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Playing the Didgeridoo - A Foundation - part I

by Marc Miethe (Berlin) - Copyright © 2003-5

translated by John McDonald.

This article is both an abridged excerpt from my as yet unpublished tutorial book "Urban Didgeridoo" and the first part of a small series in Didgeridoo & Co. Magazine with tutorials on basic techniques. The book itself will be bundled with an accompanying learning CD and contains an extensive collection of rhythms, the use of the voice, cheek modulation, "fiddly" techniques for advanced players and lots of tips for didgeridoo players on their way to becoming musicians. (e.g. track arrangement, talk rhythms from different parts of the world, trombone/slide didgeridoo techniques, band communication, recording, live technique, stage situation)

Here I want to share my knowledge with you about the way that I and many of my students attained a more powerful, precise, faster, more varied and at the same time considerably more relaxed way of playing. In this first part, we will first look at developing a good foundation for playing. At first, I only wanted to address advanced players. After some consideration, I changed my mind and decided I would include some introductory chapters, because my experience shows that didgeridoo players with years of experience can also benefit from some basic suggestions: much too many make playing unnecessarily difficult even after years of practice.

To translate playing onto paper, I use a notation which matches as exactly as possible what I'm actually doing with my tongue, for example. However, it's exactly this point which is a very personal thing. Other experienced players have found a completely different "language" for the same sounds. The important thing is that you somehow or other connect a vocalisation with what you're playing. If the worst comes to the worst, this will be a "How to play like Marc Miethe" tutorial, but if everything works out for the best (which I certainly hope it will), then I can help you to widen your range of expression, and yes, to find your own "language". The notation used in this article is explained in the footnotes at the end.

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1) Requirements for playing "well"

By "requirements", I mean any preparations which will make your playing more relaxed and free, and at the same time more powerful and precise.

First of all, I think it's important to mention that there is also something like "studies" and "course units" for the Didgeridoo / or Yidaki: however, you can also make learning very musical and a lot of fun. Times in which you make great leaps in technique will alternate with times in which you will simply "refine" your abilities. A few months later it will seem like nothing at all is happening, while in fact it's exactly then that your musical expression is broadening. All in good time ...

Another thing is not to have such high expectations. Leave yourself the time you need, and don't dissipate your energy at the beginning by trying to practice too many things at once. Take one set thing: work with a rhythm, explore it and explore yourself in it. You have to learn single words before you can talk sentences. I've met so many players who jumped at circular breathing from the very start, whose playing still sounds strained and formless after years, somehow "hollow". If circular breathing is built on a healthy foundation, however, it's really not a big deal anymore; it's as natural as breathing itself. My first objective is to impart this foundation.

The one assumption I am making in this article is this: you've already found the drone! Now: in order to create a "clean" drone, a tone free of as many other noises as possible, you need to listen to two things especially: your body and your didge. Really listen. If you don't want to listen yourself, then you'll make it difficult for yourself and your co-musicians later.

"The body as an instrument"

Your body is the real instrument. It's where the basis of your playing is born. One of my specialities is "playing didge with no didge". It's amazed everyone so far. The decisive factor isn't the entertainment value, but just the fact that it can sound so "didgey" without a didge. All the sounds are there without a didgeridoo because they really do come from your body. The didgeridoo "just" adds a specific key and its own resonances, its own soul. And if your body is the instrument, then you have to tune it, care for it and while playing, like any other instrument… modulate!

By modulation I mean widening or tightening all the air-filled hollow spaces in your body individually. All these hollow spaces also serve as resonant spaces which dissipate acoustic vibrations. When you learn to use your muscles effectively, then you help yourself to transmit air to the Yidaki in the best way possible. Don't worry, I'll explain what that means exactly when I discuss the various techniques.

Try to always keep in the back of your mind that you are one half of the instrument and the didgeridoo the other. Imagine the didge as a long tube which begins in your loins and doesn't end until a bit past the bottom end of the didge.

First of all, we're going to give special attention to the stomach muscles and the diaphragm at the bottom end of this tube. In the next issue, we're concentrating on the facial muscles (cheeks and lips), at the interface between body and didgeridoo. These areas are very important in forming the tone and the quality of the sound. While your stomach provides the pressure necessary for playing, the facial musculature helps to clarify the sound - but we'll get back to that later.

However, the main muscle when you're playing the didgeridoo is your tongue! It's easily the most movable, most flexible and fastest part of the whole "tube". As I will later explain, Mother Nature placed the tongue at an acoustically very fortunate location. The posture of your whole body also has an important part to play. If I really want to give the audience everything and work outwards, it's enormously helpful to open up my posture and stay straight and relaxed. I often see players who are "living in their own world" closing their eyes and shutting themselves off, folding into their pelvis or stiffly hunching up their shoulders.

"Your didge is your teacher!"

Another prerequisite for playing well is the character of the didgeridoo. Every instrument has its own virtues, which lend themselves wonderfully to playing particular sounds and rhythms. This is what "your didge is your teacher" means. Lower didges, for example, tend to let calls through easier, while higher didgeridoos animate you through their higher frequencies to play a faster style. Once you've discovered something on one didge, it can easily be transferred to other didges, which wouldn't have made it easy for you before. But it's all relative: with enough experience you can do wonders even with a really awful didge. A good player can be recognised by the fact that he (or she) always makes up more of the sound than the didge. If their playing is recognisable on any didge, then they have possibly "found their style".

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2) Embouchure

The embouchure is our direct contact to didge/yidaki, the shaping of the lips to the mouthpiece. As with all wind instruments, it plays a critical role in how the instrument sounds and how your playing is transmitted to the instrument. You can waggle your tongue around like mad and it won't be at all discernible if your embouchure isn't appropriate to what you're trying to do.

You probably know that you have the basic choice between a central and side embouchure. Side means nearer to one of the corners of your mouth, and central directly under your nose. I'm not going to interfere with your decision what you prefer, because initially, the best position is the one that works best for you.

There are a few almost dogmatic advocates of the central position: however, embouchures anywhere in between dead centre and pretty much at the side can be observed amongst players at all levels; and if you watch carefully, even some "central salesmen" tend to deviate from their own rule.

What makes a much greater effect on the sound character is the use of the cheeks. The difference between an embouchure with fully blown-out cheeks and with flat cheeks is enormous.

  • Embouchure O = like open, blown-out cheeks: the lips are formed as if you were imitating a fish. Now open your cheeks by letting them be inflated passively with air. Like this you can initially "trap" considerably more air in your mouth, without you losing the sound. Vibrating lips "forgive" much larger changes in pressure with inflated cheeks, and this enables a fuller, more voluminous sound. In addition, this embouchure is better suited to circular breathing at the beginning; but we'll get back to that later. The symbol for this embouchure in my notation is "( )"

  • Embouchure E = like empty, even cheeks: the cheeks are flat, the lips drawn back in a grin, just as if you wanted to smile and smooch simultaneously. This tightens some very important muscles: the two round strips of muscle that run down from the corners of your mouth to your chin. With this embouchure, the so-called overtones or harmonics (more about these later too) become more precise, and the sound generally becomes sharper and clearer. The symbol for this embouchure in my notation is "| |" (You will get "|" with the key comnination: "Alt Gr" + "<")

  • Intermediate Embouchure (a bit of both): a smile like you just had some lemon juice, with slightly chubby cheeks, as if you had little table-tennis balls of air next to your upper lip. This is my favourite embouchure, because I can generate clarity/precision and a rich tone simultaneously.

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The shape and material of the mouthpiece are as different as the people who play them. Mouthpieces are always closely related to the anatomical realities and personal preferences of the player. Often the shape and size of the mouthpiece will change for the same player over time. Here again, with experience it will become relatively unimportant how the mouthpiece is formed, so long as it has a big enough hole. When they have a bigger diameter, you need more lip tension, but on the other hand you can do more with your lips and open your jaw wider. The slight "saddle" shape which comes in wax with time can be used to your advantage as well. The places where your teeth have pressed the wax lightly in form a "valley" which you can nestle into nicely.

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3) Diaphragm support / Compression

By "diaphragm support" I mean simply any muscular activity which supports the diaphragm effectively in its job of breathing. "Diaphragm breathing" plays an important role in the training of singers and players of other instruments. We didgeridoo players can also use it to help our playing. Perhaps you have already heard of the difference between breathing in the chest and in the stomach? Both these processes are in fact extremely complex, but I will present them here for our purposes in a more schematic and simplified fashion:

When breathing with the chest, you use (apart from your diaphragm) the so-called intercostal muscles (between the ribs). The rib cage rises and falls massively. When you breathe out the rib cage contracts and pushes air out of your lungs. However, there are four catches. Firstly, the chest doesn't really support breathing with your diaphragm, it "only" pushes more air out. Secondly, your intercostal muscles are not so flexible or so fast, so that the speed of your breathing is limited. Thirdly, chest breathing requires a lot of effort when inhaling. Fourthly, it's almost impossible to carry on exhaling during the "slack" phase, which is nothing more than the resting position of your chest and diaphragm position after relaxedly breathing out. The great advantages in playing when you can carry on pushing out the remaining air are explained by...

... Stomach breathing! which employs, as the name suggests, predominately the stomach muscles (and the lower back muscles) to support the diaphragm. Your complete stomach area is normally under such high pressure that (sorry, it gets unsavoury here) if you have a knife injury, your bowels can really explode outwards. Imagine your stomach area as a basketball. When you tighten your stomach muscles, you increase the pressure on the ball and further on the diaphragm, which is consequently arched upwards, expelling the air for exhalation. If you now hold the air back with your lips and put the brakes on, you will notice how pressure builds up between your diaphragm and your lips. As air is gas, it can, as is well known, be compressed. A co-ordinated collaboration of the lips, tongue and diaphragm/stomach can make the air denser. This has great advantages for playing. Firstly, you can generate and release pressure relatively quickly, which enables you to spontaneously play faster and more dynamically. Secondly, the constant movement increases the volume of the sound without it becoming any more difficult. The less air you use (blown-out), the easier it is to refill the lung!

When inhaling, your stomach can best support the diaphragm by relaxing and letting the pressure through to the "ball". This can be so effective that if you first push the leftover air out during the slack period, it feels as if your diaphragm doesn't have to do anything anymore, almost like artificial respiration. You can relax by letting your stomach really drop, which fills the lungs with sufficient air in a very short time.

In order to get a feeling where exactly your diaphragm (and stomach) are situated, and at the same time train all the muscles in your stomach, I recommend the following exercises, with which we also create the first element of sound:

Exercise 1: The Wave / The Cow: letting the drone swell and ebb

The drone becomes louder and slightly higher through increasing pressure from the stomach area, then quieter and deeper again as the stomach tension decreases. In your didge / yidaki, it sounds as if you're imitating a mooing cow.

Marc's Didgeridoo exercises: The Wave / The Cow: letting the drone swell and ebb

[ exercise 1 MP3 - 177kb ]         key to characters

Tip: Embouchure O = full cheeks. Keep your tongue flat and unmoving against your bottom jaw (as an "O"). Don't start with too much pressure, otherwise there's no possibility to increase it.

Exercise 2: Gut Slap

In contrast to the previous exercise, you don't let the drone swell up and down, but give several powerful impulses from your stomach at short intervals.

Marc's Didgeridoo exercise: ... the sudden gut slap.

[ exercise 2 MP3 - 198kb ]        key to characters

Tip: Embouchure O. Try to keep the slaps as short and explosive as possible, without breaking the drone or slipping into a higher note (toot). The diaphragm makes the same movement as when you cough or laugh.

Exercise 3: Steam Train

The Steam Train follows on very well from the previous exercise. The difference is that you accent each individual "O", making a rhythm, and then you give every fourth "O" an extra kick from your diaphragm.

Marc's Didgeridoo exercises: Steam Train.

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Tip: Silent counting makes it easier firstly to perform the exercise itself, and secondly to play the rhythm in a concrete form. It's particularly attractive when you drive the train faster and faster - but don't let it get too hectic.

Exercise 4: Following Up

With following up, you keep playing the Steam Train until it nearly stops because you're running out of air, and the drone starts to fade. Shortly before it fails completely, press the last remnants of air out with your stomach and diaphragm, with two or three long drawn out pushes, as if the train were letting off steam. It's amazing how much air there is still in reserve in the lungs. The exercise demonstrates admirably what it means "to carry on exhaling during the 'slack' phase", and what I mean by compression. But don't go over the top and push it to the border of collapsing.

Marc's Didgeridoo exercises: ... Following Up.

[ exercise 4 MP3 - 311kb ]         key to characters

Training Exercise 1: A "dry run" that definitely isn't dry

My training exercises are really physical training, to build up muscles and stamina. However, they are chosen to have a real and useful connection to the didgeridoo, while simultaneously improving fine motoric co-ordination.

In order to practice pressure and compression, you can submerge the bottom of your didge in a bucket of water or in the bath and then play as if the didge didn't have water in it. The deeper you submerge the didge in the water, the more pressure you have to create. The constant back-pressure of the water trains your diaphragm and your ability to maintain constant pressure. If you can't, you will immediately be rewarded by a slosh of delicious water. That's how this exercise demonstrates the difference between modulated compression and just using a lot of air. This exercise brought me a good step forwards a few years ago.

The next tutorial will be about overtones (harmonics) and "Oral Stops" - what's that?

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Key to the characters

"blablabla" stands for any rhythmic vocalisation line
(the rhythm words)

  • blabla

  • in bold, things that I especially want to
    draw attention to

  • bla-bla-bla

  • Minus signs stand for accented sounds,
    for example: e-i-u-a-o

  • blablabla

  • Without minus signs means connected,
    flowing together sounds, for example:
    eeiiiuuaaaooo (like imitating the wind)

  • blablabla

  • Underlined means a "special" gut slap / rhythmic accent

  • blablabLA

  • LArge letters: RhYthmic accent
    (here on the A and Y)

Additional characters in a second line under the rhythmic vocalisations:

  • blablablablabla
    1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +

  • Counted beats (e.g. 4/4 time)
    and off-beats (the "and" (+))

  • blablabla
    (              )

  • open, blown-out cheeks (Embouchure O),
    between the brackets

  • blablabla
    |              |

  • empty, even cheeks (Embouchure E),
    between | and |

  • blablabla
    (              |

  • contracting / air expelling cheeks

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Copyright © 2003-5 by Marc Miethe, Didgeridoo-Berlin. Last update: November 10 - 2005

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