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So you’ve heard the melancholic and enchanting sound of the duduk, and you’re thinking about learning to play. It can be a tricky instrument to master so before you get too excited, let’s look at the pitfalls that trap most beginners. We’ll help you to determine how to get what you want from the experience of learning to play duduk.
Consider what you’d like to accomplish--do you want to play seriously, or are you interested in how duduk works, or do you just want a souvenir? Duduk is not a beginner instrument, and won’t be a casual instrument like a guitar or piano. Learning to play duduk well can take years, and mastering it to find your timbre can be a lifelong journey. If you’re new to the musical world in general, consider learning on an easier instrument and coming back to duduk after you have built up your musical repertoire.
If you do want to play long-term or just learn to play a few songs competently, you’ll want to invest in a good duduk and quality reed. A professional instrument has the advantage of producing the proper sounds, the correct pitch and right set of notes.
When looking to buy a duduk, the first place most people will check is Amazon, eBay or even Etsy in search of the famed Armenian instrument. You might have browsed as well and found beautiful duduks that are made in Armenia, and looking like something a professional musician like Jivan Gasparyan would play. You might even be lured in by the inexpensive price, especially if you’re just starting to dip your toes into the water and are hesitant to spend a few hundred dollars on an instrument you haven’t played before. However, you’ll find that once the duduk arrives, it sounds nothing like what you expected.
Be sure not to fall into this trap. These are cheaper, souvenir-quality instruments that look great, but some dishonest sellers will market them as professional instruments. These types of souvenir duduks are often beautifully made but are crafted from cheap wood, not tuned properly, and the reeds don’t play well. Though you might find exceptions, they are rare and it is a gamble buying from an online marketplace that doesn’t specialize in selling instruments. These cheaper duduks are great as decor, but they are not intended to make music.
Professional instruments are made of dried and aged apricot wood. The sound that this wood creates is the best for duduk instruments and has been used for duduks for centuries. The apricot wood is dried for seven to 30 years, to ensure that when played and exposed to humidity from a musician’s mouth and breath, it won’t be prone to cracking. When a duduk is made from properly dried and aged wood, it can last many years and the sound will improve overtime as you play and break it in.
The most important reason to invest in a professional instrument is that it is properly tuned. Duduk is a challenging instrument to play because it is a non-tempered instrument. For example, a piano has notes assigned to its keys and to play a note or set of notes, a musician simply presses the required keys. Duduk is different because to play a certain note, the sound relies on the musician’s fingering, positioning, breath, and embouchure, which is a combination of using the lips, tongue and teeth. If any of these factors is off, even slightly, you will not produce the correct notes. As this is typically the case for beginners, having a properly tuned instrument is a requirement so that progress won’t be impeded by the duduk being out of tune.
When looking for a properly tuned instrument, you can find them either from a master craftsman or from specialized stores. Many professional duduk players also make instruments and sell them under their own name, so that is a sensible option as well because you’ll be sure that you’re getting a properly tuned instrument.
When choosing your first duduk, you should pay attention to the key of the instrument. Duduk’s musical range is very limited, only around 1¼ of the octave. Duduks are made in a range of keys, but an individual instrument can play a limited number of scales. If you’re going to be playing drone, this won’t be a problem. However, if you want to play with another instrument (like a guitar or piano), it might make more sense to invest in duduks of several different keys.
Today, duduks are made in a wide variety of keys, from an F in bass to a G in piccolo. The most common key that you hear, which produced the famous Armenian timbre is the key of A or Bb. If you’re a beginner just getting into duduks, a good place to start is in the key of A. As the most widespread key, if you get a teacher, they will also have a duduk in A as well, so they can tune it when you play.
Later on, as you progress, you can invest in duduks in other keys as well since you might need higher or lower pitches when playing other musical pieces. However, this is an issue for after you’ve become competent on the duduk.
Even more important than the duduk are the reeds. You could have the perfect duduk, finely tuned, but if the reeds aren’t good, you’re going to have a problem. Ask any woodwind musician and they’ll tell you about how reeds affect the quality of the sound. As with reeds for other instruments, duduk reeds are generally made from Common Reed (Phragmites australis) by hand. It is generally quite difficult to get a reed that is 100% excellent quality. They are made from a natural material that is very easily affected by external conditions like temperature and humidity that can change the way they sound, even during day-to-day playing.
Reeds are classified are soft, medium and hard. Soft reeds are easy to play but they don’t produce the best sound. Hard reeds on the other hand are hard to play in the beginning, because they require the musician to work with them to reach maturity. Once mature, hard reeds produce the best sound possible. At Dudukhouse, we further class our reeds into two more types: Medium Elite and Hard Elite. Check out our reed product pages for more information.
If you are a beginner musician, we recommend starting with a couple of soft and medium reeds. These will be easier on your embouchure and will help you to produce the correct sound quicker as you learn. With more progress, you can think about investing in our Hard or Hard Elite reeds, as they will not just help to develop your embouchure but also help in making better sounds and truer notes.
So now you’ve got your first instrument and you want to learn to play. The only question left is where to start? A lot of beginner students turn to online video classes and instructions, such as those on YouTube. It can be a great way to get familiar with your duduk and learn some basics, but ultimately it can end up hindering your overall progress.
You’ll find that there are not a lot of English-language instructional videos that provide proper instruction. As the duduk has gotten more popular over the last decade, and in the absence of professional duduk instruction, many amateur and beginner duduk musicians started to teach the instrument without having the proper understanding and education of duduk musical skills themselves. Students new to duduk might follow their instructions, only to later discover that they aren’t able to play properly or produce the sound they wanted to. They might end their musical journey with the duduk out of disappointment and frustration, losing the enthusiasm they once had.
One reputable place to start your musical education is under the tutelage of Artak Astryan, who offers a series of free Duduk Masterclasses with Artak Asatryan. Artak has been playing duduk for more than 25 years, and is a professional performer and educator. Keep in mind that without a qualified instructor, your learning foundations will be set incorrectly and that can hinder your learning process as you try to progress.
The best way to learn duduk is with a professional teacher. A qualified teacher will help significantly in setting up proper foundations that you can build upon to reach your goals efficiently. Duduk used to be taught by ear, but a professional teacher will also use music notation.
If you find it difficult to locate a professional and qualified teacher, please reach out to us and we will help to connect you with a teacher near you. You may also find it useful to have a teacher that offers online classes, so regardless of where you live, you’re able to find professional instruction from Armenia or elsewhere.
If you’re seriously thinking about playing an Armenian duduk, and playing it well, here are a few things to remember: