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
- 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.
Techniques and 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.
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
- 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
- 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.
Consonants, and Harmonics
E I O U
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
- 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
- Now try droning a combination of three vowels together,
as in AEI, IOU, AOE, OIO, etc. Create and drone your own
- 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
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:
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
Arnhem Land learn to
play early on.
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 <sniff>, DO-DAY-REE
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.
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.
and humming along with your didge is more than half the
fun. I’ve broken this section into three parts to make
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.
Sounds While droning, try punctuating the drone with a high-pitched
yip, or bark.
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)
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
- 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.
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.
Happens During Circular Breathing
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
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
We also have excellent DVDs and CDs to help you learn how to play the didgeridoo. More...
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