Big Rapids Salvation Army Lt. Chris Karlin learning to play didgeridoo

LEARNING TO PLAY: Salvation Army Lt. Chris Karlin began playing the didgeridoo last September. He is working on his technique and learning from YouTube videos. (Pioneer photo/Candy Allan)

LEARNING TO PLAY: Salvation Army Lt. Chris Karlin began playing the didgeridoo last September. He is working on his technique and learning from YouTube videos. (Pioneer photo/Candy Allan)

BIG RAPIDS — When Chris Karlin decided to look for a new instrument to play, he ultimately selected one which is thousands of years old.

Karlin, a lieutenant with the Salvation Army in Big Rapids, grew up playing the drums. When he and his wife moved to Big Rapids, he began playing the cajon, which is a box drum. News of his musical ability and his instrument of choice spread and Karlin found himself in demand as a musician.

At Salvation Army events of all types throughout western Michigan and northern Indiana, Karlin was asked to bring his cajon and perform with other musicians. While he doesn’t mind performing, he didn’t want to haul his drum with him everywhere he went.

In search of something different, Karlin decided to begin playing the didgeridoo, a traditional Australian instrument originally played by Aborigines. He thought if he began playing the didgeridoo, he wouldn’t get asked to play publicly anymore.

It didn’t work.

“I figured it was unique enough where it was different and I didn’t think people were going to be like, ‘Oh, man, can you play your didgeridoo for me?’ I guess I should have thought of that, because it is unique and it is different, people like that,” Karlin said.

“I liked the sound of it and I had fun pretending to make didgeridoo sounds with my mouth,” he continued. “Then I realized the noises I was making with my mouth were nothing like the actual sound of a didgeridoo, so it’s kind of funny in that aspect.”

Karlin already has been asked to play his didgeridoo at events since taking up the instrument last fall. He’s attempting to learn to play it by watching YouTube videos.

“I’ve actually been asked to play a couple times for things now, which is funny because I’ve really only been playing since September and I’m really not that good yet,” Karlin said.

The didgeridoo is basically a long tube and the first ones were made from hollow tree branches or trunks. Today, the instruments come in a variety of sizes and materials, Karlin said.

“I do know the didgeridoo can be considered one of the oldest instruments in the world,” he added. “Historians know for sure it’s at least 2,000 years old because of wall paintings they found in Australia, but it could be as old as 40,000 years old.”

The instrument is played by blowing through one end of the tube, using a technique called circular breathing. It is traditionally played by Aboriginal men in ceremonies.

DETAIL: Chris Karlin's didgeridoo is decorated with several brightly colored patterns meant to give a nod to the didgeridoo's beginnings as an Aboriginal instrument. (Pioneer photo/Candy Allan)

DETAIL: Chris Karlin’s didgeridoo is decorated with several brightly colored patterns meant to give a nod to the didgeridoo’s beginnings as an Aboriginal instrument. (Pioneer photo/Candy Allan)

“You make the sound with your lips,” Karlin explained. “When you first start out, you’ll start out by making a drone sound, which is the sound most thought of when you hear the didgeridoo. As you start to learn to play, you can make other noises, other sounds.”

Circular breathing, which is breathing in through the nose while simultaneously blowing air out the mouth, is important to correctly playing the didgeridoo.

“The difference between a didgeridoo and a brass instrument is with a didgeridoo you could literally play for an hour, two hours straight without stopping your sound because of circular breathing,” Karlin said. “It’s very tricky. I’ve been playing since September and I can’t do circular breathing yet.”

The way a person plays the didgeridoo contributes to its unique sound, said Richard Scott Cohen, a music professor at Ferris State University.

“The sound of the didgeridoo is very complex and unusual because of how lots of things interact: whether the player is breathing in or out, during the circular breathing cycle; the sound waves inside the instrument; the sounds from the player’s vocal tract; and the changes in the player’s lips,” Cohen said.

As Karlin explores instructional videos on YouTube, he has discovered the didgeridoo is rising in popularity alongside more mainstream instruments.

“The didgeridoo is actually becoming extremely popular right now in modern, contemporary music,” he said. “I’ve seen it used in everything from country to hip-hop, rap, R&B, rock, you name it. It’s actually picking up a lot of popularity and being used in a lot of different kinds of music, so it’s cool.”

Karlin has never been to Australia, but would love to visit. If he ever gets the chance, however, he doesn’t plan to bring his didgeridoo.

“I actually met a guy from Australia,” he said. “I had my didgeridoo with me and he kind of laughed and gave me a pat on the back and was like, ‘Good try.’ I thought, ‘Oh man, I just embarrassed myself.’ But he said it’s not bad. He’s the one who told me that I play it like a brass instrument. He doesn’t play it — he just knows how it’s played, so that kind of felt all right.”

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Posted by Candy Allan

Candy is the Pioneer's associate editor. She also coordinates the Family & Friends, Religion and Parenting pages. She can be reached by phone at (231) 592-8386 or by e-mail at callan@pioneergroup.com.

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