How to Play a Theremin

Theremin Techniques: Advice from the Experts

With a few tips and a lot of practice, you'll be ready for an audience, like Nick Urata of the band DeVotchKa, above.
With a few tips and a lot of practice, you'll be ready for an audience, like Nick Urata of the band DeVotchKa, above.
AP Photo/Chris Pizzello

­Although it may take years of practice before you master the instrument, some believe the theremin is worth the time and effort. Lydia Kavina has played it since she was a young girl and has become one of the most famous thereminists. In fact, she studied under the master himself, Leon Theremin. She has some pointers for beginning thereminists.

Kavina suggests that you position your feet about 1 foot (0.3 meters) apart while playing. The distance between yourself and the instrument can depend on the individual range of that theremin. If the instrument spans four octaves or less, you can stand a foot to 16 inches (0.4 meters) away. A larger range might require you to stand even farther away, depending on your purposes. If you need to take advantage of the full range, you should feel free to change your body position during the performance [source: Mattis].

She also recommends tuning the instrument -- setting the lowest note with your right hand at your shoulder. To play in tune, always keep the melody in mind, and practice the song slowly at first [source: Mattis]. A seasoned thereminist doesn't constantly move his or her whole arm back and forth to control pitch; instead, he or she uses delicate finger movements. This often involves opening and closing the hand to achieve the right notes. However, many thereminists choose not to open the whole hand but instead keep the thumb and forefinger together. Likewise, the left hand's control of volume might involve movement of the whole arm or subtle wrist movements.

So what circumstances call for actually touching the instrument? Kavina explains that touching the vertical pitch antenna can create a birdlike trill sound for special effects, and lightly striking the horizontal volume antenna mimics a groaning sound in some theremins.

Clara Rockmore, another famous thereminist, advises that you stay conscious of all your body movements. If you get emotionally wrapped up in the music, you might tend to sway or move your head. These motions can alter the electromagnetic field and affect your music [source: Mattis].

Posture also comes into play if you want to avoid developing conditions such as tendonitis or carpal tunnel syndrome. Kavina advises a straight back as one good preventive measure. But you can also perform stretching exercises for your hands to stay in top performing shape.

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