Etudes on the Toot
A tutorial look at the technique and use of the first overtone note of the
didjeridu by Ed Drury
If you dont have a Real Audio player, you can get one
Establishing the note - Example of the first
overtone playing. Overtones are the result of increasing the frequency
of the buzzing lips by tightening them as is done in playing brass instruments
like the trumpet or french horn. Play the basic drone and tighten up your
lips while slightly increasing the air flow through them. This should result
in a note whose pitch is between an octave and a 12th above the dominant.
[ See instrument considerations at the end of this
Prolonging the note. Once you have found the right note, try to prolong
the note out to several seconds. Next, try varying the harmonics of the note
using various mouth shapes described in "Learn to Play
the Didjeridu". Finally, try to circular breathe while playing the overtone
note. Strive to play the overtone note the same as you would the fundamental,
adding harmonics, circular breathing and even vocalizations for several minutes
at a time. If you have more than one didjeridu, try these exercises on all
of your instruments. Here is a real audio example of what I mean :
Transferring between the fundamental and the first overtone. A smooth
seamless transition between the fundamental note of the didjeridu and the
first overtone is usually the desired effect. It is certainly the one which
requires the most practice to do consistently. One method for smoothing out
the transitions is to simply start going from the basic drone to the overtone
note and back to the basic drone. With some practice, you should be able
to move between the two notes smoothly. Notice that the air pressure required
for a clean high note is slightly more than for the basic drone. Try to make
the high note and the basic drone about the same loudness. This will help
create the seamless effect that your looking for. The upper note should not
blast out, like a horn but be more of the timbre and volume of the drone
if your looking for that smooth transfer between the two notes. Start slowly
and gradually try and make the overtone note as brief as possible.
As you shorten the duration of the overtone, there are several techniques
which will help you to make the transition between the low notes faster.
I often use three such techniques. The first is to roll my lower lip in (toward
the teeth) so that the air stream is briefly directed downwards toward the
bottom wall of the didj rather than straight down the center. You can also
direct the air stream up toward the top wall of the didj or to either side.
Different didjs will respond differently, but the point is that you can direct
the airstream to a point closer to the mouthpiece and simulate a much shorter
(therefore higher pitched) instrument resulting in an overtone. The second
technique I like to use is to stick the tip of my tongue out between the
front teeth so that it touches the bottom lip briefly. Here is a Real
Audio cut of me doing just that : Tonged
Overtone. While with practice, you can do this technique simply by using
the tongue, at first it may be easier to employ the cheeks as well. This
is done much like spitting a watermelon seed out off your mouth. While I'm
not a champion watermelon seed spitter, I rather imagine one could get
good distance and accuracy by using the tongue to aim the seed and the cheeks,
squeezed together rapidly for force, to make a decent effort. Same with the
overtone. Spit that note out! Finally, I employ a
bounced breath timing the tightening of my lips with
the breath in. The gut slap resulting from the bounced
breath supplies the extra breath support required by the tighter lip position.
Here is an example of Bounced overtones.
"Tup" Overtones - In Northeastern Arnhem Land playing (See Richard
the first overtone note is of a different sound character sometimes called
a tup. The transfer between it and the blown fundamental is described
in Trevor A. Jone's publication ARNHEM LAND MUSIC PART TWO
published in OCEANIA, Vol XXVI, No. 4. Mr Jones's writes about this
note, "The most usual method is to 'touch off,' as it were, the high note
very lightly and in a clipped staccato contrasted to the long sustained
note." He goes on to describe this use of two notes as creating "elaborate
counterpoints against each other" to the degree that "one would swear both
these notes were being produced by a drum." Before attempting to deomonstrate
this patterning, I want to talk about the character of the sound. As opposed
to more contemporary playing styles, the lip position of the North East Arnhem
Land player is some what "pushed out" or pouted. By controlling the corners
of the mouth slightly, the jump between the overtone note and the drone is
a smoother one.
|Additionally, the tongue is retroflexed which has the effect
of splitting the airstream into two on either side of the tongue
and creating pressure to build up in the back of the mouth. Here is an example
of the overtone note with retroflexed tongue.
And here's a example of switching quickly between the two notes, holding
the tongue in it's retroflexed position and using just the corners of the
mouth to affect the change : tup2.ra.
Slurred Overtones - Slurring is going from one note to another without
tonguing. It's also an excuse to introduce the subject of multiple overtones.
Here is an example of slurring between the drone and
Adding a vocal sound immediately after the overtone will help
make the transition smoother if you still have a "gap" between the drone
and the overtone note. My feeling is that this is a bit of a "coverup" technique.
A sharp bark or low pitch growl following the overtone note will bring the
listener right back into the present and hide that gap which sometimes occurs
as you transition back down to the fundamental note.
Double Tonging Exercise - Interjecting the overtone within a pattern
of double tonged notes is one way to make your overtone notes clean and more
interesting. Here is a Real Audio example :
Triple Tonging Exercise - the same principal can be used with
triple tonguing (or any other rhythmic pattern) Here is an example of this
Play on and off beats - The overtone can be placed right on a beat
or between beats. This is an exercise which does both :
on and off beats.
Instrument considerations - When I first started playing I noticed
that instruments which had a slight curve somewhere between eight inches
and a foot from the mouthpiece end seemed much easier for overtone playing.
Also that longer lower pitched pipes where easier than short high pitch pipes.
( I should mention that not all long pipes are low in pitch). This general
rule seemed to not apply to two other shape variations, which aren't always
obvious from looking at the pipe. The first thing I've learned is that pipes
which have a narrowing a short distance distal to the mouthpiece seem to
give some advantage. The second is that didjs which are conical rather than
cylindrical on the inside also seem to have better response to overtone
As to the quality of the overtone note itself, this will depend on
what sound you prefer. I like a duller, flatter percussive style note. To
achieve this sound, I usually prefer instruments on which the first overtone
note is closer to an octave above the fundamental note rather than the common
10th or higher. This also assists with the speed and smoothness with which
one can move between the two notes. Smaller diameter mouthpieces with a gradually
tapered bore out to a medium trumpet end seemed to be my personal favorites.
Of course, this is all very subjective. Experimentation by trying these
techniques on as many instruments as you can is the real test. Perfect sound,
mouthpiece size, bore and other considerations are a matter of experience
and personal preference to a large degree. A person seeking a "traditional"
sound, will definitely want to pursue obtaining an instrument from the region
where the playing style sought is performed.
With practice, all the exercises and techniques can be done on any
didjeridu. You may find certain instruments challenging at first, but if
you have really practiced the preceeding exercises and mastered them, you
should be able to play them on an ordinary piece of pipe.
Credits - There are so many people who have helped me in my
efforts to play the didjeridu. Most significantly the first Australians,
the people we call "Aboriginal". They are the owners of the didjeridu tradition
and the best players in the world. I'd like to thank the members of the didjeridu
listserver at Mills College for a constant flow
of information and fellowship. My good friend and one of the best overtone
players I've ever heard, John Burrows who reviewed my work and offered great
advise and invaluable support on this project and others. Richard Man for
his wonderful page on
styles and our shared love of traditional playing styles.
Peter Lister, who
along with Richard and John, fire my interest in playing styles diverse and
wonderful. Peter's contributions to the list, the web and my life are
beyond my ability to express in words. Brian Pertl, a wonderful teacher and
an incredible didj player who is really my role model. And to all of my didjeridu
students from the classes and workshops, especially those who have become
life friends like Rick Dusek, Peg, Margie (who decided on a career in music
education!), Betty, and so many more. I am truely blessed to have crossed
paths with you all.
Glossary of Terms
Bounced Breaths - There is another, more rhythmic, way to circular
breathe. Go back to lesson one and review our first rhythm which was ai
ccomplished with gut slaps. What we want to do here is bounce the air through
our buzzing lips and snatch a quick sniff of air through the nose immediately
Double Tonging is a method of tonguing which creates couplets of beats.
It is accomplished by alternating striking the tip of the tongue (as done
when pronouning the consonant sound "T") and the back of the tongue (as when
you make the "K" consonant sound). To notate this rhythm phonetically use
the phrase , "Tuk Ka Tuk Da".
Gut Slaps (or bounced note) - Example of the bounced
note. Our first rhythm is a basic 4/4 beat produced by bouncing the air
through our buzzing lips using the tummy muscles just as if we were expelling
a deep belly laugh (eg - ha!ha!ha!ha!).
Triple Tonging divides the beats into triplets and can be notated
phonetically with the phrase, "Tuk Eh Tah, Tuck Eh Tah".
Corrections and comments to : Ed
Learn to Play the Didjeridu Copyright 1994-1999