, I'm an incorrigible name-dropper.]

I've seen an instructional video that Moog Music sells, entitled Mastering the Theremin, featuring Lydia Kavina. They sell copies that come with a Moog theremin kit; contact them and see if you can buy one by itself.

Also, Lydia Kavina teaches master classes throughout the world. Check out her schedule here. She will be giving a master class at Oxford, UK on May 26, 2012. The class will accept beginners.

share|improve this answer

Non-theremin-owner number three :)

  1. Play along with recorded music, preferably music that uses standard pitch.

  2. Get a guitar tuner with a mic input, preferably an analog one with a needle that can "react" to pitch changes faster, and preferrably one with chromatic tuning (ie all 12 notes). Use it to practice "tuning".

One of the things professional teachers of guitar all say is that when you're starting to play, get a good tuning aid and tune your guitar with it regularly. The reason is that it means your ear gets used to what notes sound like when they're in pitch. I can attest that this is a good suggestion because I started off on keyboard before playing guitar and I seem to have an especially keen ear for how in-tune my guitar is. I imagine the same principle applies to playing a theremin.

share|improve this answer

I don't have a theremin either, so, same pinch of salt -- although I have a musical saw which I suppose has the same issues.

I suggest always practising with a backing track, so you know by ear when you're getting it right.

An approach that might suit you is to sweep into the opening note -- start at an arbitrary low note, and quickly home in on the right pitch. Vibrato also gives you some elbow room :)

share|improve this answer
2  
+1 for vibrato - very useful trick:-) –  Dr Mayhem Sep 20 '11 at 15:23

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.