When Leon Theremin debuted his strange electronic device on the world stage, it seemed to many people more like a curious toy than a serious musical instrument. The theremin soon became associated with B-grade sci-fi movies and novelty soundtracks, an association that made Clara Rockmore furious. Determined to achieve respectability for the theremin, she championed it as “a legitimate classical instrument that deserves a place in the pit,” writes Atlas Obscura, “right next to the violins and piano.” Rockmore’s ambitions may have been outsized, but her talent was undeniable. “As serious as anyone has ever been about the theremin… she left behind a number of valuable lessons,” including a book, freely available, in which she dispenses some very practical advice.
But much has changed since her day, including popular methods of instruction and some of the technical design of theremins. Now, aspiring players will likely go looking for video lessons before consulting Rockmore’s guide, which requires that students read music in order to transition from exercises to “easy pieces” by Camille Saint-Saëns and J.S. Bach.
One series of video lessons offered by “thereminist” Thomas Grillo, an earnest instructor in a white shirt and tie, begins with the very basics and works up to more advanced techniques, including possible mods to the device (Grillo plays a Moog-made theremin himself).
Grillo opens with a disclaimer that his short course is “no substitute for professionally done how-to videos on how to play the theremin,” thereby humbly acknowledging the low production values of his series. Nonetheless, I imagine his classes are as good a place to start as any for newcomers to theremin-ing, not a skill one can pick up as readily online as playing the guitar or piano. He clearly knows his stuff. With the look and demeaner of a high school algebra teacher, Grillo patiently explains and demonstrates many techniques and principles, beginning with lesson one above, then continuing in lessons two, three, four, five, six, and seven.
Once you’ve reached an intermediate stage, or if you already find yourself there, you may benefit from the instruction of Carolina Eyck, who has carried on the serious classical work of Clara Rockmore. See her just above perform a stirring rendition of Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise,” accompanied on piano by Christopher Tarnow, and check out her YouTube channel for more performances and short lessons.