Theremin lessons are magical ‘hands-off’ learning


Derrick Thoresen, a Fletcher fifth-grader, looks to see what subtle movements trigger sounds he likes best. Photo by Pete Zamplas.

By Pete Zamplas- “Hands-on” is a popular way of learning, yet the Theremin musical instrument it is a hands-off source of experimentation and intrigue for area elementary students.

Fletcher and Upward elementary schools, took turns using the same Theremin in music classes ahead of Halloween, due to what teacher Julie Ledford terms its “spooky sounds” made famous in early sci-fi films. The TV comedy “My Favorite Martian” used Theremin sounds

An Electro-Theremin produced the famed closing in The Beach Boys’ complex “Good Vibrations,” back in 1966.

Elementaries in Henderson County Public Schools (HCPS) take turns sharing the same instrument — typically once per academic year. It has been on hand for five years.

Buncombe County Schools and Asheville City Schools have also used Theremins. The Bob Moog Foundation’s Dr. Bob’s SoundSchool is literally instrumental in expanding the Theremin to area, elementary science students. This program explores the science of sound to fit the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) hands-on curriculum. It also notes the role of the late Bob Moog’s pioneering of electronic music, in the Sixties and Seventies.

One of its lessons is to pair a Theremin and an oscilloscope lab instrument, to teach about pitch and volume. The Theremin makes sounds. The scope records a graph of the instant signal voltage’s amplitude, cross-measured with elapse of time. This is an example of how “children learn about scientific methodology, vibrations, sound waves, parameters of sound and timbre,” the foundation explains.

The full Dr Bob’s SoundSchool is a 10-week course, targeting second graders. The Moog Foundation notes Dr. Bob now serves more than 1,500 children in 70 local classrooms, is in its seventh year, and has trained at least 125 teachers.

Dr. Bob’s SoundSchool in 2015-16 went into more than 50 Buncombe classes, serving about 1,200 students. Earlier, Dr. Bob was taught in all 20 of Asheville’s second-grade classrooms to reach about 450 students.

In Henderson County, the lesson is typically a simple exploration of making sounds in music class. It works as the Thereminist hovers near the instrument, moving hands in various directions toward and away from two antennas and between them.

This interrupts the electromagnetic field around each antenna, causing a sound wave that the instrument broadcasts. The antennas are perpendicular to each other, much like a visual graph. The horizontal antenna’s loop is no longer needed to prevent signal interference, but is kept as an historic and aesthetic feature.

The vertical antenna affects frequency (pitch). The horizontal one controls volume, rising as the hand moves further above it.

To play higher-pitched notes, one moves closer to the upright, oscillating-pitch antenna. In contrast, lowest notes are played from about two feet away. An easier-to-play, digital Theremini has a pitch knob.

The Theremin originated nearly a century ago, in 1919 when invented by Russian Leon Theremin.

Henderson County schools’ classic Theremin is housed at Upward Elementary. The music (“integrated arts”) teacher there is Megan Ledford. Her mother Julie Ledford is the music teacher in Fletcher in this first half of the academic year before shifting in January to Glenn C. Marlow elementary.

The Theremin impressed her final-hour, fifth-grade Fletcher students. “It’s so cool, how you can move your hand and make those sounds,” Katelyn Tolbert said. Even more impressive to Kaden Jones is not having to touch the instrument. And Shahbano Khan likes making the sound steadily louder.

The Ledfords helped get the instrument five years ago. A local Rotary matching grant paid for half of it. It was bought at a good price of $400 from Moog Music Inc. in Asheville, Julie Ledford further recalled.

Moog remains a preeminent maker of Theremins and synthesizers. Its factory and outlet store is at 160 Broadway St. at the edge of Downtown Asheville. It has tours of the handcrafting, and lets visitors try various Moog instruments.

Julie Ledford augmented her Theremin lesson with such other instruments as a grind-sounding ratchet, sand block, flexophone and xylophone. Ledford has taught music in local schools for more than 20 years. She plays French horn professionally, for Hendersonville Symphony and Brevard Philharmonic orchestras.

HCPS Assoc. Supt. for Instructional Services Dr. Jan King said the Theremin is an immensely creative instrument. “Certainly, we are pleased students have the opportunity to experiment, and put their creativity to use in the classroom.”

Dr. King noted Rotary is among local groups that supplement the school budget, and fill voids. “Rotary in the past year funded dozens of projects, with enhancement purchases. These creative grants make the curriculum livelier.”

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