Conducting the Symphony 1: The Theremin

So I have a new toy — I received a theremin for Christmas. If you’re not familiar with theremins, they are (in my opinion) the coolest musical instrument ever created. It’s an electronic instrument that was invented in the 1920s, and it is played with your body, but without touching it. If you’ve never heard a theremin, check out this video:

I have been talking about getting a theremin for years, mainly because it is so cool. I had always hemmed and hawed about it, partially because I always felt like it was a waste of money because I don’t deserve to have something like that. But this year, when I’m feeling more positive about myself than I have in years, I decided it was time. I asked my wife for one for Christmas. The one I got is the Moog Theremini. (I purchased it at Sweetwater.) And I have to say, it is every bit as cool as I expected it to be. The only problem is…

…I feel like the dog who caught the car he was chasing. What do I do with it now? You mean I have to learn how to play this thing? I’ve read that the theremin is often considered one of the most difficult musical instruments to learn. That’s partially because there’s no tactile feedback at all. When you play a piano, you know you’re playing the right note because you can feel it. When you play the guitar, you feel your fingers on the frets and on the strings. But with the theremin, you don’t touch anything. The tone that plays is based on where your fingers are in relation to the pitch antenna, and the only way to know if it’s the note you wanted is by listening — or maybe over time you can get a vivid sense of where your fingers should be in the air, but that’s not a thing you learn quickly.

Now, I don’t have a tin ear, and I have a little bit of experience playing the piano and singing. But by no means do I have perfect pitch, nor is musicianship something that comes naturally to me. If I want to learn to play the theremin, it’s going to be hard for me. Really hard. And even though I love to learn, I get very easily frustrated when learning something that doesn’t come easily to me. I am pretty sure that this won’t come easily to me. So it would be very easy for my Theremini to quickly become a rather pricy conversation piece. I could keep it in the living room so people ask me, “What’s that?” And I’d say, “It’s a theremin.” And they’d either say, “That’s so cool!” or they’d say, “What on earth is a theremin?” And after I explained, they’d say, “Play something for me!” And I’d say, “I can’t. But I can make noises with it. Check it out.”

I want to learn. But I know I’ll just get frustrated — it’s what I do. So I came up with a plan to defuse my frustration. I found a set of theremin lessons on YouTube. The series has over fifty video lessons, and my plan is to watch them all. My goal is to watch each lesson, and learn something from it. I am confident that I can do that — I can learn something from them. At the end of the videos, maybe I’ll have learned how to play, and maybe I won’t have. And I’m okay with that. Instead of this seeing this as a chance for me to learn to play this instrument, I’m seeing this as an opportunity to explore my own comfort zone, and find ways to trick myself into getting outside that zone.

I’m actually very confident that I can achieve this, because it’s kind of what I’ve been doing for the past two years with Duolingo, the language-learning app I have on my phone. Duolingo has received mixed reviews about its effectiveness in teaching languages, but one thing I can vouch for is that it’s fun. The way it’s set up is completely gamified, teaching lessons in small chunks that give you experience points and bonuses. I have been learning Spanish for quite a while now, and I currently have a 716-day streak of doing at least one lesson a day. Am I fluent in Spanish? Hardly. But I definitely have more Spanish knowledge than I did before. And I’m confident that if I ever really want to become a Spanish speaker, it will be much easier for me because of my Duolingo experience. And it just feels good to learn something with it every day. My experience with Duolingo gives me confidence that I can learn with the theremin in a similar way — I can learn something with each of these videos, and along the way, I’ll probably gain at least a little proficiency with the instrument.

I watched the first video yesterday. It was brief. The teacher didn’t play his theremin at all. The point of the video was to explain that there are many different ways to stand in front of a theremin while playing, many different stances you can have, and that none of them are better than another — you have to figure out what’s right for you, and go with it. Whatever feels right as you play, embrace that. My first reaction was to say, “That’s it? That’s a lesson?” Then I realized how helpful and beautiful that was. It meant that I was free. I didn’t have to learn the “right” way to play, but I could explore and make this my own. It felt so empowering and freeing.

I have more to say about this theremin learning, and that will be in a post tomorrow. And then I’ll get back to the “Rhythm of Resilience” after that. I’m positively bubbling with things to write right now!

Image by M. H. from Pixabay

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