My prior knowledge of the theremin had been, exclusively, the famous video of Clara Rockmore playing The Swan (look it up if you haven’t seen it) and Bill Bailey. From watching these two performers, it’s fairly evident that playing a tune is the hard part. The show is a new arrival from Broadway, a high school techno sci-fi called Be More Chill. In contrast to many shows out there, it has music practically throughout – tons of pop/rock songs with an impressive variety of styles chucked in, including reggae, funk, disco and even dubstep – but the theremin is, naturally, the star of the show. I get to make a load of weird sci-fi noises and play some wailing tunes (both of which, in succession, open the show).
I picked my theremin up from the producer a week before the first rehearsal. Day one consisted of me being so confused that I thought the thing had been wired wrongly. I couldn’t make sense of the manual and ended up texting two physicists and emailing Moog to ask what on Earth was up with my theremin. That was all I managed. Day two, I realised the purpose of the knobs on the side and had to send an embarrassed please-ignore-my-folly email to Moog. The rest of the day was spent on YouTube finding out what to do with my hands. A melody was a long way off.
On the third day, I played a scale...roughly. I had learnt the eight hand positions and could get firmly within a minor third of each note. And seriously, I had vibrato nailed. Day four came with the sudden realisation that this was a two-handed instrument. My left hand had been hovering politely just above the loop antenna, which didn’t make me look much like the experts with their precision hands movements on both sides. The common saying that a violinist’s bow hand is the important one started to hit home.
Day five: staccato and long note shaping – it’s beginning to sound like music! Day six is a regression, when the conscious incompetence kicks in…music, just about, but I have a long way to go. By day seven, I can stumble through what I have to play in the show, just in time for the following day’s rehearsal. I then have a couple of weeks to iron out what I can. Learning a new instrument is an eye opening experience – I now know what it feels like to be a beginner in music. Mind-boggling; but honestly, so much fun.