Thierry Frenkel

Born 1964 in Freiburg/southern Germany in a French-German family. Main hobbies in the youth: Music and radio electronics. Studied recorder, violin, viola, piano, flute, and conducting besides an international secondary school and planned to go to the music university to become an orchestra and choir conductor. Family circumstances made that he couldn’t realize this plan, he was instead pushed towards a more « serious » career and thus studied mathematics and computer science. He lives actually in Colmar/France and works as a software developer. Every free minute is dedicated to the theremin. He is the (co-) founder and director of various theremin academies in different European countries. As a luthier, he services, repairs, and improves Theremins for players in the whole world. His research and resulting understanding of the instrument as well as his experience as a musician make him a valued theremin teacher, too.


So please, if you have anything that you would like to say publicly about Clara Rockmore, her creativity and her anniversary, – please write.

Clara Rockmore was for sure the musician who did the most for the recognition of the Theremin as a « serious » music instrument. Thanks to her personality and her qualities as a professional musician, she was first able to help Leon Theremin improving his instrument and then to make it widely known to conductors (i.e. Leopold Stokowski) and the grand public. She was one of the greatest ambassadors of the Theremin.

What prompted you to play theremin?

From my earliest youth on, I had two hearts in my chest: the musician and the scientist/technician. When I heard of the theremin for the first time, I thought that it would perhaps allow me to get both traits together, which now, many years later, has most probably proven true.

What were your first feelings when you heard the sounds of theremin and where did it happen?

It happened at home, one night when I had difficulties in falling asleep. I looked for some music on the internet and by chance I listened to Martinu’s Fantasia for Theremin, oboe, and string quintet. At first, I could not identify the theremin but I felt intrigued by its expressivity. When I knew later which instrument it was, one thing led to another…

What is your musical philosophy and what place it occupies a theremin?

Making music in general is about being modest and humble, towards the instrument, the composer, your teachers, and the great virtuosos, to not make them shame. The theremin has to be seen like any other classical music instrument (which was the idea of its inventor) and thus requires not only talent, but also long and systematic study of music theory, music history, and performance practice which is a question of respect. Unfortunately, the RCA company did a false advertising in 1930: « When you can hum or whistle a tune, you can also play it on the theremin ». This is NOT true. The theremin deserves the same respect and the same hard work as the violin, for example, does. Again, Clara Rockmore gives the best example. I found for myself that, due to my various activities, I will most probably never be a great theremin virtuoso because I lack the time to practice several hours a day. That’s why I rarely perform in public. I guess that my place is rather behind the scene, using my knowledge for servicing and improving the instruments of more talented players, and continuing my research to still better understand the interaction between the human body and the electronic circuit, leading to an improvement of the playing technique which I transmit as a teacher.

Prospects for theremin and its place in modern music space – how you see them? For what qualities you value this tool?

Technically seen, the theremin has a very rudimentary interface between itself and the player. That makes it very difficult to play on one side, but that gives it many degrees of freedom for musical expression on the other side. Many different people explore many different ways to make music on it. Some of them are for sure dishonorable, but others are very promising. The theremin is a relatively young instrument in the big orchestra and we are still at the very beginning of a long journey. The centuries to come will judge and tell.

Which manufacturer of theremin do you prefer?

None. As I wrote before, the theremin is a very young instrument and everybody, musicians and manufacturers are still in the phase of exploring. It’s to me like the violin in the early 17th century: It existed already in various forms where each had its advantages and its weak points, but the great luthiers like Stradivarius, Guarneri and Amati had not yet given it the final perfection which we value still today.

What you can recommend for beginners thereminists, or those who are just going to start their way of thereminist?

a) Be modest and respectful. Study music and do your best to value the instrument and the music which you play on it.b) Understand the similarity between the theremin and bowed string instruments: One hand for pitch, vibrato, and forming tone transitions, and the other hand (which is not less important!!!) for articulation, phrasing, and musical expression in general. c) Although playing in tune is already a big challenge on the theremin, you shall not neglect the other hand. If you do so, you risk to turn it into a perfect electronic tone generator but you will never play music on it.d) Look for a teacher. Studying alone risks you to take bad habits which will, earlier or later, block you. If you can not find a theremin teacher near you, travel as often as you can to meet one. And/or work with a violin or cello teacher who are easier to find. The latter will not forcibly be helpful with the theremin playing technique, but they can give you great input in terms of musical expression.e) Never remain captured in self-satisfaction and mediocrity. Be your most severe critic yourself. Follow the example of the great virtuosos, beginning with Clara Rockmore. Aim for excellence!