Swimming in the Air

Lydia Kavina's fundamentals of theremin technique. from EM archives - July 1999 The theremin is currently enjoying a resurgence in popularity. However,

Lydia Kavina's fundamentals of theremin technique.

from EM archives - July 1999

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The theremin is currently enjoying a resurgence in popularity. However, it is one of the most difficult instruments to play, let alone master. To play it well requires dedication, practice, and patience.

Besides being one of the first electronic musical instruments invented, the theremin was the first instrument in the world that could be played without being touched. Russian inventor Leon (or Lev) Theremin created his namesake instrument in 1919, at the age of 23. By 1928, the inventor had relocated to the United States, where he continued improving the theremin, developed new instruments, and trained a generation of thereminists until his forced return to the Soviet Union in 1937.

Lydia Kavina was Theremin's last protégé and is now the world's leading theremin virtuoso. Kavina began studying the theremin at the tender age of nine, after Theremin recognized her remarkable musical ability.

Born in 1967, she began performing publicly at age 14. She studied composition at the Tchaikovsky State Conservatory in Moscow, where she finished her postgraduate degree in 1997. She has been on the lecture staff of the Glinka Museum and is now affiliated with the Theremin Center, both located in Moscow. Recently, she was the featured soloist on Howard Shore's soundtracks for Ed Wood and eXistenZ, and has performed in productions of Alice (Hamburg) and Black Rider (Cologne), directed by Robert Wilson with music by Tom Waits. Kavina herself has composed over a dozen pieces for the theremin with ensembles, orchestras, and electronics, and continues to concertize internationally.

I conducted this conversation with Kavina by e-mail over a period of several weeks. A few of the questions were contributed by members of Levnet, an online group of theremin enthusiasts. The topics and techniques Kavina discusses will give beginning theremin players the tools they need to confidently step up to the antenna.

Does the playing technique differ on the various kinds of theremins (such as the RCA, Etherwave, Big Briar 91 series, Wavefront, Theremax, or your Henk instrument)?
The technique is very much the same. What is quite different is the distance between the notes. The intervals can be as different from one type of theremin to another as cello intervals are from those on a violin. The distances depend upon the range of the instrument as well as the linearity, or how even the distances are between the same intervals in different registers.

For example, the RCA and some Etherwave theremins have a small range and uneven distances. Theremin's late instruments, made in the 1970s and 1980s, have even distances and a six-octave pitch range. The Big Briar 91 series and the Ethervox have very even distances, and the player has a choice of ranges. For example, if you set the range at two octaves, all of the distances are equally large. If you set it for six octaves, they are all equally small.

Every player gets accustomed to the distances on his own theremin, and this makes it difficult to adjust to a different instrument. But it doesn't take too long to relearn the technique, because the main point of theremin technique is not the mechanical memory of movements. It is the ability to approximate the position of the note and then quickly correct the hand position upon hearing the pitch.

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FIG. 1: This is a page from Lydia Kavina's composition Field Sound (1997) for three theremins. In this passage, the composer uses the full dynamic and melodic ranges of the theremin. Rhythmic articulation and phrasing present further challenges for the beginning or intermediate player.

The left antenna also behaves differently on the various models. For example, the RCA has a very long delay in the volume reaction to the movements of the hand. The first Etherwave instruments had an on-off type of volume control.

On Theremin's late instruments, volume changes would cause a change in pitch when playing in the bass register. Theremin might not have heard this effect, or maybe it was a technical problem that he did not manage to solve. This was not a problem with his early instruments because they didn't even have such low bass notes.

Could you describe your instrument and how it's different from other theremins? Why do you play on a special instrument?
The instrument I currently play is a prototype that Anthony Henk made for me in 1994. Since then, he has changed it quite a bit by working with me to develop the musical characteristics of the instrument for professional use. It looks like no other theremin. It is not as reliable as I would like, but it has very good musical qualities. It has two beautiful sounds to choose from, a comfortable sensitivity in the volume antenna, and an evenness of pitch throughout its range.

Henk's instrument has a seven-octave pitch range, and it has a comfortable linearity. I call it comfortable because the distances between the notes are not perfectly even from octave to octave. In the bass register, they are a bit bigger, which feels natural. In the higher register, they are shorter, which is also comfortable because smaller movements of the arm and fingers are easier far away from the body.

How close should the player stand to the instrument?
It depends on the range of the instrument. If the range is four octaves or less, the player's distance from the instrument is about 12 to 16 inches, with the body equidistant from each antenna. If the range is larger, such as six or seven octaves, the player uses the full range by both extending the right arm (about 24 to 28 inches) and moving the body closer to the instrument or farther away, depending on the register they're playing in. So, it's not unusual to change the body's position in a pause during a piece if the register changes. The full range of the theremin is used in contemporary music such as Jorge Antunes's Mixolydia, my own Suite for Theremin and Piano, and so on (see Fig. 1).

How far apart should the feet be positioned?
About 10 to 12 inches.

Should the instrument be on or off while the player is getting into position? In other words, does finding the position depend upon hearing the note that is being played, or does the player first establish the position and then turn on the instrument?
The volume should be off. The player establishes the position first and then "tunes" the instrument, making the notes sit comfortably in this position.

Once you have found the right position in front of the theremin, how do you begin?
The player begins by tuning the instrument. The principle of tuning is to set the lowest note of the instrument while the player's right hand is at the shoulder. Then, before she begins a piece, the performer has to find the first note, with a very soft volume level if possible. The player should have the melody in her mind, even if she knows how to read music.

Tell me about the playing technique of the right hand, which controls the pitch. What is the shape of the arm, hand, and fingers as the player moves from a low note to a high note? Do the hand and arm always play as a unit, or are there times when the arm stays still, and only the hand itself moves?
The most effective way to control pitch on the theremin is to move the right hand from the shoulder (see Fig. 2) to the antenna while opening the fingers. To reduce the movements of the whole arm, the player uses a fingering technique that is based on the opening and closing of the hand (see Fig. 3).

For passages within small intervals, such as a fourth, the arm stays still and the player just uses a couple of finger positions. For larger intervals, the arm moves along with the fingers. Legato (smooth) passages are played more with the fingers. Staccato (discrete pitch) and glissando (continuous pitch) passages are played more by moving the arm.

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FIG. 2: Here, the right hand is close to the shoulder and the fingers are retracted. This is the position for the lowest note on the instrument.

What are some techniques that can help the beginner acquire control of the right hand and arm?
Begin by listening to the glissando as you move the hand from the shoulder (with a closed fist) to the antenna (with fingers extended). Next, play a glissando through two octaves with the same movement, and then play a one-octave glissando. Next, play an arpeggio, stop on each note, and learn the finger positions. Finally, play a one-octave scale and learn the finger positions of each note in the scale.

You described the different positions for the right hand as moving from a closed fist (low notes) to an open hand (high notes). In the open position, is the hand completely open? I noticed in your video Mastering the Theremin that even in the open position you keep your thumb and forefinger together, opening only the other three fingers. Is this what the beginning player should do?
This is a good question. It is not necessary to keep the thumb and forefinger together, but for some reason, all thereminists arrive at this position. Or, if they try to open the forefinger, the other fingers tend to stay in a fist, as in Clara Rockmore's playing. I think this is a psychological device, as well as a physical one. The completely open hand would not feel firm. However, in keeping the thumb and forefinger together, it's as if the player is holding the sound. This is just one psychological support for swimming in the air.

How many finger positions are there in the right hand? Can you describe them?
Between the closed fist and the open hand there are as many positions as you want. We can refer to the fist and the first three positions of the scale as the zero, first, second, and third positions.

You mentioned that a small interval such as a fourth does not require the arm to move. Does this mean that, for a one-octave scale, the player shifts position as on a violin? How many times?
Yes, the player changes the arm position after several notes. For example, Clara Rockmore would change the arm position after playing two notes up the scale, and every four notes down the scale. I change after every fourth note up the scale, and I might play eight notes down without any changes. This can be different for each player. It also depends upon the musical passage and the particular instrument.

Do you think it would be helpful for a player to practice the same musical passage three different ways: legato, staccato, and glissando?
It's a good idea to practice exercises in both staccato and legato. But when it comes to musical phrases, the player should only do this if he is trying to change the expression of a passage.

How is vibrato done, and when is it used?
Vibrato is a type of expression and should not be played in an automatic way. It is often combined with a crescendo or diminuendo and played on long, important notes, as on the violin. The width or speed of the vibrato varies, depending on the style of the music: it should be broader in dramatic pieces for a rich, violinlike sound, and more subtle for flutelike passages. Normally the width of the vibrato changes while playing long notes. For example, it might go from no vibrato through slow vibrato to fast.

The correct way to play vibrato is with small, left-to-right movements of the right hand. Some players play vibrato by shaking the hand forward and back. But this movement is difficult to control, and such vibrato sounds mechanical and too similar all the time.

How should the left hand be positioned in relation to the volume antenna? What are some techniques or exercises that the student should learn?
Volume antennae can have different sensitivities and space-control areas. Most instruments have a space-control area of about 8 to 12 inches, beginning about an inch above the volume antenna (see Fig. 4). The arm should feel free, like that of a conductor.

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FIG. 3: Three fingers are completely extended and the arm is outstretched. This position, with the thumb and forefinger held together, is the "open" position of the hand and is used to reach the upper notes of a musical phrase.

There are two functions and two basic movements of the left hand. First, movement of the wrist separates notes and phrases. This movement is quite sharp. To exercise the wrist, play repeated notes with a staccato (rapid up and down) action. At first, try this with a simple phrase, and then with a scale.

The other left-hand technique is moving the whole arm for crescendo and diminuendo. This movement is like the breath of the melody. To exercise the whole arm, play a two-note legato phrase with crescendo and diminuendo. Now try it with three notes, then four. This is quite difficult, as it requires sharp movements of the fingers of the right hand and a very smooth movement with the left arm.

What is your advice on preventing repetitive injuries in the left hand, such as carpal tunnel syndrome or tendonitis? Are there playing techniques that can help prevent such injuries?
Keep a straight back. Use every pause in the melody to energize your hand muscles, and do exercises to stretch them.

Is there ever a time when the player should touch any part of the instrument?
The player touches the instrument for special effects. For example, bird trills are made by touching the pitch antenna.

What about the volume antenna?
With some instruments, this would cause sound effects as well. For example, I would touch the volume antenna to create the effect of a groan in one of my earliest works, using one of Theremin's later instruments,.

When you play, do you have some kind of mental image in mind, some analogy? For example, some players imagine that they're playing invisible strings, or perhaps an air pressure field that increases in pressure as the player gets closer to the instrument. Do you have, and do you recommend, any image like that?
I like to use the analogy of singing. When I am learning a new melody, particularly a contemporary one, I learn it in solfège. I recommend this method for other players, because it's good aural training for music.

What advice would you give a beginner on playing in tune?
The melody should be in your mind. You should be able to hear it very well in your head. Sing it first, and see what the intervals are between the notes. Play the phrase rather slowly, but in tune. Then repeat the phrase at a faster tempo. One should not always play with accompaniment. Rather, one should practice by playing solo, checking the notes occasionally against the piano.

What should a theremin player avoid doing?
A theremin player should never try to measure distances between the hand and pitch antenna as a means for finding the pitch. The player must always play by hearing the note, without relying on a visual orientation for obtaining the right pitch.

What's your advice on good practice habits? How much time per day should the new player practice the theremin? How much time is necessary for the adult beginner to become physically comfortable with the instrument?
This very much depends on the talent, character, and musical experience of the player. My advice would be to practice half an hour every day, and in a few weeks the new player will feel physically comfortable with the instrument. But to develop technique and become professional takes several years.

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FIG. 4: The control area around the volume antenna is about 8 to 12 inches, beginning about an inch above the antenna. Notice that the player's body is equidistant between the antennae, and that the instrument is at a comfortable height for the player.

Should the student start each practice session with exercises before trying to play real music? If so, what percentage of each practice session should be exercises and what percentage music?
Exercises are necessary for learning and understanding new techniques, and also after a long interim of not playing. At other times, this is up to the player. I'd say that playing real pieces of music and working on separate phrases of the melody is quite enough. But some people feel very comfortable starting practice sessions with exercises. To these players, I suggest playing exercises for 10 to 20 minutes at the beginning of the practice session, but not longer than the amount of time devoted to actual music.

What is your vision for the future of the theremin? What kind of music would you like to see composers write for the instrument in the 21st century?
I would like the theremin to be used in every kind of music, particularly in serious and experimental music. This would open up possibilities for the instrument and keep it alive.

What else would you like to tell the beginning student?
Beginners should seek guidance from the playing styles of earlier players. They should try to play the repertoire and copy the expression of Clara Rockmore, or myself, or somebody else. This is good experience. But do not make it your only aim. You should find your own style and repertoire. You should not try to be like, or be better than, anyone else. You should be yourself.

Musicologist Olivia Mattis is the executive director of the New Music Alliance. She was the first Western author to interview Leon Theremin when he emerged from house arrest in the Soviet Union in 1989. She can be contacted by e-mail at omattis@webtv.net.


The 1999 Theremin Summer Institute, sponsored by New Music Alliance and directed by Olivia Mattis, will take place in August 1999 in Portland, Maine.

The week-long seminar will include lessons, master classes, workshops, a symposium, concerts, film screenings, and an instrument display. Lydia Kavina will attend and perform with thereminists Charlie Lester and Peter Pringle. No experience is necessary, but experienced musicians are welcome. Registration is limited. Contact Olivia Mattis (new-music@webtv.net; Web www.137.com/wooo) for more information.


The following are several pointers from Clara Rockmore and Lucie Bigelow Rosen - first-generation thereminists who, with no precedents to guide them, worked out their own foundations for a technique on the instrument. Their advice, of course, is based on the technical parameters of the instruments they were working with at the time.

From her New York debut at Town Hall in 1934 to her last public appearance in 1989, Clara Rockmore (1911 - 1998) was universally regarded as the consummate theremin virtuoso of all time. On the custom-made instrument built for her by Leon Theremin, she developed and perfected a space-control technique that has since become the benchmark for every player of the instrument. Rockmore's distinguished career was marked by solo appearances with major orchestras, three tours with Paul Robeson in the 1940s, the commissioning of a landmark theremin concerto, and a classic recording issued in 1977 on the Delos label.

Proper poise while playing. "Don't forget that your whole body is an electro-conductor in the electromagnetic field. It is, therefore, necessary to control the slightest motion, not only of your hands and fingers; you cannot register any of your internal emotion at all. You cannot shake your head, for instance, or sway back and forth on your feet. Any involuntary motion can interfere with pitch and volume."

On vibrato. "Vibrato is very important in producing the desired tone quality - forefinger of the right hand resting on the thumb and please, please not a wide vibrato, but as fast and as much in place as possible, not to be mistaken for a trill.

"A trill should not be a wide vibrato, but a very exact distance - either a half tone or whole tone. Avoid constant vibrato, allowing areas without it as the music dictates."

Rosen (1890 - 1968) was a pupil of Leon Theremin and became his most ardent advocate for the instrument. Following her 1935 Town Hall debut, Rosen made three European tours, lectured frequently in schools, appeared often in recital, and commissioned a small repertoire of new theremin works from a handful of composers, including Bohuslav Martinu. Between 1930 and 1938, she and her husband, international banker Walter Tower Rosen, were Leon Theremin's primary sponsors in America. Lucie Rosen worked closely with the inventor in his laboratory and advised him on the specifications of two instruments he designed for her.

On tuning the theremin. "The theremin, like other instruments, must be tuned carefully before playing. The theremin player must do this conscientiously or he will be in the same position as a violinist whose strings are too loose. The more he has practiced, the more important it is for his fingering that the intervals he expects are not changed.

"These intervals are measured when the player takes his position before the instrument and lightly plays the gamut, from highest to lowest note, by stretching out his right hand to the rod and bringing it back to the shoulder for the lowest note.

"It is also part of the tuning to make sure the intervals are correct for reasons other than pitch. If they are too long, the playing is 'sticky' and the dreaded portamento is unavoidable: there is no lightness, detached note, or speed possible. On the other hand, if the intervals are too short, the player is tied tight to his instrument, and all freedom is taken from him. The hand can scarcely move in the shortened intervals and the vibrato sounds fast and nervous beyond bearing."

Locating a note from silence. "There is no helpless waving in the air in order to 'find a note.' The note is always first a definite thought in the mind, like that of a singer. It can be heard before it is played in the speaker behind the player. The speaker is like a third ear, as well as the mouth of the sound, and it is that which the player must rely on for the right position to begin on the beat with the note he means to play. He hears the note before he plays it in his speaker, which must be always placed where he can hear it before anybody else. The note is the same as his thought, and a small movement of his hand brings the attack of the sound when he wants it."
- Albert V. Glinsky


The Art of the Theremin by Clara Rockmore (Delos). This CD features Rockmore performing transcriptions of classical works on the theremin, accompanied by pianist Nadia Reisenberg. (Web www.bigbriar.com)

Clara Rockmore: The Greatest Theremin Virtuosa (Big Briar). Culled from a mid-'70s documentary, this video includes performances by Rockmore and pianist Nadia Reisenberg, as well as conversations between Rockmore, Bob Moog, and Tom Rhea. The video also highlights Rockmore's exceptional technique. (Web www.bigbriar.com)
Levnet is an online theremin group open to anyone interested in the instrument. (Web www.geocities.com/BourbonStreet/Delta/5731/levnet.html)

Mastering the Theremin (Big Briar & Little Big Films). Lydia Kavina's theremin instructional video includes six lessons for the beginning thereminist, as well as a performance by Kavina of three of her compositions. (Web www.bigbriar.com)

Music from the Ether by Lydia Kavina (Mode Records/New Music Alliance). This first full-length release by Lydia Kavina is also the very first CD of works written expressly for the theremin. This disc includes compositions by Percy Grainger, Bohuslav Martinu, Joseph Schillinger, Friedrich Wilckens, Isidor Achron, Vladimir Komarov, Jorge Antunes, and Lydia Kavina herself, with program notes by Olivia Mattis. (Web www.mode.com)

Music Out of the Moon, Perfume Set to Music, and Music for Peace of Mind by Dr. Samuel J. Hoffman (Basta). Known primarily for his film work (Spellbound, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and The Ten Commandments), Dr. Hoffman recorded three albums of music by Harry Revel, conducted by Les Baxter and Billy May. This three-CD reissue demonstrates Hoffman's theremin mastery away from the usual sci-fi and psychological thrillers he's often associated with. The discs' program notes were written by Albert V. Glinsky. (Web www.basta.nl)

Out of Thin Air by Albert V. Glinsky (University of Illinois Press). This is the forthcoming, comprehensive biography of Leon Theremin, covering the fantastic story of his life and instruments. (Web www.press.uillinois.edu)

Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey (Orion Classics/Orion Home Video). Steven Martin's amazing documentary about the life of Leon Theremin, available on video, features performances by Clara Rockmore, as well as many interviews and cameo appearances. (Web www.bigbriar.com)

The Theremin home page contains a wealth of information as well as links to other theremin resources. (Web www.nashville.net/~theremin)