How to Play a Didgeridoo
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All text & photographs
Copyright © 2002-2013 by Matthew Harris
Sound samples and music (P) 2002-2013 by Matthew Harris
You should be cautioned that it isn't easy to learn how to play didgeridoo from text explanations alone. It's best if you can find someone in your area who already plays, and is willing to teach you. If you're lucky, you have a friend who can show you how; if not, you can also find people who teach for money and there are a few instructional videos that might help. I've heard many people report that there was someone at the store where they bought their didgeridoo who at least showed them how to make a basic drone.
The good news is, you don't need a $500 didgeridoo to learn how to play. Because any hollow cylinder of sufficient length and diameter can be played as a didgeridoo - plastic or metal pipe, bamboo, electrical conduit, cardboard mailing tubes, even vacuum-cleaner wands and lamp standards - you should easily be able to find something that you can make a drone in and get started. Look around you, the world is filled with didgeridoos (or, at least, didgeridoo facsimiles). (See Making a Didgeridoo for information about suitable lengths and diameters for a didgeridoo.)
The next few sections briefly explain three fundamental playing techniques: the basic drone, tonguing, and circular breathing.
One of the things that surprises most people who've never seen a didgeridoo before is the size of the mouthpiece opening. This opening is so large because all or almost all of a player's lip surface is needed to produce the didgeridoo's rather low pitch. For a beginning player, a smaller mouthpiece opening is better than a larger opening; about 2.5 cm (1 inch) is good when you're just starting out. If necessary, you can usually sculpt the beeswax to make a smaller opening; hold your hand on the mouthpiece until the beeswax is warm, and then press it inwards to reduce the size of the opening. As you gain playing skill, you can enlarge the opening.
You can position your mouth on the mouthpiece either at dead center (straight into the didgeridoo), or at one side. Experiment to see which position is most comfortable for you. Make sure that your lips are supported by the mouthpiece, and that no air leaks out anywhere around your lips. As you try to make the drone, experiment with your mouth position (and even reshaping the beeswax) until there are no air leaks and your lips feel evenly supported.
Relaxation is one of the keys to making the didgeridoo drone; it sounds overly mystical, but it is true that the drone isn't so much something that you make happen as something that you let happen.
Take a full lungful of air (but not so much that it requires effort to hold in the air), place your lips against the didgeridoo, and blow gently, letting your cheeks fill and puff out with air. The lip action you want is very loose and relaxed; play Sound 1 to hear what the desired loose lip flapping sounds like when done off the didgeridoo mouthpiece.
If you have a well-made didgeridoo that has been tuned to a particular pitch, it's pretty easy to tell when you have the drone right; the entire didgeridoo tube will resonate, giving you a pleasant tactile feedback. The drone itself will sound particularly full.
If air leaks out anywhere around your mouth, you'll have trouble making the drone; experiment with your mouth position to find a position that doesn't let air leak. Try rotating the didgeridoo to find a good mouth position. Feel free to sculpt the beeswax in your mouthpiece. Once the beeswax has warmed up from contact with your body, you can shape and reshape the beeswax with firm, gentle finger pressure.
A few individuals with a mustache or beard have difficulty finding a mouth position that doesn't let air leak out. If this happens to you, try tucking the didgeridoo under your mustache; most people have a margin at the edge of their lip where no hair grows and you can get the mouthpiece to seal against this. (This is the approach used by the author.) Others simply keep their mustache trimmed very short, and don't experience any problems.
If you're having trouble making any kind of buzzing sound, you're probably blowing too hard. A common beginner's mistake is to blow too hard; the force of the air just pushes the lips apart instead of making them vibrate and all you get is a sort of whooshing noise. To make the basic drone, you really don't need to exhale any more vigorously than you would while speaking conversationally.
If you find yourself making a lot of squeaky noises, you're probably pressing your lips together too tightly. Let your lips relax. Many former brass players press their lips together too firmly to make the didgeridoo drone at first. Brass players are taught to use a lip armature that is most easily described as "smile and blow." Although this is correct for instruments such as trumpet, it is incorrect for the didgeridoo drone - the lips are simply too rigid. If you're doing anything with the muscles in your face that feels like smiling, you're inhibiting your ability to make the drone. Relax your whole face, let your cheeks relax and puff up with air; let your lips actually sag into the didgeridoo.
When you can hold a steady drone for about 10 seconds, you're ready to move onto the next step. Play Sound 2 to hear a basic didgeridoo drone.
So far, you should have been making the basic drone with your cheeks expanded and filled with air. Now make the basic drone and pull your cheeks flat (against your teeth), and then let them fill up with air again. Don't be surprised if you suddenly have trouble keeping the drone going. Practice will get you to a point where you can pull your cheeks completely flat without losing the air seal around your lips or letting the drone stop.
Once you have reached a point where you can keep the basic drone going for about 10 - 15 seconds while flattening and expanding your cheeks, you're ready to try some rhythm techniques and take a stab at circular breathing.
Tonguing is the basic technique for adding rhythm patterns to the didgeridoo drone. As you make the drone, quickly touch your tongue to the roof of your mouth, as if saying "dah-dah" or "tah-tah" (but without actually using your voice). You need to make the tongue motion against the roof of your mouth (or behind your teeth) quickly. If you don't move your tongue away from the top of your mouth quickly enough, your tongue blocks too much air and the drone stops. When you are tonguing correctly, your tongue briefly touches the roof of your mouth, and you hear a momentary change in the drone, like a pulse-beat. Play Sound 3 to hear an example of the tonguing technique.
Experiment with this; you can easily work out rhythm patterns in just about any tempo or time signature. If you can mark a rhythm pattern you want by saying "tum-te-tumty-tum" (or whatever) you can put that pattern into your didgeridoo sound by making the same tongue motions (without vocalization) as you make the drone. Practice will produce the dexterity needed to make crisp beats at any tempo.
Circular breathing is especially tough to grasp without a visual demonstration. The term itself is perhaps a little misleading. It isn't really possible to breathe in and out simultaneously. Circular breathing is merely a technique of using air stored in your mouth to keep the instrument's note going while you breathe in through your nose. If you've ever learned how to rub your head and pat your stomach at the same time, you can learn how to circular breathe.
First, start by filling your cheeks with air, and then squeeze the air out (do not blow, just squeeze with your cheeks, as if spitting out a mouthful of water). Now, breath in quickly through your nose. These are the two motions of circular breathing. The trick is to synchronize them so you can do both at the same time.
To convince yourself that it is possible to make the drone with only the air in your mouth, it's helpful at this point to put your mouth to the didgeridoo and try out the first part of circular breathing. Fill your cheeks with air and squeeze the air out with your cheeks, holding your lips in position to make the drone. You should be able to produce a short, sort of strange drone for half a second, perhaps longer. However long you can make this sound is how long you have to breath in through your nose. (Play Sound 4 for an example of the sound you're looking for; Sound 4 continues on to demonstrate the mouth-squeeze as part of a continuous drone.)
Repeat the procedure in the preceding paragraph; this time, breath in through your nose after squeezing out the air. Do this several times. Now, try to synchronize the two motions so that you begin to breath in through your nose at the same time (or a very short time after) you begin squeezing air out with your mouth. When you can do that, you are circular breathing. Have fun!
All text & photographs Copyright © 2002-2013 by Matthew Harris
All sound samples and music (P) 2002-2013 by Matthew Harris