Playing A Didgeridoo
About the Didgeridoo
The didgeridoo is an instrument with a history as deep and subtle as its sound. It is native to certain indigenous Aboriginal tribes who have occupied Australia’s Northern Territory for at least 40,000 years. While there is only documented history describing didgeridoo use by these tribes for the past 1,500 years, it is certainly Australia’s oldest musical instrument, and is perhaps the world’s first wind instrument.
While the word didgeridoo was probably applied onomatopoetically by white settlers to describe the sound made by the instrument, there are roughly forty aboriginal names for the instrument, which vary from region to region. In Arnhemland it is known as yidaki, which means “emu’s throat.” Nowadays the didgeridoo is played by other Aborigines all over Australia, even those tribes for whom it is a new tradition. The instrument’s unusual sound has also lent it popularity overseas as well.
Traditional didgeridoos are made from young, termite-hollowed eucalyptus tree trunks, and are harvested, handcrafted, and painted by one or more artisans of one of several Australian aboriginal tribes. A subset of these didges, particularly those made by craftsmen with reputations for creating truly great didgeridoos, are among the most sought after, and command the highest prices, because the means of production guarantees small numbers of instruments.
Note that there are a great many didgeridoos that attempt to duplicate traditional methods of craftsmanship in order to sell at a higher premium. When attempting to acquire a traditional didgeridoo, it’s important to know what you’re looking for and to only deal with ethical merchants. There are also a great many non-traditional didgeridoos made by other craftspeople, other materials, and in other countries. Regardless of the didge’s source, the true test for any didgeridoo is how it plays for you. Otherwise, it’s just an expensive log.
State of Mind
As with beginning any journey, your state of mind is important when learning to play the didgeridoo. Some people acquire the skills they need easily and in a short time, while others take longer, and must work harder at mastering these skills. Here are some lessons I’ve learned from the didge over the past year that I want to suggest you keep in mind as you play and learn, both tonight, and in the future.
- Relax. Try stretching your body before you play in the future.
- Be patient with yourself and with your instrument. Don’t use anyone else as a benchmark for your progress.
- Stay playful. Don’t be afraid to look, sound, or be silly.
- Keep an open mind to what the didgeridoo has to teach you. It has a lot to say.
- Practice outside when you can.
- Relax. Close your eyes and survey your body for areas of tension. Let it go.
- Get a massage at least once a quarter.
- Treat yourself right.
- Try to stay away from tobacco.
- Wash your body, blow your nose and brush your teeth and tongue before you play.
- Remember that the body and mind are connected. Healthy body = healthy mind = healthy body.
Playing Technique Exercises
Beginning The Drone This exercise will first have you produce a buzzing sound with your lips all by themselves, then work on transferring that buzz to the didgeridoo.
The Buzz Keeping your mouth closed, blow air from your lungs past your lips such that your lips vibrate loosely. Think of blowing a raspberry. Now try the same buzz using air forced from your cheeks. Alternate between using air from your lungs using your diaphragm, and air from your cheeks, using a “cheek squeeze.” Learning to differentiate and switch between these two sources of air will come in handy later.
Transferring the Buzz to the Pipe There are two ways to put your mouth on the didgeridoo. Some prefer playing to the side, using one side of their mouth to generate the buzz. Others prefer to buzz the pipe straight on. Try both, and do what works best for you.
- Relax your lips. This solves a lot of problems before they start.
- Don’t hold the didge tightly against your mouth. You do need a seal between mouth and mouthpiece, but it need not be tight. If you find yourself pressing tightly against the mouthpiece, remind yourself to relax.
- Don’t overblow. It should not take a great deal of air to get your pipe buzzing.
- Keep practicing at getting your drone consistent and steady for as much as 20 or more seconds on a single breath. Can’t do that just yet? Don’t sweat it, but keep at it.
- If you have a wax mouthpiece, and you’re having trouble, play around with the mouthpiece dimensions until you find one that’s right for you. It may make a lot of difference in the beginning. As you improve strength and control, the mouthpiece will matter less and less.
- Practice buzzing with your lips straight on, and then on either side.
- Keep a buzz going for as long as you can, using as little air as possible.
- Alternate between droning with air driven from your diaphragm, and air from your cheeks.
- Try holding a drone for a count of three and on the four, sniffing air into your lungs, and then resuming the drone.
Vowels, Consonants, and Harmonics
A E I O U
As with playing a jaw harp, or throat singing, you will find that as you change the interior dimensions of your mouth and alter your tongue position, you will be able to hear different harmonics emerge from the drone. This is better experienced than written about, so let’s proceed directly to exercises.
- Begin a drone, then practice holding your mouth as if saying the letter A. Do not vocalize the vowel just yet. Instead, let the position of your mouth and tongue shape the drone. Repeat for AEIO and U. Which vowels produce the most pronounced harmonics?
- Now try droning a combination of three vowels together, as in AEI, IOU, AOE, OIO, etc. Create and drone your own triplets.
- Conserving your breath, try doing all five vowels: AEIOU
- Now go back to triplets. Try to do a triplet, sniff air without removing your mouth from the mouthpiece, and do the same triplet. Work at it until you have a rhythm you can sustain.
Adding Consonants Let’s take the vowel exercises we just did, and add consonants to create phrases.
Use T, D, and G to begin the vowel sound, as in:
Practice these consonants each several times.
Now try the vowel exercise (AEIOU) working your way through each consonant in the alphabet. Note which ones make sounds you like.
Next, try mixing and matching different consonant sounds in triplets, such as:
Next, take a triplet (such as DO-DAY-REE) and sniff between triplets, as in DO-DAY-REE , DO-DAY-REE, etc.
Practice this triplet exercise, mixing and matching triplets.
H is for Diaphragm
Now that we’ve exhausted all the consonants, let’s use one of them to develop control and strength in your diaphragm.
- Drop an H in front of the AEIOU exercise we’ve been doing up till now, so as to get HA-HE-HI-HO-HU.
- Now try this: HE-HE-HE-HE. Vary the breaks in the tone, compressing them (HEHEHEHEH) and expanding them
- Now vary the degree of volume, using a lot of air, and then very little air. You should hear a subtle vibrato on the close intervals, and more of a trancey pulsing on the longer intervals.
Cheek Chops As we discovered in using your cheeks to force a drone, developing control of and strengthening your cheek muscles are important to successful didge playing. Cheek control and power are also important to successful circular breathing, as will be seen later. To make a cheek squeeze, puff out your cheeks and expel the air past your lips. The result will sound like: doooo WIT. The cheeks are puffed out on the DOOO part, then the squeeze begins with the “W” sound, and terminates in the final “T” sound.
- Try the following:
- DOOO WIT; DOO WIT WIT, DOO WIT WIT WIT;
- GA WIT GA WIT
- Now try GA WEE OOOO. Notice that this one allows a continuous, or sustained drone.
- Invent a cheek triplet, and practice doing cheek squeezes, and sniffing air on the fourth beat as before.
Vocalization Singing and humming along with your didge is more than half the fun. I’ve broken this section into three parts to make this easier.
Low Sounds While droning, try to match the note of your didge. You should notice a warm harmony emerge when you hit the right note. Now bend the note upward slightly. Providing you have a steady drone, and are holding the note, you should hear a rhythmic pulsing. This is an effect of the two sound waves (didge and you) being slightly out of phase. You should notice the same effect if you bend the note down.
High Sounds While droning, try punctuating the drone with a high-pitched yip, or bark.
Animal Sounds The Australian Aborigines often imitate the animals they hear around them as part of telling stories about their environment, and enacting rituals.
Three typical ones include:
(wau-wau-wau-wau; uuuuuuuuh, uuuuuh, uhhhhh)
(kukukukukukuku –kah KAH KAH)
These sounds are hard to capture in textual form, but many examples of these and other sounds are available
on the Internet.
- Perform all earlier exercises while vocalizing at various ranges.
- Working with your vocal range, find which notes
sound the best for you and your didge.
- Working with triplets, try punctuating your rhythms with yips, barks, growls, humming, etc.
Circular breathing is the key to maintaining the continuous sound of the didgeridoo. The trick is to be able to sniff air while pushing sufficient air out with your cheeks to maintain your drone. Some people apprehend this skill immediately, while others take months or years to “break through.” The things to keep in mind are as follows:
- This is just one of many skills you need to get under your belt. It is possible to be an excellent didge player and not be able to circular breathe. If you find that circular breathing frustrates you, you always have other things to work on between attempts.
- Be patient with yourself.
- Whenever possible, hang out with other didge players. Sometimes seeing it happen helps it happen.
What Happens During Circular Breathing
While droning, the player “saves up” a little air in their cheeks, just before using up all the air in their lungs. Note that CB-ing is much easier if you DON’T use up all your air, as there’s less strain. Before breathing in through the nose, the back of the tongue is pressed up into the soft palate, creating a seal. Now air is sniffed in. The tongue is now relaxed, and air flow resumes from the lungs and diaphragm into the instrument. The skill is in keeping the pressure even between breathing out through the lungs and breathing out through the cheeks. Changes in pressure will result in changes in intensity or volume of the sound.
- Inflate your cheeks, and build up some pressure in your mouth. Pinch your nose if you need to.
- With your cheeks inflated, try breathing in and out through your nose.
- Here’s one to try at home, in the shower, or over the sink. Get a mouthful of water. While breathing through your nose normally, force a steady stream of water out through your lips. The key is to get a steady stream of water forced out by your cheek muscles, while breathing through your nose. Once your muscles have learned this “contradictory” set of actions, transferring this skill to your didge-playing will be easier.
- Now, using a straw and a glass of water about 1/3 full, practice blowing bubbles with cheek pressure, and alternating the source of air, first lungs, then cheeks. Sniff air in while using your cheeks to create a steady stream of bubbles. In this exercise, the purpose is to make the switch between lung and cheek power, and keeping the bubbles coming steadily.
If this doesn’t come easily, or if these exercises do not help you, there are a variety of other methods to learn CB-ing published on any number of websites. DVDs, books, online guides and the like are now in great abundance. As before, it’s also a good idea to seek out other didge players. Having others around who can CB is often very helpful. Finally, be patient. Everyone learns at their own pace.