What’s a Good Instrument for Your Kid to Play? How About a Theremin?

Geek Culture

My younger son has taken violin lessons since he was little, but he doesn’t practice as much as I’d like.

"Is there another instrument you’d like better?" I once asked him.

His answer: "I guess a theremin."

Now, theremin teachers are not easy to come by. In fact, the only theremin player of any note was Clara Rockmore, who worked with the instrument’s inventor Leon Theremin to bring the instrument up to classical music quality. Leon’s invention, one of the first electronic instruments, is unique in that you play it without touching it. The theremin’s pitch and volume are controlled by waving the hands around metal rods sticking out of a big box (not unlike an old-fashioned TV with rabbit ear antennas).

I don’t remember anymore where I first heard of the instrument. I do know that after watching a documentary called "Theremin: An Electronic
" — which detailed not only the musical instrument but also the Russian emigrant’s disappearance from his home in New York City in 1938 and his return after 53 years when it was discovered he’d been kidnapped by the KGB for work on electronics research — Anthony decided the theremin was the instrument for him. (He also decided that glass-blowing would be a fun hobby after watching a DVD on Dale Chihuly, but that’s another post.)

But mastering the theremin takes exquisite control of the hands and perfect pitch, since the instrument can play an infinite number of steps between the traditional 12 tones of Western music (the 8-note octave plus the sharps and flats). That’s why, aside from Rockmore and a few other devotees in the decades since, theremins have been used mostly for creating eerie oooOOOOooo types of audio effects  in old sci-fi films (although not, as I though, Forbidden Planet) and pop songs (although not, as I also thought, the Beach Boys Good Vibrations).

The other problem, of course, is you have to find one.

If you’re an electronics wizard like Robert Moog, building your own theremin is a piece of cake. (Moog, who went on to invent the music synthesizer of the same name, got his start making theremins in high school in the 1950s and even sold his own kit). For the rest of us, though, a DIY theremin seemed way too complicated.

Not anymore. In fact, it seems like every Tom, Dick and Harry is customizing his own theremin. And nowadays you can get kits that even know-nothings like me can put together (with some help from my older teen, who learned soldering this summer at Robot Camp).

So before the summer’s through I’ll be sending for this neat-looking  "Solar Theremin in an Altoids Tin" kit by Clockwork Robot for my budding electronic musician ($15.99 from Make Magazine). I particularly like that it’s solar, because the only theremin we have ever personally laid hands on (so to speak) was a solar model that used to sit on the roof of the Liberty Science Center in New Jersey.

I’m also hoping that, once we have it figured out, we can dig through the many, many barely-used electronics learning kits and discarded appliances we have scattered about the house and try to build one from scratch.


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