Tam Eastley discovers the innumerable benefits of learning the didgeridoo…
Marc Miethe has a lot of didgeridoos. He lays them all out for me, then removes some from the umbrella-stand holder that he uses as a carrying case.
Some are wooden and fashioned in the traditional way; the branch of a eucalyptus tree which has been hollowed out by termites. Some are made right here in Berlin by carving out two pieces of wood and fusing them together. They’re of varying lengths – an aspect which determines their key.
Stacked amongst the beautiful instruments are some plastic pipes, an ode to the didgeridoo’s inherent simplicity. One of them, a “digibone,” haa a sliding tube inside it, which allows the player to change keys.
Marc explains the differences between these various didgeridoos, their advantages and disadvantages. “I prefer the originals” he tells me, the traditional ones made naturally by termites, “they sound more rich and more chaotic.”
He picks up a pipe and plays it; it has a clear, vibrational tone. He then separates the fluid buzz with his own enthusiastic brand of beat boxing. “All didgeridoo players sound different,” he explains, partly because the instrument’s simplicity allows it to be a huge source of inspiration for its players. Sounds have to be made entirely with the buzzing of the lips, movement of the tongue, and control of one’s air. It’s all achieved without electronics or keys to press.
Marc is a sixth generation Berliner. He stumbled across the didgeridoo 20 years ago, shortly into his university career at the Freie Universität. He discovered it the way many do: he heard an odd sound, and wanted to know what it was about. After three days he had mastered circular breathing, a technique imperative to the instrument which requires one to breathe in through the nose whilst simultaneously pushing air out through the mouth; six months later he was performing with his first band.
“Back then people were fine with (hearing) very basic didgeridoo,” he tells me as we sit in his studio, with didgeridoos on our laps and surrounding us, scattered all over the floor. “But it takes 5-8 years to become a superstar.”
That’s a very long time for such a simple-looking instrument. But Marc is definitely what you’d call a didgeridoo superstar, incorporating all kinds of different and exciting sounds and styles into his playing, like percussion vocalizations, hip hop influenced beat box, jazz scat, and breakbeats. He performs not only with his own band, Didges Brew, but also as a solo performer all around Europe. This May, he’ll be performing with the Symphonic Pop Orchestra in Trebbin.
I am a complete novice but excited to learn. I probably shouldn’t have arrived with my own (borrowed) bamboo didgeridoo; when placed next to Marc’s beautiful instruments, I experience my first bout of serious didge-envy. Ignoring this, one of the first things I notice as Marc talks me through the basics, is how much air is required. Sounds lame perhaps, but after a couple of seconds of blowing into the didge, I felt faint.
I try to maintain a tone, the instantly recognisable drone that the didgeridoos are famous for. It takes a while, and a lot of concentration, but finally there it is, at least for brief seconds at a time. There’s a lot of buzzing of the lips, plenty of tightening, then relaxing of the cheek and mouth muscles, a fair bit of stepping up to the instrument and then stepping away. Honestly, it feels silly at times. But when that fantastic sound comes out any awkward feelings just melt away.
Marc gets me to play a rhythm. “Hmmmmm” he says, looking at me and waggling his fingers magically, “what kind of rhythm would be good for you…” He settles on: “do dio do do,” which he writes down on a piece of paper in his own style of musical notation (I was very curious about this, because I couldn’t imagine that there was sheet music for the didgeridoo).
The “dio” sound is higher than the rest and requires movement of the tongue, a motion he explains with his hand. It’s like whistling – when you move the back of your tongue up towards the roof of your mouth. To practice, we whistle and sing into the didge and the feeling of plain, primal happiness is difficult to explain — I’d made a sound! I’d (kind of) played the rhythm!; though in hindsight, my feelings of joy may have been down to lightheadedness.
Finally we move onto circular breathing, something I am definitely not looking forward to. I played the trumpet for eight years and never mastered the technique, which was presented to me as something so utterly complicated yet so important and necessary that it became a total mind-fuck.
To my surprise, Marc agrees with my assessment. Circular breathing shouldn’t be hard. It isn’t hard. Marc himself had mastered it in three days, probably because no one had ever told him that it was virtually impossible. He asks me to fill my cheeks with air and blow it out while quickly breathing in with my nose. What I had previously considered to be an incredibly complicated concept, some sort of incommunicable circular internal body manoeuvre, was all of a sudden understandable.
It was a small step, but after years of trying I had overcome something huge: a blockage in my mind had been removed. This probably sounds a little bit therapeutic, perhaps even cheesy. But it’s an interesting reason as to why didgeridoo lessons with someone like Marc are important: they are, in a sense, a kind of therapy. He’s a trained body-psychotherapist, which means that he’s aware of how the mind influences the body, and vice versa. Given the didgeridoo is a very physical instrument, it requires the player to be aware of their body, their breath, and where their focus lies. In joining the mind and body, such blockages can be removed, and emotional issues from the past can be breathed into, and released.
Not that Marc talks about emotions in his lessons. People don’t start crying and hugging each other, and he insists (with good cheer) that he has no desire to be someone’s “emotional friend.” In fact he is refreshingly far from the general “hippy” steretype of the didgeridoo player, although he is very aware of studies that have shown playing the didge helps to cure sleep apnea and stop snoring because it trains the upper airways.
In fact, Marc’s eldest student came to him for lessons because of his sleep apnea, and after a year of playing the instrument, his condition had improved significantly. With his curiosity now piqued, Miethe wants to focus more on the medical advantages of the instrument in the future. I don’t snore (much), and I certainly don’t have sleep apnea; but the didgeridoo still strikes me as a healthy and exciting instrument to play. I left my lesson with both my face and my mind buzzing and eager to go back for more.
More info on Marc Miethe and his workshops can be found here and you can hear a podcast of his playing here. You can also catch Marc at our Slow Travel Day where he’ll be giving a performance and some workshops.