The world’s memories of 2020, including Christmas, will forever stand out in history with a kind of bleakness – a wilderness terrain for the whole of humanity. But even in the wilderness, tiny blossoms show up now and then. They convey a kind of hopefulness to move us forward.
Thirteen months ago, I took up a new instrument. If anyone had told me I’d ever learn to play the Theremin, I’d have dismissed the idea with a cynical laugh. This is the only instrument that produces music while never being touched by the musician. Even calling the Theremin a musical instrument seems a stretch. It consists of a wooden box with two antennae – on the right, a vertical antenna that changes tones and pitch based on the hand’s distance from it, and on the left, a horizontal loop antenna modifying volume by the same method (using an electromagnetic field).
It all began when my husband came across a YouTube video of Hungarian vocalist and musician Katica Ellenyi playing “O Sole Mio” on this esoteric instrument. (She makes it look so easy!) He was taken by the unique concept and rare qualities of the Theremin; I had to agree, it was intriguing. I was not new to this sound; I’d had a moog album back in the 70’s. Next thing I know, I’m opening a very surprising not-on-my-wish-list birthday present with very real implications.
I’ve played keyboard instruments (organ, piano) from childhood and added guitar in adolescence. I know about hitting the right strings and keys to get the sounds I want. But what if there are no strings and keys? One could argue it’s much the same as singing. Although my voice has always been my primary instrument, hitting the desired notes with my vocal chords comes far more naturally than searching out notes with my fingers in open space. The air seems fragile. There is no middle C, no starting point of reference. It’s a musical free fall. There is only the ear as a guide.
Listening hard is a discipline. Standing at my Theremin, I close my eyes, focusing attention on every nuance of each note that reaches my ears. I must be very still, because even the slightest sway of my body will lead to unwanted pitches. This is hard; I want to move with the music. Instead, I must be still. This does not come naturally to me.
My preference is to play along with a recording of my choice, or with others. It is so much more entertaining and palatable than playing alone. If I really want to be honest with myself, though, only playing alone will reap the rewards I’m looking for. At first, the sound is painful to my own ears. I want to give up this going it alone. I want my comfortable community surrounding me once again. As my fingers move, it’s often too much or too little. At first, I’m just guessing at the intervals. There are long hours of frustration. But eventually I begin to sense where they are, and eventually, I begin to relax and enjoy the journey.
If I’m ever going to master this thing (I never really asked for in the first place), I will need to be intentional about spending time with it. I can imagine being proficient and even artistic in my approach, but unless I approach, there will be no captivating music. I will delve into it with a creative spirit. I will watch Katica and other players’ style and method and learn from them. I will seek mentors, if only virtually. I will lap up my husband’s encouragement (bless him).
No matter how hard I try, I don’t get to the Theremin every day. Or even every second day. My best-intended schedules fall prey to higher priorities that arise from life’s joys and sorrows. Grandchild care, accidents, deaths, broken relationships, lonely friends. I will take each day’s offerings, trusting God to give me a flexible spirit.
I’m not finished; in fact, even though I’ve come a long way in this year, I know that I still have a long way to go. On the Theremin. On this journey of life that brings things I didn’t ask for. When I’m going through what feels like a free fall, I will listen. I will close my eyes – focus and listen hard – for notes that are true. I will be still. I will quiet my need to always be moving. I will flourish in solitude.
I’ll be home for Christmas
This Christmas season is uncharacteristic in nature. Hearing “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”, I think – isn’t that the truth! Everyone’s going to be home for Christmas. No one’s going anywhere! I’m accustomed to opening my door to others – sharing food and fellowship. I don’t know how to be at a distance from others. So, I’m finding creative ways of being in touch safely. It still feels like a bit of a free fall. But slowly, I’m learning what kind of intervals and patterns can provide the color and beauty of wilderness blooms.