How is a didgeridoo made?

A didgeridoo is generally made from a branch of a tree from different species native to the areas of various tribes around Australia. There are also different techniques to cut down the branches from the tree. The branches of trees used for didgeridoos are hollowed out by the termites (white ants). When you’re looking to make an instrument, you’re looking for a branch that is hollowed, you can see the termite trails, tap on the branch and put your ear up to listen to it. There are also different ways of making an instrument between tribes. In my tribe, the Kalkadungu tribe, our didgeridoos are generally between the keys of B to F in the mid-scale range and even down to low A, whereas some of the didgeridoos used by the bands like Yothu Yindi are cut from the base of the tree, where the trunk of the tree is the didgeridoo, those didgeridoos have the feature of the bell, they flare out at the bottom and narrow down towards the mouthpiece – you end up with a louder, faster instrument with back pressure that is very articulate but also has the bass resonance from the bell bottom.

What determines the pitch of a didgeridoo?

The length and diameter of the didgeridoo determines the pitch of the instrument. If you went out to the bush and wanted a didgeridoo in a specific key, you would overcut the branch so you have a bit of length way and then you can fine tune it to the right key by cutting it to size. It’s not as straightforward as the longer the instrument the higher or lower the pitch though. The diameter and width also determines the key. You can also influence the key with your embouchure, wind pressure – blowing harder or softer, lipping up or down like a brass player – these can bend the key by up to a tone depending on the didgeridoo and its base depth. I find that didgeridoos that have a lower frequency are easier to attain the pitch bend, with a minimum of a semitone to a full tone either way. You can also add an extension, as long as you need, like a bit of PVC pipe or a toilet paper roll which is one musical tone.

Tell us about the mouthpiece and using beeswax?

The mouthpiece is essentially just the end of the didgeridoo. Some didgeridoo players prefer to have it plain, without any beeswax on there, however it would have to be sanded down, so you don’t get any woodchips around your mouth, or burnt in the fire to make it smooth. Adding the beeswax gives you a bit of flexibility in terms of adjusting it to the different sizes of peoples mouths and also finetuning it so you can articulate or get the overtones of the horn sounds and the harmonics in different keys, its kind of like its own mechanism of a mouthpiece that you can adjust as frequently as you wish. Beeswax can tend to melt in hot weather, so it’s important to keep the instrument in a dry spot. It’s also good for bacteria (being antibacterial) and gives you a good seal.

What’s the lifespan of a didgeridoo?

The lifespan of a didgeridoo, traditionally speaking and considering the protocols of each tribe, is generally up to 100 years old, it’s rare to find anything older than that. Normally the instrument, the yidaki, will be broken up into pieces and burnt in the fire and therefore too the sound and the traditional spirit of the elder that played it. However, my didgeridoo that was given to me by my uncle’s tribe was passed down for me to forever continue the culture and the sound of the didgeridoo in this modern day and age, so I was very honoured to receive it.

I was involved in a project at the Adelaide Museum where I was honoured by being able to go into their storage room at their exhibition about the yidaki and it’s origin and the channels that it’s travelled musically around the world, and I had the experience of playing on these old instruments that were anywhere between 50-100 years old that hadn’t been touched for some years. One of the curators was a bit stressed and we had to wear gloves because some of them had been sprayed with pesticide, so they needed to be handed carefully! I only played the ones I was drawn to, that I felt safe to play culturally, as there were some that were ceremonial didgeridoos only meant for ceremonial purposes.

What is circular breathing and how long can you hold your breath?

Circular breathing is one of the key components in learning to play the didgeridoo. It’s a technique utilising the breath, in through the nose and out through the mouth. You’re breathing down into your diaphragm, like a singer and holding the air down there. I describe it like Scottish bagpipes where you always must fill up that bag – that’s your diaphragm – by about 90%. As you breathe in you have this tension and you keep on topping up with fresh air. The faster the rhythms you play, the shorter and quicker the intervals of breathing in and out through your nose and out through your mouth – the slower the rhythm you can almost breathe normally. There are instances where you can take too much breath in when playing fast – all you do there is wait a few seconds or blow air back out through your nose and breathe in again.

I have the Guinness Book of Records for holding the longest note on one breath of air for a wind instrument. The trick to this was having a decibel and frequency reader. I held one note for 30 seconds on the Channel 7 show but outside of that I can go over one minute on one breath of air without changing the tone – the first note that I hit had to stay a consistent tone within 5% either side of that frequency.

How do you make the different bird and animal sounds?

With the didgeridoo, you can use your tongue, your vocal chords and breathing patterns to create the polyphony of sounds possible to hear through the instrument. The simple one is the kookaburra which is from the back of the vocal chords, alternating between high and low notes. You can then add your tongue to that to articulate - single tongue, double tongue or flutter tongue effects that create a flurry of sounds. One technique can be expressed to mean many different things. So, the bouncing of the kangaroo – “di di yo, di di you, di di yo” – can be solid rhythm behind a song man as he performs a ceremony, or it can be a fast rhythm with double tongue. Use of the breathing patterns, tongue patterns and vocal chords are the three primary techniques and elements to project vocalisations through the instrument when you’re creating a storyline.

How do you make a clearer sound with the didgeridoo?

You can pour room temperature water down on the inside of the instrument and swirl it around until it seals up the perforations, so the water tightens up the inside which gives it a brighter sound. If there are any cracks on the didgeridoo you can use a bit of beeswax and then tape or twine. The longer the wood is cured when the didgeridoo is made, the better it will maintain and stop from cracking. There are traditional methods from certain tree saps to the use of linseed oil to help preserve the instrument before they paint the sealing coat. Didgeridoos, like most instruments, weren’t meant for flying, so when you travel on a plane regularly, particularly to colder European countries they can tend to crack, but that’s just the nature of the instrument.

How do you build up speed and endurance and expand your lung capacity?

One way to build up your strength, stamina and speed is through playing the didgeridoo in a bucket of water and then progressing to a wheelie bin full of water. When you first start out, because of the pressure of playing the didge in the water, it will cut out the vibrations of your lips while you’re blowing the air. So, the main thing is to start steadily, bit by bit, lowering the instrument that first couple of inches and going in more when you get the ability to keep the drone happening.

When I practise routines, I do what I call the “cut off technique” where I practise the routine in single tongue, double tongue and triple tongue, and I’ll listen to outside influences and noises like the beeping of the pedestrian crossing and see if I can keep up with that sound for as long as possible. But playing in the bucket of water builds up strength over time like a guitarist practising their runs, then you practise in different pre-thought patterns – mix things up, play in reverse, there’s no limit to your possibilities which also gives you a quicker instinct to improvise and take the music out of it’s realm.

How many instruments can you play?

Didgeridoo, guitar, drums, bass, piano, trumpet and I sing.