Odd Instruments: The Musical Saw

One of the questions I'm asked most frequently is how did learn to play the musical saw?

I've had a long fascination with 'odd instruments', or musical instruments that don't fit into our Western ideas of what musical material should sound like. I don't know when or how my fascination began, but I think it had something to do with my Music Theory courses at University forcing order onto music, and my open revolt to this. This is what led me to learn the musical/singing saw.

Performing at the Glasgow Festival of Burlesque. Photo by Jamie McFadyen.

I have always found beauty in things that are out of the ordinary, and thus an affinity with people who create and treasure such items. One of the first 'odd instruments' I encountered was the Theremin, via Clara Rockmore who we studied in my Women in Music course. She had turned something which was thought of as a sound effect, into music. And from then, I have always been inspired by her and what she did.

Being a poor college student at the time, I could not afford my own theremin, or many of the subsequent instruments I stumbled upon thereafter, such as the Glass harmonica, Ondes Martenot or Water Phone. So like many poor musicians before me, I picked up a cheap saw from a hardware store and was given a violin bow as a gift for my birthday. Luckily I had a friend who taught me the basics, but from that point forward I taught myself.

Still from the London Burlesque Festival. Photo by Joanna Kor

When I first started working in cabaret, I promoted myself as a vintage singer, however, I was not having luck getting booked. After a further rejection from another producer, in frustration I blurted out 'but I also play the musical saw!'. This was not entirely a lie, but I was terrible at it at the time. However, it worked, I was immediately booked, and I was now faced with learning to play this very difficult instrument. It took me about 8 years to become skilled at playing the musical saw. I have a very good ear as a singer, and this has helped me find the pitches. Because a saw has no notes indicated on it, you have to play it almost entirely by ear. So that is my story, a fascination, followed by a white lie, followed by a 10 plus career sharing the stage and travelling the world with my musical saw.

A photoshoot in Rijeka, Croatia. Photo by Michal Rogozinski Headdress by Stereoglamour — at Guvernerova Palača.

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