Created | Updated Oct 14, 2007
The didgeridoo is one of the oldest musical instruments in the world. It is also one of the simplest. Most people can get a note out of a didgeridoo with a few moments of practice, but the rather more tricky technique of sustaining a note for several minutes without a break takes some more time.
What is a Didgeridoo?
A didgeridoo, or 'didge' is a tube. Nothing more, nothing less. It has no holes (unless you count the one down the middle...) so it's capable of only one note, more or less. What note it plays depends mainly on the length - the longer the tube, the lower the note.
A piece of plastic pipe about three to four centimetres in diameter makes a perfectly good beginner's didge, but most people who want to play one properly will want a proper didge. Didge prices vary from less than £20 to over £150. It is very important to try out a didge before you buy it if you intend playing it. The Researcher's didge was selected from six in the shop, purely on the basis of the quality of the note it produced. Another apparently identical model was noticeably inferior when played, as was a much more decorative one for six times the price. If you want an ornament, a nicely decorated didge can certainly give an 'ethnic' feel to a room. If you want an instrument, be sure to play before you pay.
Types of Didgeridoo
Didges come in many forms. Very cheap and colourful plastic didges are available, which can produce a perfectly acceptable sound.
Slightly more upmarket are bamboo didges. Bamboo lends itself to didge manufacture by virtue of being readily tubular and plentiful.
Top of the range are more exotic woods, which are often found to have been hollowed out by the action of termites or water. Such didges look very good, but do not necessarily produce a better sound.
Proper wooden didges almost invariably have mouthpieces made of beeswax. This allows the player to customise the mouthpiece by immersing it in warm water to soften it and allow it to be moulded.
The sound a good didge makes is a kind of a drone which gets into your bones. The sound seems to tap into something primal, stirring racial memories of standing on a plain with a spear in one hand, waiting for the buffalo to come. It forms the background to traditional Aboriginal music, the soundtrack to Crocodile Dundee and almost any documentary or advert wishing to suggest an Australian feel.
How to Get a Note Out of a Didgeridoo
Stay loose. A didge is not a trumpet. The action is completely different, so forget anything you may have been thinking about keeping a stiff upper lip, or lower lip for that matter.
The correct action is more like the sort of action people do when impersonating trimphones. For those under 30, it's a bit like the thing toddlers do when making 'brrmm brrmm' noises, usually accompanied by large amounts of saliva going in all directions. The lips flap loosely as air is forced between clenched teeth. Some may need to try practicing making the mouth action without the didge before trying to get a note.
A certain tightness of lips at the corners of the mouth can help concentrate the correct action in the centre, where it needs to be, but for the first few attempts, just concentrate on getting a note at all.
Press the mouthpiece firmly to the mouth. Do not allow any air to leak out around the sides. Now do the 'brrmm brrmm' lip-flap.
Do not try to empty your lungs as quickly as possible. This Researcher has, immediately prior to typing this sentence, maintained a note for over 30 seconds on a single lungful of air, so don't rush. Try instead to maintain a slow but consistent exhalation, which will lead in time to the desired result of a consistent note.
If at first you don't succeed, try again. You will know as soon as you get it right, because the comedic squishing and burping noises you were making will suddenly and miraculously change into a satisfying, resonating drone. You may be so surprised that this has happened that you lose concentration and stop. Don't worry - if you've done it once, it will be easier next time.
Varying the Note
Variations on the note are possible by making changes to the shape of the inside of your mouth, pushing the tongue in and out and generally messing with the shape of your cheeks as you play.
A particularly strange effect can be achieved by humming a note as you exhale. You have to do this quite loudly to make it heard as part of the drone. It's particularly effective if you hum a note just a little lower than the note the didge makes, then raise it gradually to a note just a little higher than the one the didge makes. This can produce interesting resonant effects, and sounds as though there are two of you playing.
'Barking' just consists of making loud 'yip' sounds down the didge, which produces a noise which is completely impossible to describe and is useful as a sort of punctuation to the background the didge supplies to other music.
Circular Breathing is an unlikely technique which allows the player to sustain a note for far longer than their lungs allow. In essence it is quite simple, and anyone should be able to pick it up with a little practice, once you know what you're trying to achieve.
First, here's what it's not. It is not 'breathing in and out at the same time'. That's clearly impossible. Rather, you fill your cheeks with air, then inhale sharply through the nose while simultaneously squeezing the cheeks to expel the stored air. This simultaneous 'sniff/squeeze' action is the secret of circular breathing.
Learning to do it is a bit like trying to pat your head and rub your stomach, or clean your teeth while combing your hair. The 'sniff' must be sharp, quick and decisive. For that reason it is almost impossible to do while you have or are about to get a cold. The 'squeeze', by contrast, must be slow, controlled and consistent. Done properly, there is no interruption to the note at all.
The beginner should just practice squeezing a mouthful of air through the mouthpiece of the didge, then progress to sniffing at the same time. Next, try playing a note, and ending on a squeeze of the cheeks. As you do that, sniff and resume as soon as possible. The time between stopping and starting again will rapidly diminish until you can keep a note going all day if necessary.
At this point it becomes necessary to talk about saliva. You'll produce it, and if it leaks out it will ruin your note. So hold the didge close to horizontal, rather than looking down at it. This will hopefully keep most of your spit in your mouth where it belongs, rather than running down the inside of your didge. Ugh!
The didgeridoo makes a primitive sound, and playing one can be a form of meditation. Putting your concentration into forming a really pure note, and sustaining it for minutes at a time, can detach the mind from reality for a while.
A nicely decorated didge makes a good ornament, and being able to take it down and actually play it can make for some entertainment.
So go play.