How I Fell In Love
With the Theremin

This is basically a stream-of-consciousness discussion of how I became enraptured by the Theremin.

In the Beginning
Fast-Forward to 1995
A Theremin materializes
My Theremin Debut
Finding Clara Rockmore
Zen and the Art of Theremin Playing

In the Beginning

Somewhere, in the deep recesses of my mind, I had some idea of what a theremin was. When I was in grade school in rural Virginia we had assemblies a few times a year where various things of esoteric interest were featured, including “The King of the Whistlers” (the man whose life-distinction was that he whistled the theme on the Andy Griffith Show). Another time we had a Mr.-Wizard-type scientist who brought along cracking Tesla coils and the like. It seems to me that he, or perhaps someone else at another assembly, also had a theremin. But I don't remember very much about it at all.

On hot summer afternoons, after a day of working in Dad's huge vegetable garden, my family would sit around our old black-and-white television set, while shelling peas or snapping green beans. We would often watch science fiction movies on Saturday Science Fiction Theatre. I very clearly recall seeing The Day the Earth Stood Still. I remember being scared by the eerie music. Afterward, we kids ran through the house making “woo-eee-woo” sounds as we pretended we were space invaders taking over the planet.

I also remember when the Beach Boys hit “Good Vibrations” came out and there being some talk about the Theremin.

However, other than these vague anecdotal snippets, my interest in the theremin and knowledge about it were casual at most.

Fast-Forward to 1995...

It all really started in August of 1995. I was looking for a movie to see one afternoon. I checked the film listings in the local paper and read the review for Steven M. Martin's documentary Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey.

I read the very glowing review but did not really give it much thought. Then when I picked up the next newspaper and it contained yet another “must-see” characterization of the film, I paid closer attention. Then, when I read yet a THIRD rave review, well, that's “all she wrote.”

My interest was piqued and, purely on a whim, decided to go see the film. In retrospect, it kinda puzzles me that my curiosity was so sudden and so immediate for a subject about which I had absolutely no interest or knowledge. Yet I could not wait to go see the film!

I went alone, not being able to coax anyone else to come along with me. None of my friends had any interest in seeing this movie. As it turned out, I was glad I went alone. You see, I watched this film and wept — sobbed even — through most of it, intensely moved and touched. Something about the theremin's melancholy tones, the bittersweet story about Leon Theremin and Clara Rockmore, and the many sad mysteries that swirl around this little pocket of humanity, reverberated deep through my being. My emotions responded in a most startling way. (But I was not the only one: I could hear quite a few sniffles from the near-capacity audience who watched this film with me, especially during that touching yet heartrending reunion near the end.)

As I sat and watched this film, the knowledge came — and grew, most intensely — that I would have a theremin. I did not know why or how, I just knew. I had no idea where to find one, whether they were even still made or not, or what the cost would be. I started asking around logical sources — friends in the electronics business or who are musicians. Time after time I ran into dead ends: “Gee, I haven't seen one of those things since the '50s! You'll never find one! They haven't been made in 60 years!” And so on.

A Theremin Materializes

Then, a week or so later, I was talking to a friend, Stan Kann, who is a fine theater organist and who has a few other esoteric interests, including a collection of vintage vacuum cleaners (another hobby I share with him!). I started talking about the theremin and how this film had affected me. He was interested in seeing the theremin documentary so I took him along, not at all minding seeing it a second time!

After the movie, as we were driving home Stan commented, “You know, I've got a theremin. I bought it in the '60s to use on my TV show in St. Louis but I could never get the darn thing to do much except make sound effects, like a barking dog and a crying baby. I haven’t touched it in years.” You couldda knocked me over with a feather, as the cliché goes!

I mentioned that I sure would like to see it sometime. He said he would have to get it down out of his closet; that's where he thought it was. Then came the bombshell:

If you want it you can have it” he said.

Did I want it! I could not sleep until the theremin was in my possession! I went over to his house a couple of days later. He reached up into the back of a closet and pulled out a small wooden case about the size of two small shoe boxes placed end-to-end. It was a Moog “Melodia” solid-state Theremin from the early 1960s.

I got it home, connected it to my stereo, took a deep breath ... and turned it on.

I waited for the heavenly tones to issue forth. What I heard instead was the sound of a donkey braying, the sorts of sounds one hears a first-time clarinet player making! I quickly found out that the theremin's muse is not easily or forcefully mastered; it must be gently coaxed into our dimension of space and sound. That first day I must have stood at the theremin for five or six hours, until my arms and feet ached. But I could not pull myself away until I started getting the knack of withdrawing its ethereal music.

Stan's theremin did not have a speaker or amplifier so I decided to make one. I modeled it after the shape of the original theremin speakers, that is, an amplifier forms a base from which two legs splay upward in a gentle v-shape about 7 feet into the air, upon which I placed a wooden square speaker enclosure, tilted on its side to form a diamond shape. It really looks and sounds great!

Once I got used to the thing and figured how to tune it, I realized the capacitors that controlled the pitch and volume were not working correctly. I found Robert Moog’s phone number and got in touch with Big Briar (his company) to see if I could get replacement capacitors. Sure enough, they were available, and I received them in a couple of days. I replaced the old, cracked capacitors and now they work just fine.

I am left-handed and quickly figured out I play the theremin more proficiently “left-handed;” e.g., I control pitch with my left hand and volume with my right. So I altered my Melodia theremin by switching the positioning of the two antennas.

After a couple of weeks of enduring the agonizing tones of diligent theremin practice, my dog, Oz, seemed to be getting a little weary of the torturous sounds! Upon seeing me approach the theremin and turn it on, he would give me a worried, pleading look as if to say, “Not again with that thing!” He'd then slink off and hide under the bed. Now that my playing has gotten better he at least stays in the room — but does not look particularly pleased, and begins to get concerned as I go up the scale to the high end of its range!

Curious neighbors started stopping by to find out the source of the ethereal tones floating out my windows, so I gave a couple of impromptu recitals, which were received with pleasure and amazement.

My Theremin Debut

After a month or so had passed I felt I was ready to go public with my new obsession. The opportunity arrived on November 12, 1995, on the occasion of a big multi-choir and organ concert at my church. I played two selections: Schubert’s “Ave Maria” (which Mrs. Clara Rockmore told me was one of her favorite selections and was one of the first pieces she learned on the theremin — more on her later...); and “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” by Thomas A. Dorsey, a 20th-century composer of gospel music and spirituals. The theremin brought the house down! A friend who was in attendance told me afterward that everyone was on the edge of their seats, mouths gaping, hardly daring to take a breath for fear of breaking the magical spell. I received a standing ovation for my efforts!

Since that time I have played publicly about 15 times (as of November 1996) and have had my first professional (e.g. paying!) engagement. I have played twice at a large church in Los Angeles where I was accompanied by one of their regular organists, no less than Stan Kann, my friend who gave me his theremin!

Finding Clara Rockmore

Another wonderful bit of serendipity: I have become friends with a person whom many have proclaimed to be the greatest thereminist of them all, Clara Rockmore.

Clara Rockmore, virtuoso thereminist

I have not yet had the opportunity to meet her in person, as we live on opposite coasts, literally — me in California and her in New York. However, I have had the privilege on a number of occasions to talk on the phone with her, and have had some most pleasant conversations.

If any of my readers have never heard her play the theremin you have missed out on some beautiful and virtuoso playing. A compact-disc of her music, The Art of the Theremin is available from Delos Records. Look for it in your favorite music store or ask them to order it. It’s wonderful.

Mrs. Rockmore is a delightful and charming lady, and seems pleased that her instrument is enjoying such a renaissance. She has been very encouraging in prompting me to continue my pursuit of the instrument. She wants, and has always wanted, that the theremin would be accepted as a “serious musical instrument,” and not just a “toy for making spooky noises,” as she so succinctly expresses her opinion. I agree with her, and it is in that vein that I have taken up study of the instrument. It has such a wonderful, mysterious, tone quality and it is marvelous for playing classical music.

(Update: On May 10, 1998, Clara Rockmore passed away at 9:30 a.m. She will be missed.)

Zen and the Art of Theremin Playing

I have met quite a few others who have become enchanted by the theremin’s siren call. One such person made an interesting observation: He said that, without exception, everyone he knows who has become interested in the theremin has done so in the same way — right back to our “patron saints,” Clara Rockmore and Robert Moog. It seems as if the theremin just falls out of the sky and selectively lands into various peoples' paths. When it does, it nearly always seems to be either an IMMEDIATE obsession or general lack of interest.

The former certainly was the truth in my case. I mean, since finding the theremin — or since it found me, as the case may be — my life has taken a 90-degree turn onto a new road that I had absolutely no idea even existed, much less that it would become one of the main boulevards for me to make what apparently is just the beginning of a wonderful musical and spiritual journey, a magical and precious surprise that has been sent to me from the ethers!

Thanks for letting me share my magical Theremin story with you. It would be nice to hear similar anecdotes from others into whose lives this mysterious little instrument has entered.


My “Updates” section of this story is getting longer and longer, as more and more developments are unfolding, so I decided to open a new page. Check out Theremin Updates for the latest scoops!


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