Saturday, January 19, 2008

How to Play the Didgeridoo

I have a didgeridoo by my desk. According to Wikipedia "The didgeridoo (or didjeridu) is a wind instrument of the Indigenous Australians of northern Australia."

Didgeridoos sound weird, like giant, alien kazoos. Here's a video clip of an aboriginal Australian artist playing the didge. Note that he never stops to take a breath . There is continuous sound. How does he do it? The secret is in his cheeks.

It's called "circular breathing".

I made my own didge from a length of PVC pipe and beeswax (for the mouthpiece). Just getting a sound out of it at all is tricky unless you're an experienced horn player. You have to buzz your lips, like blowing a raspberry, at just the right frequency, with your mouth pressed tightly against the mouthpiece. At first all you get is elephant farts.

Keep practicing! After many frustrating hours of blowing elephant farts, and wondering why the hell you're wasting your time with this ridiculous project, you'll figure out how to get a tone. Practice more! Practice until your lips are numb, your face is red, your head is spinning, and your didge is leaking saliva. (Sorry - it's gross but true. You can't blow raspberries down a tube for 20 minutes at a time without spraying spit. Go ahead: try to prove me wrong!)

OK, so now you can reliably get a tone out of your didge. You are so proud! Show all your friends. Practice changing the shape of your mouth to get different overtones and fancy flourishes. Cool!

But. You still have to stop when your lungs are empty and take another gasp of air to keep going. This breaks up the soothing, hypnotic, didgey drone that you are ultimately aiming for. Now is the time to take that next step to CIRCULAR BREATHING.

Actually, circular breathing is a misnomer. It's not circular at all. As the old saying goes, you can't suck and blow at the same time. The trick is: you fill up your cheeks with air, like a bagpiper's bag. Then, as you quickly sniff more air in through your nose, you squeeze out the air in your cheeks to keep the sound going. You have to take a lot of quick sniffs to fill your lungs, because you don't have time for a deep breath.

Sounds complicated? Let's break it down. First pretend you have some water in your mouth. Now squirt that water out through your lips in a slow stream. Got it? Try it with real water if you're not sure. Once you're comfortable with the slow squirting-out thing, try doing it at the same time as sniffing in through your nose. Squirt+sniff! Squirt+sniff! Good! OK, you just did some circular breathing!

Now you just have to take that over to your didge and keep your lips buzzing the whole time you're at it. Yeah, that's a little harder. It'll take some practicing. Don't worry, your neighbours love didge sounds. Everyone does! I promise. They'll be at your door begging for lessons of their own.

I don't play my didge much, but it's like riding a bicycle. Once you learn, you won't forget. I'm not as good as the guy in the video, and I tend to choke when playing for an audience, but I like being able to say that I can do it. I think it complements my training in violin, and ballet very nicely.


Maxie said...

circular breathing is how kenny g broke the world record for the longest continuous note.

now i feel like a loser for knowing that, lol.

Melanie said...

i am clueless. i think I would faint if i had to do circular breathing.

happy spork award winner here.

jameil1922 said...

former horn player here... what on earth possessed you to make one of those? that sound is not at all pleasing to my ears.

Warped Mind of Ron said...

Wow! So multi-talented. You make me feel like an underachiever.

R.E.H. said...

When I first read this I thought you said you had one of those "didge-Di-Doos" in your desk, and I thought what size is her desk anyway?

Wasn't until I reread the first paragraph that it was in fact by your desk.

That's a cool instrument by the way ;)

Sparkling Red said...

Maxie: I love bizarre factoids like that! Kenny G, huh. Awesome!

Melanie: Yeah, I can only practice it for so long at one time before I start to get light-headed.

Jameil: I signed up for a course on "Soundwork" - using various types of sounds in a therapeutic and/or teambuilding context. The didgeridoo was one element of the course. Granted, it's not exactly melodic, but it has a certain appeal when you're there in person.

Ron: Ha! Thanks. It's not exactly the most useful skill on my resume. ;-)

R.E.H.: I'm imagining a HUGE desk with a giant pencil cup, a didgeridoo nesting among the oversize pencils. My didge is 5 feet long - so no, it wouldn't fit in or on my desk. :-)

Keera Ann Fox said...

I never knew this about didgeridoos or breathing. Thanks! I have meditated to the sound. Very soothing and something I'd love to repeat.

Jenski said...

I am so impressed you know how to play the didgeridoo! I spent time in Australia and it always amazed me how they could play continuously. Apparently you just use your cheeks like a bagpipe!