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Armenian Duduk

By Shea ( Sheram ) A.J. Comfort

History / Background:

The Duduk (pronounced “doo-dook”) is one of the oldest double reed instruments
in the world. Indeed, it’s origins can be traced back to at least before the time of Christ. Of
all the traditional instruments played in Armenia today, only the duduk is said to have truly
Armenian origins. This seems to be supported by the fact that, unlike the duduk, all of
these other instruments can trace their lineage’s back to the Arabic world and to the
countries of the Silk Road.

Throughout the centuries, the duduk has traveled to many neighboring countries
and has undergone a few subtle changes in each of them, such as the specific tuning and
the number of holes, etc. Now variants of duduk can be found in Georgia, Azerbaijan,
Turkey, and Persia, and even as far away as the Balkans. Besides being called variations
of the Armenian word “duduk”, such as “duduki” (in Georgia), it is also referred to as “mey”
(in Turkey), and “balaban” (in Azerbaijan and in parts of Central Asia).

The basic form has changed little in it’s long history. Originally, like many early
flutes, the instrument was made from bone. Then it advanced to a single, long piece of
reed/cane with the mouthpiece fashioned on one end and holes drilled out along it’s length
for the notes. However, this had the obvious disadvantages of a lack of durability, namely
when any part of it would crack you had to make an entirely new instrument, and perhaps
equally frustrating, it could not be tuned. So, to address both of these problems, it was
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eventually modified into two pieces: a large double reed made of reed/cane; and a body
made of wood. This is the form that is still in use today.

While other countries may use the wood from other fruit and/or nut trees when
making their instruments (often plum and walnut in Georgia, and Azerbaijan, for
example...), in Armenia, the best wood for making duduks has been found to be from the
apricot tree. It has come to be preferred over the years for it’s unique ability to resonate a
sound that is unique to the Armenian duduk. All of the other variations of the instrument
found in other countries have a very reed-like, strongly nasal sound, whereas the
Armenian duduk has been specifically developed to produce a warm, soft tone which is
closer to a voice than to a reed. It should be noted that in order to further accentuate these
qualities, a particular technique of reed making has evolved, as well.

While recent appearance’s of the duduk in various movie and TV soundtracks


(“The Last Temptation of Christ”, “The Crow”, “Zena, Warrior Princess”, etc...) has
accentuated it’s evocative and soulful side (and understandably so!...), it may surprise
some to find that it is also quite capable of a wide range of melodies, including rhythmic
dance tunes. It may very well be because of this wide range of expression, combined with
the depth and power of it’s sound, that the duduk has truly become a part of everyday life
in Armenia. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that no wedding, festive
occasion, or family gathering would be complete without a duduk player...

The Instrument itself:

Reeds

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As mentioned and seen above in the photos, the duduk is made up of two parts:
the reed and the body:

The reed, called ”Ramish” in Armenian (pronounced “rah-meesh”), is basically a


tube made of reed/cane that has been flattened on one end (and left cylindrical at the
other), whose shape closely resembles a duck’s bill. It can be anywhere from 3” to 4.5”
long, and 3/4” to 1 1/4” wide depending on the maker and the key of duduk it corresponds
to. The fact that the opposite sides of the tube come together, and thus produces the
sound, makes this a double reed. Because the reed expands as it is played, a small bridle
is used to regulate the aperture of the reed. Connected to this bridle is a small cap that is
used to keep the reed closed when it is not being played. It is important that the reed be
only open enough to play comfortably (and be in tune with itself), because if it gets too
wide, it will be very difficult to blow and it will cause the instrument to be flat.

Now, this being said, it may be necessary to actually wet the reed in order to open
it up. If the reed is dry (because it’s new or hasn’t been played in a while), then you will
need to run a little water into the inside and while closing the circular end with your thumb,
shake the water to coat the inside of the reed and either blow it out the closed side or tip it
over and dump the water out. Next, making sure you have the closing cap on, stand the
reed upright and wait a few minutes until it opens slightly on it’s own. The trick here is to
lightly coat the inside with moisture, so that the reed can just be coaxed to open. If the reed
is too wet, it will open too much and the pitch will move around a lot when you play. Playing
the duduk is already hard enough, do not do something that will make it even harder!

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The Armenian duduk itself is a cylindrical tube made of apricot wood, and as you
can see in the above photo, it has eight playable finger holes on one side of the
instrument, with a single thumb hole on the back for the top hand (labeled #3 in the photo).
There is a tenth hole (labeled as #11 in the photo) that is needed for tuning, and depending
on the maker it can be located on the top or on the bottom of the instrument (Master
Karlen, “MKS”, and Master Souren, “SAM”, put their holes on the bottom, while Master
Ruben, “RR”, puts his on the top). While you hardly use this tenth hole, the benefit to
having the hole on the bottom is that you will be able to play that note either by pulling the
instrument to your stomach (with all of the holes closed) if you are standing, or by using
your knee if you are sitting.

The Armenian duduk is a deceptively simple instrument. It’s range is primarily a


single octave, with a couple of notes above and below at either end. It is untempered and
diatonic, and it is available in a range of keys (depending on the maker). What makes the
instrument so difficult is that all of the chromatic intervals are made by half-holing each
note, you do not use any “forked-tuning” when playing the duduk. To make this easier,
however, the holes have been made relatively large compared to the overall size of the
instrument. This allows for more “play” between the notes, and it contributes to the rich, full
sound of the instrument. Keep in mind that this also means that you have to blow harder to
get that sound, as well as work harder in order to keep the notes in tune...something that is
very difficult in the beginning, but well worth it in the end!

Set Up and Playing the Instrument:

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Setting up and playing the duduk pretty much comes down to preparing the reed
itself, and then fitting it into the socket of the duduk.

What to look For:

To begin, the ramish needs to be un-cracked and in good shape in order to be truly
playable. The only exception to this is if the crack is along the folded edge, then it should
still be fine (depending on how deep it is). Most high quality reeds come with a thin strip of
leather glued to both of the folded edges of the reed (see the “ramish” photos above)
which serves to seal up any potential air-loss, as well as to control the expansion of any
present or future cracks.

If your reed has a crack, and you don’t already have these leather strips on, you
can add them yourself. Find a source of leather pieces (a shoe or clothing repair shop will
often just have a bag of scraps you can take for free) and using the treated side of the skin,
peel off just the treated layer. You want it to be as thin as possible, otherwise the bridle
will not fit and the reed will not resonate well. Cut off a strip and shape it to fit your reed.
Then, using a thin layer of carpenters/wood glue apply the strip along the edge of the reed.
Let it dry completely, then try it out. Remember to remove the bridle when working on the
reed, and if the reed is open at all, you should be sure to keep the closing cap on at all
times.

Photo of the Tip of a Ramish in a Duduk

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(to show how much reed should be open when played)

Opening the reed:

As discussed above in the reed description, if the reed is closed, then the goal of
the player is to get the reed just moist enough so that it opens slightly (see above photo). It
is important to not over soak the reed because if you do it will open too much, making it
very difficult to play and it will throw the tuning off for the whole instrument. Once again,
just shake a little water in the inside of the reed, blow it out, put the closing cap on it, then
stand it up. After a few minutes, the ramish should open. If not, repeat the process until it
does. However, if the reed has been played recently or just happens to be one that opens
easily, you may not need to add water to it. It may be sufficient to just place it in your open
mouth and breath hot air onto it until it opens.

Putting the Reed on correctly

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Alignment

Side-view of holding duduk (to show reed-angled down...)

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Connecting the Reed to the Duduk:

Once the reed has opened it can now be attached to the duduk’s body. It is
important to attach the reed so that it is snug, but you must be careful not to crack it when
inserting it. It helps if you hold the ramish like you would hold a banana (ie. with the fingers
loosely wrapped around it) with the playing end up towards your thumb, and the
connecting end down (see photo “A” above). Then, with the duduk in one hand and the
reed in the other, place the ramish into the socket at the upper end of the duduk and
connect the two with a slight twisting motion (this serves to help lock the reed in). Align the
reed so that the flat plane of the reed is perpendicular to the holes (see photo “B” above),
You can “sight” this with your eyes, just like you would look down the barrel of a gun. Also,
each reed has it’s own particular curvature, and generally, you want the angle that it
comes out of the duduk to slope down as it comes to your lips (see photo “C” above)

Tuning the Duduk:

If you are lucky enough to get a hold of a good instrument that has been matched
to it’s reed, (ie. in tune, and already fitted!), then you are doing great. However, if this is not
the case, or you acquire more reeds as time goes by, it will be more likely that you will
need to adjust them to fit your duduk. You can test to see if the ramish needs to be

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adjusted by first checking each individual note (with a tuner or piano), then you should
check an octave interval to make sure the reed-itself is open to the right aperture. This is
done by comparing the note you get with all the fingers off, to the note you get with six
fingers and your thumb closed on the instrument (this translates to #1 and #8 on the above
fingering diagram). If you have a good instrument and your reed is properly adjusted,
these two notes should be in tune. (Keep in mind that when you play any of the top three
holes of your duduk, you must release some of the tension on the reed with your lips, as
well as close the bottom four holes with your lower hand at the same time or else the notes
will be sharp).

If, after you check everything, you feel that an adjustment is needed, you will need
to fine tune the instrument. This is done by wrapping or unwrapping the thread on the reed.
Basically, as you add thread, the reed no longer goes in as far and therefore the distance
between the reed and the holes is slightly larger. This then has the effect of flatting the
tuning. The opposite is equally true, if you remove thread from the reed, you will shorten
the distance between the ramish and the holes, and it will make the tuning sharper.

In fact, the duduk needs to be tuned by following a two step process. First, you
need to begin by determining your comfort level regarding how much the reed itself is open
when you play (remember when determining this aperture that being able to regulate that
note with the bridle and your lips must be taken into account, as well). Then, once this is
set, the ramish itself is adjusted to the duduk by wrapping or unwrapping the thread in
order to find the correct distance between it and the holes. You will need to find the
balance between these two components.

Up to now, all of this information is based on the assumption that you have the
correct sized ramish for the duduk you want it to go to. There are many different keys of
duduks, and therefore, are there many differently-sized ramish to fit them. It must be taken
into account that this fine tuning is for when the reed is close to the pitch that the duduk
should be in. You may be able to adjust the tuning by as much as a half step, but that is
really pushing it. In general, you will only be able to comfortably get about a quarter tone of
correction with each reed. This being said, however, some reeds will not fit deep enough
into the socket of the duduk because the reed itself is too big. In this case, you will need to
unwrap the thread off of the ramish and sand the base down until it goes in as far as you
would like. Be very careful, as it is easy to go too far. Remember, you can always take
more off, but there is limit as to how much thread you can wrap to make up for lost
material.

Just for the sake of information: If you are sure that the reed is the right size for
your duduk, and you have unwrapped as much thread as you safely can before the reed
falls out of the socket, and it is still flat of the note that it should be at (make sure you have
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the right note), then it is possible to sand the playing side of the duduk in order to shorten
it up, and therefore sharpen the overall tuning. This is a very delicate procedure and you
risk truly ruining your reed. Do not attempt this unless you are completely sure of what you
are doing. In general, if you are buying decent reeds, then the reed makers have done this
part for you and you should only need to do the fine tuning portion in order to adjust it to
your particular duduk.

It is interesting to note that most duduk players eventually wind up with several
duduks in the same key because the same reed in different duduks will be subtly different.
In fact, some duduks are slightly sharper on the top and so they match well with a flatter
reed, and some duduks have the ability to slightly flatten and round out the sound of a reed
that might otherwise be too sharp in another instrument. On the other hand, this same
duduk might seem slightly flat with another reed!

Photo of good and bad posture while playing

(Correct body position) (Poor Body Position)

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Playing the duduk:

The Armenian duduk is a very simple and organic instrument, and it allows for a
great deal of individual expression. To begin, it requires a great deal of breath, so proper
posture and being relaxed is important. The breath control is exactly like that of a singer, or
an actor, in that you should breath from your diaphragm, and not your chest. Do not
slouch, or bow your head, this will only block your breath/energy and make you work even
harder to play the instrument! (see photo above)

Proper reed and mouth positioning

The reed, while being quite large, only gets played at the very end, with only 1/4”
to 1/2” being inserted into your mouth (see above photo). It should not touch your teeth,
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and your upper and lower lips should be secure on it just enough to make it vibrate without
any loss of air. It is important to note that, unlike a clarinet, it does not need to be squeezed
against the lips, because you can actually pinch off your sound. The cheeks are allowed to
puff out a little, this actually helps your embouchure. The correct way to do a vibrato is by
moving your lower lip only, and not by moving your jaw.

Hand positions (7 + 8 fingers)

(Hand position for playing 7 holes) (Hand position for playing 8 holes)

The fingers are relaxed, at ease, and slightly curved. It may help to think of this
looseness as beginning in your arms, then flowing down into your wrists, and hands. The
fingers are spaced in two separate ways, depending on the needs of the tune you are
playing (see photo). In general, if you only need the top seven fingers (not counting the
thumb hole), then the top hand uses three fingers and the bottom uses all four. However, if
you will need all eight notes in the piece you will be playing, then both hands use all four
fingers each (this includes using the thumb on the top hand, of course). Notice that
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between these two positions, there is a slight shift of where the fingers fall on the holes for
the top hand only.

As mentioned in the tuning section, when you play the top four notes (#1 through
#5 on the fingering chart), you will want to keep all of the notes on the lower hand closed.
This not only will keep the top notes from being too sharp, it also allows more of your
instrument to resonate and therefore the sound will be better. When you begin to play the
duduk, you will soon learn that playing is tuning....You must always be adjusting the reed
in order to keep your pitch correct, and you do this by getting it as close as you can with the
bridle before you start, and then you have to use your lips and fingers while your playing.
(Most likely this will mean that you will pinch the reed slightly for the lower notes, and
release the reed for the higher ones).

Photo’s of whole hole + 1/2 hole fingering for:

Top hand

(Open hole for top hand) (Half-hole for top hand)

Bottom hand

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(Open hole for bottom hand) (Half-hole for bottom hand)

You should begin by playing the holes all the way off and on. Then when this
becomes easier, start to work on your half-hole technique (see above photo). You will
need to get a feel for where the actual note is (it’s good to use a piano) and then work on
hitting it right from the start without it sliding around. You will also notice that you need to
blow harder to maintain the volume as compared to the completely open notes. Then put it
in sequence with other notes. You should ultimately be able to half-hole cleanly on every
note, and not be able to tell which notes are full and which ones are half-holed.

It is interesting to note that in Armenia, duduks are traditionally played in pairs,


with one person playing the melody and one person playing a continuous drone note
called the “dam”, or “damkash”. In Armenia, it is common for the student to hold the note
for the teacher as part of his learning the instrument because it helps to develop the
muscles, as well as to perfect their intonation. This “circular breathing” is done by puffing
up the cheeks with air while you are playing, then when you need to breath, you cut off the
air in your throat At his point, you simultaneously use the reserved air in your cheeks to
keep the note going as you refill your lungs through your nose. You then reengage your
lungs and the note never falters...It may help to use an analogy here: think of the whole
process as if you were releasing and then reengaging the clutch in the manual
transmission of a car, while keeping it in the same gear. Your cheeks are the clutch.

Caring for the Reeds

The reeds should be allowed to dry out, and they should be left out in the
open after they have been played. Duduk players often store them in sun-glasses
cases with holes (3/8”) drilled in them for ventilation. If they are stored moist in a
closed container, they will soon mildew and get moldy. Remember to always loosen
the bridle and keep the closing cap on when they are not being played.

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Caring for the Duduk


The Armenian Duduk itself only needs to be lightly oiled on the outside every so
often. You do not ever want to put oil inside the duduk, as this will change it’s
sound.
For this you can use the method that has been used for hundreds of years.
To do this you need a hammer, 3 or 4 walnuts , and a nice piece of cloth.

Put the walnuts in the cloth , wrap the cloth tight, start hitting the walnuts gently until
you see the oil of the walnuts spreading on the cloth.

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Using the cloth, gently apply the oily cloth on the duduk.
You can use this cloth several times until the oil on the cloth starts to dry out.

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Walnut contains natural minerals, vitamins, and oil , this will preserve your
instrument for many years. you can also use almond oil, or any other neutral,
non-vegetable based oil (vegetable oil will go rancid on you).

How to store your Duduk

You can store your duduk many different ways , one thing you need to remember is not to
let your duduk under the sun or expose your duduk to heat, moisture, or liquids. You can
store the duduks in a closed compartment, such as gun cases, brief cases, or something that
has cushion that will prevent the duduk from damaging when transporting the duduk. Or
you can use soft cloth to wrap the duduk,

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Pictures are courtesy of Daryl Finley

Soon we will be able to offer you these instrument pouches


form www.DudukOnLine.com
These pouches are ideal to store your instruments.

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Phone (626) 440 0030

Email Moses@Armenians.com

Some Final Words:

While it may be true that the Armenian duduk has recently evolved along Western lines (namely
that it is now diatonic and tuned in a major (natural) scale- thereby making it capable of holding it’s
own with tempered instruments), it is not really a completely Western instrument. In fact, it’s
expressiveness and style of play have it firmly rooted in the East. Perhaps it is because of this very
dichotomy that it has the universal appeal that it does?...Who knows? One thing is for sure,
though, and that is that even though the technique for playing the duduk may take years to perfect,
when you finally get there, you will have attained a level of direct control and expressiveness that
no other instrument can give you...which is probably what drew you to the duduk in the first
place!...

Congratulations, and good luck.


Shea (Sheram) A.J. Comfort

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