Jeffrey Tobin has always been a sci-fi fan — complete with those eerie background sounds common in old science fiction movies.
They’re made by a varying-pitch electronic instrument called a theremin, which is also featured prominently in the Beach Boys’ hit “Good Vibrations.” More recently, Jim Parson’s character, Sheldon, played one on an episode of “The Big Bang Theory.”
About a decade ago, Tobin began learning how to play the theremin, considered one of the most difficult instruments to play well, Tobin said. And it is unique among musical instruments in that the musician does not touch the instrument to play it.
“I’ve always been enamored by it,” he said. “I like the challenge.”
He taught himself by watching a number of videos on YouTube to find a technique that worked for him.
Music from the instrument, invented in 1919 by Russian physicist Leon Theremin, comes as a result of movement of the hands and arms.
“The principles of the theremin make it the progenitor of what we know today as anti-theft RFID tags on clothing and electronics, motion detectors and even makes the E-ZPass Turnpike payment system possible,” Tobin said.
The instrument is extremely sensitive, he said. As such, there are two keys to playing it well: having a good ear to accurately discern pitch and being still. Factors such as hydration and one’s breathing can affect the sound. In one instance, Tobin said, a cuff link he was wearing even threw off the sound.
“It’s really crazy,” he said.
Incidentally, Tobin said he also enjoys playing the nose flute, jaw harp, washtub bass, ukulele and some other unique instruments.
Because of the difficulty, theremin players are in short supply.
Earlier this month, Tobin, of White Township, made a guest appearance during a performance by the Auburn Symphony Orchestra, in California, when the conductor needed someone to play the theremin. It’s actually the second time Tobin performed as part of a symphony.
Several years ago, Tobin took the instrument to a family reunion near Chicago. Peter Jaffe, conductor of the Stockton Symphony, in California, who happened to be in attendance, took note. Then, in 2014, Jaffe asked Tobin to perform with that orchestra during a medley of space music that included Gustav Holt’s “The Planets,” some of John Williams’ compositions and the theme from the original “Star Trek” TV show, for which he was a guest soloist.
This year, Jaffe asked him to come back when he conducted two concerts, this time with the Auburn Symphony on Nov. 2 and 3.
Because he was aware that Tobin recently earned a master’s degree in theology, Jaffe introduced Tobin as “the thereminister of music.”
Despite his appearances with two symphony orchestras, he doesn’t consider himself a professional musician. Tobin said he does have a history of musical performance and composition: “One of my compositions was performed by both the Glenn Miller and the Tommy Dorsey present-day orchestras back in the ’80s. And I wrote the official anthem for Indiana County, ‘My Heart, My Home is Indiana.’”
“Playing with a symphony is awesome,” Tobin said. “It’s so powerful a feeling of community ... being a voice among so many voices, all trained on one conductor. Typically, the conductor — and thereby the orchestra — follows the soloist, but for this piece, I followed the orchestra as there was really no need for much musical expression or interpretation on my part.”