Pitch correction (no, not the effect)

Posted: 4/13/2009 9:28:19 AM
Brian R

From: Somerville, MA

Joined: 10/7/2005

I was listening to *The art of the theremin* this weekend, and I noticed something that I don't recall reading about previously.

Clara Rockmore, with her astounding technique, was nonetheless only human, and her intonation does not always absolutely match that of the piano.

What caught my attention is that when there's a discrepancy, she does [i]not[/i] correct her pitch instantly, abruptly. Instead, she [i]gradually[/i] (and nearly imperceptibly) slides to match the piano.

Of course, it helps that she's so very close at the start of the note; she's not so far off as to sound out of tune. Still, I think the slow adjustments are less noticeable than rapid ones would be. (No, I have no idea whether this was deliberate, or an intuitive transferral from her violin technique.)

I haven't had time to dig into recordings by Kavina, Kurstin, Pringle, and others to compare. Has anyone else written/commented/thought about this?

Posted: 4/13/2009 5:43:49 PM

From: Croxley Green, Hertfordshire, UK

Joined: 10/5/2005


And I found myself on a sticky wicket with a fast bowler.

So I shall confine myself to noting that Clara appears to use a variety of strategies, and they appear to be applied sooner than if a conscious decision was involved in the process.

Rapidly changing the subject, I recall that some time ago you posted about a particular stroboscopic tuner (Peterson Tuners (http://www.petersontuners.com/)) - suggesting it might be of interest to thereminists.

I learned a couple of days ago that Theremin created a similar device, using the theremin audio output to control a strobe light which illuminated spinning disks with pitch markings.

This is mentioned in Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage. Here (http://books.google.com/books?id=6DHlQJcMpBQC&pg=PA146&vq=%22demonstrating+a+new+optical+apparatus%22&dq=theremin+spy&source=gbs_search_s&cad=0) in Google Books. Glinsky does not say whether this helped the players improve their intonation, but he does note - rather dryly - that [i]Inaccuracies of intonation could easily be "noticed" by the audience.[/i]
Posted: 4/13/2009 9:03:52 PM

From: Eastleigh, Hampshire, U.K. ................................... Fred Mundell. ................................... Electronics Engineer. (Primarily Analogue) .. CV Synths 1974-1980 .. Theremin developer 2007 to present .. soon to be Developing / Trading as WaveCrafter.com . ...................................

Joined: 12/7/2007

"Rapidly changing the subject".. Aw!

Brian - I have looked again at some of the famous recordings, and listened to a lot more, since your posting.. I think your observation is spot-on.. and, in fact, slowly corrected pitch sounds much better than rapidly corrected pitch.

I imagine that the implications of this are more far reaching than just Theremin pitch correction - There are a number of effects which sound better on some synths than others - particularly when LFO or envelope shaping is applied to the frequency control of the oscillator/s .. I suspect that subtle differences in the control waveshape may be the main factor. Portamento on a voltage controlled synth is another major area which defines the different instruments - One would expect that a percieved linear change in pitch is what one wanted, but a simple R*C (exponential) portamento where the rate of pitch change slows as the target pitch is approached sounds better (to me) than a constant (linear) change.. and the best (to me) is a linear change until quite close to the target pitch, when the rate starts to slow.
Posted: 4/14/2009 8:28:35 AM

From: Canada

Joined: 8/1/2008

Gordon wrote:

I learned a couple of days ago that Theremin created a similar device, using the theremin audio output to control a strobe light which illuminated spinning disks with pitch markings.


Lev Termen also built a small pitch light into the custom instruments he made for Clara Rockmore and Lucie Rosen. As I understand it, it consisted of a neon bulb that would glow when 'A' was played. (Presumably this would be A=435, since that was the standard in the 1930's when the custom theremins were built).

It's hard to say how much use this would be for keeping a thereminist on key. I believe it was there so the theremin could be used as a reference for tuning an orchestra.

As thereminists, we are all off key all the time. Your ability to "trim" inaudibly depends on just how off pitch you are to start with. Clara was sufficiently close to the aimed-for pitch for her trimming to be unnoticeable most of the time. Also, she played with a constant and fairly wide vibrato which masks pitch discrepancies that are only 10 or 15 cents off (there are 100 cents in a semitone for anyone unfamiliar with the measurement).

I believe that part of what makes a good theremin performance so beguiling and "magical" is that the listener is aware that it is not "on" (the way, let's say, a piano is "on"). As we listen, we are conscious that it is a delicate musical tightrope walk, and that is what makes it so fragile and fascinating. There is no net.

As Clara said, you have to be "brave" to play the theremin.
Posted: 4/14/2009 10:26:38 AM
Thomas Grillo

From: Jackson Mississippi

Joined: 8/13/2006

Hi Brian, That technique you mentioned is something I call "corrective articulation".

I'll be covering that in my lesson dvd which is in production.
Posted: 4/14/2009 11:14:48 AM
Jeff S

From: N.E. Ohio

Joined: 2/14/2005

Brian - As one who enjoys the traditional, romantic playing styles of Clara Rockmore and Peter Pringle, I can say I too have noticed this phenomenon. However, I must say it seems to be an ability (pitch discrimination) that has improved for me only over the last few years.

I was actually quite surprised when I started hearing these discrepancies. Not because I viewed these people as super-human, but because I was hearing things I had not heard many times before.

The thing that perplexed me was the fact that, when these people miss the note slightly and then correct, it does not seem to be offensive. I cannot say the same for the playing of other peopleā€¦.including myself.

The difference is probably due to the smaller degree that the note is off and the ability of these players to disguise and smoothly correct these discrepancies.
Posted: 4/17/2009 8:13:57 AM
Brian R

From: Somerville, MA

Joined: 10/7/2005

[i]As thereminists, we are all off key all the time. [/i]

Coalport, this is a marvelous way of putting it (and most encouraging, coming from you!). I'm instantly reminded of Samuel Beckett's imperative to "Fail better."

P.S. Wed. night, for the first time, I recorded myself practicing, and discovered just how much I need to be "brave"... in my case, my left hand is too slow, too cautious, so that pitch trimming is scarcely audible, BUT rhythms sound mushy, and even botched.

Posted: 4/19/2009 8:03:39 AM

From: Canada

Joined: 8/1/2008

Brian R wrote:

I need to be "brave"... in my case, my left hand is too slow, too cautious......


Because the theremin's playing arc is insubstantial and extremely sensitive, controlling it requires tremendous concentration. Far more than you would have to apply to a piano, guitar or most other traditional instruments.

If you are too brave in your approach to the theremin, you are liable to overshoot the note in your excess of zeal. If you are not brave enough, your playing will be timid, tentative, and probably flat.

You must cultivate the ability to shut out fear of failure when you are playing for an audience because your apprehension that you are going to miss an interval (like a fast octave leap) will almost certainly bring on the very thing you fear most.

After you've flubbed it, your disappointment with your own poor performance will probably cause you to lose heart and play poorly for the rest of the piece.


Your psycho-emotional state will have an effect on your precision and the accuracy of your muscle memory, so you must learn to control it.

The only way to do this is to concentrate so completely that everything else is shut out. Very Zen.

In many ways, because of the intangible nature of the art, playing the theremin could be better compared to Zen calligraphy than to the playing of a musical instrument.

The theremin doesn't exist in the sense that musical instruments that are touched exist. There is nowhere for the thereminist to hide. We are naked because the instrument we play is transparent.

If you are reasonably perceptive, you can tell a good deal about a person by listening to just a minute or so of a theremin performance. If you are able to detach yourself (something few of us can do although we like to believe we can) you can tell a helluva lot about yourself as well.

For most of us, it ain't a pretty sight! (LOL)

Just to complicate things further, for precision thereminists the audio setup has to be EXACTLY right. The biggest single impediment to a thereminist's playing his or her personal best is poor sound.

I have seen very good players perform badly because the setup was haphazard. This is not always the fault of the thereminist. It is often because the sound technician does not understand the unique nature and demands of the instrument and has tended to treat it like a synthesizer. Even when you tell them, they don't understand.

It's not their fault, "it's a crazy instrument"!

Posted: 4/19/2009 7:16:54 PM

From: UK

Joined: 4/15/2008

After a gloomy week in which I've felt dissatisfied with my playing, I've found this thread both interesting and encouraging.

In particular, Coalport's comments have "struck a chord" with me! I think I've been aware of Zen-like aspects of theremin playing but never really put it into words. Apart from a comfortable tai-chi-like stance and calm breathing, I know that the less I "think" about the playing the better it tends to be - and the more I "think" while playing the worse I get. When I say I tend not to "think" I DON'T mean I'm not concentrating; I AM. I tend to be concentrating so completely that I'm totally absorbed in the music, and any conscious, calculating thought is superfluous ... or even distracting. If ever I find myself calculating where the next note should be, (or looking at my hands) I invariably miss it. I tend to "zone-out" and stare vacantly at something ... anything ... a chair leg or a few square inches of wall (NEVER anything interesting) without seeing it or focussing on it. And then play with my mind empty.

The more relaxed (and empty-headed) I feel about playing the better I seem to play; playing best of all when it's just purely for the fun of it and there's no one listening. If anyone IS listening, or even if I'm just recording my practice session, thoughts wander in and that total absorbtion wanders out! (Recording practice sessions is something I frequently do; equal parts helpful and depressing when listened to later!)

I totally agree that fear of failure can become a self-fulfilling prophecy - but I've always found that, even years ago when I played the piano in public; if there was ever a passage that I struggled with, I tended to worry about it as it drew nearer, and such distraction invariably lead to me playing as badly as I feared I would.

With the theremin, once in that kind of semi-hypnotic "altered state" I find I don't have to think about the next note or whatever finger-shift is needed ... it just happens. For that reason, I even find that reading sheet music will break the concentration, so I like to feel I really know a piece well before trying to play it (if that makes any sense). At first, that zoning-out" happened as an accidental by-product of intense concentration, but with practice I've found it possible to ease myself into this state-of-mind as I start to play ... and judging from some of the trance-like expressions some thereminists have, I suspect I'm not alone.

However, it's still easy to let anxious distracting thoughts slip through ... and this thread has reminded me that THIS has probably been one of the causes of my dissatisfaction with my playing lately.

My other problem: I think I tend to forget just how insubstantial the playing arc is; no matter how carefully I tune and position myself it IS annoyingly variable ... but, on days when it seems to be trying to evade me, I feel like I'm failing somehow and get discouraged. I also agree with the comment above (Jeff S) that over a period of time learning to play the theremin, one's pitch discrimination gradually improves. The discouraging thing about this is that, as your likelihood of hitting right notes steadily improves you become ever increasingly (and painfully) more aware of the notes you miss ... which might explain why I often feel that I'm getting worse rather than better.

Which is why I especially appreciated the reminder that playing the theremin is "a delicate musical tightrope walk". I suspect I have to get the right balance between striving hard to improve and not being too hard on myself when I don't!
Thank you.
Posted: 4/20/2009 5:53:51 AM

From: Croxley Green, Hertfordshire, UK

Joined: 10/5/2005

Thereminstrel - Maybe we should hook you up to an electroencephalograph while you're playing - see if it does induce the kind of brain waves associated with meditation.

And then maybe your brain waves can be used to modulate the theremin audio to create a biofeedback loop and transport you to a higher plane of existence!

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