Inform... Engage... Enlighten... Inspire...

An Interview with Bruce Copley

Ed Drury
Ed Drury

By Ed Drury

Reprinted from the Didgeridoo & Co Magazine
Jan-March 2003

Ed Drury:
Can you recall the first time you were exposed to the didgeridoo, what you experienced?

Bruce Copley:

The first time I ever heard the sound of the didgeridoo was when Rolf Harris did his famous "Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport" hit song sometime in the 60's or 70's. It made me laugh and so my first impressions were of fun and lightness although this related more to the song than the didge itself.

My first real listening experience occurred at the world famous Findhorn Foundation in Scotland in 1991 when Craig Gibsone, a white Australian played one evening for our group of about 25 people who were attending a 10 day residential workshop entitled "INTUITIVE LEADERSHIP". I remember it so clearly.......he walked into the room pulled this long and thick didge out of a bag and said that he was in the business of "changing consciousness". He started a simple drone tone and to my surprise I found myself becoming increasingly irritated....after about 3 minutes I remember looking at my watch and thinking that I would stick it out just a little longer and then excuse myself. Then something strange happened. Something shifted inside me and I went into an altered state of consciousness. I was taken on this most beautiful timeless journey full of images and colours and when he stopped 45 minutes later, I was bitterly disappointed that it had come to an end. That night his playing planted a seed in my mind, body and spirit that was to lie dormant in me for a long time. I bought a didge in 1996 and 6 years after the Findhorn experience in June 1997, I began playing with a passion that has grown progressively stronger over the years.

2m Sisal Didge in A1
2m Sisal Didge in A1

My first didge was a short and thick wooden one that had a beautiful low D1 drone note and I clearly remember the exhilarating experience of hearing sounds emerge that I had never heard before and they were coming from me !!!!....... it was as if I could be a musical magician and make sounds appear out of nowhere. My previous experience of playing the piano by ear as a child had taught me that conventionally produced notes were precise and predictable.....the didge on the other hand was very different and unpredictable and this really excited and appealed to me. .....many years later this continues to be my experience as I explore, experiment and push both myself and the didge to the life philosophy is that if I am not living and learning at the edge I am taking up too much space!!!

To summarise then a few of my early impressions were:

  • mystery and magic because of its powerful ability to change and influence my feelings and thoughts.
  • a sensing that playing the didge could teach me ongoing lessons about learning, living and loving.
  • a deep respect for the people who had birthed this ancient instrument and a longing to meet them someday in their land.
  • a profound conviction that I would walk a long path with the didge and that my love affair with it would last a lifetime.

Can you recall a little about your learning process with the didgeridoo? Your first steps with that D1 didge and early breakthroughs and perhaps obstacles if any?

This was undoubtedly the most powerful of any learnings I had because there were no teachers and so it was a process of being in the dark and searching for the sparks of inspired sound.

The circular breathing came to me suddenly and unexpectedly when I let go of trying too hard.... almost felt like a click rather than a trick or technique. I remember spending a number of hours without stopping and finding that it became second nature.

I first learnt to play using the side of my mouth and then decided to learn to do it with every part of my mouth to the point that I had no preferences.

A good friend of mine Barry Zworestine and I started playing together and this certainly was a wonderful injection of fun and inspiration because we cheered and supported each other through the difficult times of didge lip, frustration with being able to do something only to find that you could not repeat it, complaints from our families who were irritated by the sounds, etc. He subsequently emigrated to Australia and I will be seeing him again in August after almost 3 years.

To avoid irritating my family when I played in the early mornings I would sit in my car with the window closed.......more often than not my high intensity playing and breathing caused the windows to mist up completely and I often wondered what it must have looked and sounded like to an outsider.

One of the pervading challenges then and even today was the experience of being able to suddenly learn to do something and do it seemingly quite well only to find that the next day it was as if you had never been able to do it at all.....was like the didge was saying......well I gave you a glimpse but you need to spend much more time with me to get what you want!! This ongoing experience particularly with the very complex and extremely sensitive lip and mouth pressure changes required has taught me more about patience than anything else in my life. After only a few months of playing I was able to not think of the past or the future but only of being and playing fully in the present.......this is a real gift and that is why I like to think of it as the precious present.

I remember in my early stages of playing the high notes or toots I felt as if my head, throat and mouth were going to explode with the pressure particularly when I tried to circular breath these day I realised that it was a simple process if instead of trying to create the sounds with powerful lung/diaphragm contractions, I simply closed my glottis and created pressure in my mouth and tightened my lips. This was a great breakthrough for me and inspired me tremendously because it demonstrated that where there was a will there was a way !!

I learnt pretty early on in my playing that the secret lay in trying softly, gently and patiently which was the exact opposite of everything else in my life I had done before....almost like a 180 degree transformation in thought and action.

Over time you have developed several playing techniques you feel are unique. I wonder if you could explain some of these and how they have evolved? I'm also interested in the names you have assigned to them. The imagery of them.

In describing and naming some of the techniques I have developed the term unusual is used simply because I have not heard anyone doing this before either on the many CD's I have or the festivals and didge gatherings I have attended. For all I know they may be quite usual and discovering this would be delightful news which I eagerly await from any person or source. In the July/Aug/Sept 2002 edition of Didgeridoo Magazine on pg 43 in an interview with George Rrurrambu the accomplished Aboriginal player he makes a claim that he can play 2 notes above the fundamental and then return to the fundamental which no white man can do. This is obviously based on what he has heard and experienced and of course it is incorrect.

Didge voice: For many people hearing this for the first time is a weird sensation and they have described it as scary, alien and like something out of star wars. I have been telling stories while playing the drum for many years in my work with corporate executives all over the world and so doing this while playing the didge was a natural progression. It has taken many years to master this technique to the point where every word is clearly pronounced and heard as part of the drone or fundamental note. To do this I have learnt ventriloquism skills of sounding words in my mouth and throat......... In contrast to the ventriloquist who does not move his lips, I also use and vibrate my lips to ensure drone vibration and word clarity. It takes a few moments for people to adjust their ears to the sound of a voice they have never heard before. Depending on the didge I use and the note or pitch I select as the fundamental or background tone, I am able to vary the sound considerably. What I particularly enjoy doing is to suddenly and unexpectedly begin speaking to people in didge voice and then having a conversation with them.....the expressions on their faces vary from total disbelief to childlike joy. Whenever I use didge voice I feel as if I am communicating in a sacred language ... I chose my words very carefully because they carry far more power and presence than the spoken or sung voice.

Whisper didge: Essentially this involves rhythms, effects and sounds normally heard through the didge but in whisper tones which overlay a very soft fundamental drone note. The whisper tones are in fact overtone whispers which accompany the fundamental drone tone but which are just below the vibrational levels at which a wind sound becomes an note sound. I learnt this technique through playing my didge on international flights and in hotel rooms when I did not want to disturb other people. In a way this was born out of a need to play without others hearing or being aware of what I was doing. Whisper didge can be so soft that is barely audible even in a very quiet room... I have to use a microphone to really hear all the extremely soft and subtle sounds I create with whisper didge because I am behind the sounds am making. Learning to do this has given me extraordinary control especially on the higher notes which normally require high pressure airflow. There is something quite magical about being able to literally birth the sound of the didgeridoo... in other words being able to move in the twilight zone between an airflow sound down a pipe and the extremely subtle point at which this air flow is transformed into beautiful audible sound... this is often a powerful mystical feeling which can only be experienced and never adequately languaged.

Rainbow didge: In this technique varying didge notes and fundamentals, didge overtones, lip and throat rolls and rattles and a variety of sung notes and advanced vocal harmonics ranging from deep throated Tibetan and Mongolian tones to high pitched nasal overtones are simultaneously created, combined and integrated to birth sounds and effects that have to be heard to be believed. I have been able to distinguish up to 8 different sounds that are happening at the same time and would be interested to see what emerged if these sounds where recorded and then scientifically analysed and electronically separated. Because the sounds created with this technique are so unpredictable and delightfully surprising, I often find myself longing to be able to accurately reproduce them at will... while I am able to do this to a certain extent I have come to accept the fact that these sounds are really a product of my emotional and spiritual status and not merely technical reproductions. I consider rainbow didge as the cutting edge of playing, listening and being fully in the now.

Music didge: With this technique the didge becomes a musical instrument in the true sense of the word. The lips, mouth and throat can be trained to do what valves, reeds and holes accomplish in conventional musical wind instruments. This is unquestionably the most challenging and time consuming of all the techniques I have acquired since I started playing in June 1997. With a 4 octave range from A1 to C5 which depending on the didge I use(the longer the more notes) includes up to 7 very clear and clean notes and about 20 other notes which vary in clarity and crispness, I am able to play a wide variety of tunes and melodies. By using the overtones of these different notes the range of sounds can be extended even further when a slidedidge such as the didgeribone is used, the range of notes is substantially increased. What really appeals to me about this is that the didge can become much like a trumpet, sax, flute, trombone, recorder or bagpipe. I have found that the only way to be able to play the didge like this is to close the glottis and control the air flow and pressure with the throat, mouth and in particular the lips.

Dual Didge Running
Dual Didge Running

Dual didge: It is my aim to be able to play 2 didges simultaneously with as much control and volume as I am able to play one. What I have consciously done and practised for many years is to play with both sides of my mouth as well as with the full mouth. By doing this the size and shape of the mouthpiece, the length and diameter of the didge and even mouth sealing have relatively little effect on my playing ability. The didge is simply an extension and amplifier of the sounds created in the mouth and throat and transferred to it via the lips ... cause and effect. I believe the primary focus should be on the cause rather than on the effect. Dual didge playing is extremely satisfying and I vividly remember my delight when I first managed to do this. My learning curves with single and dual didge playing have been quite similar ... for instance I used to need a warm up period for both one and two didges before I was able to play smoothly and cleanly and I required excessive pressure to create high notes on both one and two didges. My single didge breakthroughs greatly facilitate and speed up my dual didge breakthroughs and by practising with two I find this improves my single didge playing... a lovely and most satisfying marriage indeed.

Timber Slide & Sisal Didges
Timber Slide & Sisal Didges

Can you tell us a bit about your professional work and how the didgeridoo has entered into it?

I was an internationally acclaimed Human Movement/Sports Medical academic and scientist for 19 years before I decided to leave the so-called institutions of learning(universities) and dedicate myself to real learning. I use anything that will allow me to create unforgettable learning experiences with people ranging from pre-schoolers to senior citizens. Music and in particular spontaneous and improvised music making with drums, other percussive instruments, didge, guitar, sax, sitar, monochord, etc is something that works extremely well and I use this as a means to an end. In corporations for instance where I was the pioneer of corporate drumming in South Africa in 1991, this experience is used to highlight and better understand important concepts such as listening, trust, creativity, confidence, synergy, self expression, patience, diversity, etc.

As a professional drum circle facilitator and accomplished percussionist I have been able to transfer much of this experience and skill to my didge playing which has an electrifying effect in a corporate setting since most people have never heard live didge. Often I start a session at an international business conference with hundreds of delegates in the dark... with both my didges miked up with cordless Seinhauser equipment I move around the auditorium and create a 5-minute soundscape that transports the large majority of them to another place and time... this totally novel experience which I then relate to important learning principles such as surprise, uncertainty and curiosity, helps me to prepare them for a series of other extraordinary learning activities which then follow... in this way I am able to create truly unforgettable images, insights and experiences ... the attached document "Cogmotics track record" will give you some idea of the impact this is having on people. You should realise that doing this constitutes both a challenge and opportunity that few didge players will ever encounter ... I am not playing to people who have come to listen and are therefore a captive audience, but to high powered business people who are time, money and power driven. Unless I am able to quickly demonstrate the relevance of the didge to their world, it would be judged as a waste of valuable time which as you know is synonymous with money in the business setting.

I think my success has been largely due to the fact that I am able to create, design and implement highly effective and participative holistic experiences. These can be described as processes of commusication, edutainment, particitainment and transforming information into funformation.

I wanted to ask a bit more about "didge voice". You say that you feel it is in a sacred language or perhaps sacred language "form". So I wonder if you would perhaps go into that area a bit and maybe give us an example in written form of what one might say in "didge voice?" Are they usually ordinary language phrases, or do you have some specific words that you have either found from existing languages or have come to you during performance of "didge voice"?

I have always sensed that the didge drone tone is a sacred sound and when the drone tone becomes the spoken word, the language itself is transformed into something sacred and mystical.

Sometimes I find myself almost speaking in tongues and am frequently surprised by the sounds that emerge as a result ... as if I am having a conversation with myself and the didge itself.

For me the didge epitomises the male/female or yin/yang union ... its shape from the outside is male and phallic while its shape on the inside is female and vaginal: warm, moist and slippery and diameter wise, similar to that of the average penis during intercourse. You may be aware of the fact that many woman are sexually aroused by the sound and sight of the didge and maybe this is one of the reasons it was originally only intended for use by males.

When I am using didge voice with groups I often tell stories through it, share some relevant quotes, relate the didge creation story, have a normal conversation or give them some facts and figures about the didge, circular breathing, history, etc. Have attached some things I often transform into didge voice to give you an idea.

I am finding given my abilities with vocal harmonics that I am being increasingly drawn to sing ... then the spoken voice becomes the sung voice. What is very exciting and challenging is to find harmonies that work bearing in mind that a number of different sounds are being created simultaneously. To create identifiable songs and tunes using only didge overtones while keeping the fundamental note constant requires tremendous sensitivity and control ... the difficulty increases proportionately as one moves up the chromatic scale say from B1 to C5 keeping the drone tone constant. To complicate matters even further using matching vocal fundamentals and overtones, tongue and throat rattles, explosive lip and cheek effects, audible nose inhalation sounds and then doing this all through 2 didges like a C3 and B1(huge pressure differentials) at the same time puts the cognitive mind into a flat spin ... I don't think about it I just do it and then having done it and recorded it I can think about what I did. The demo CD that I sent you contains very little of what I have described above for the simple reason that these are discoveries I make on a daily basis.

I would like to share something very intimate with you that I am reluctant to share publicly. Some years ago I was playing by myself as I prefer to do most of the time when suddenly a great wave of sadness hit me... it was almost like a universal grief I was experiencing since it was infinitely greater than my little self. The tears started to flow freely and I began to choke up and was just about to stop playing when a firm but very gentle message came strongly to me ... no Bruce do not stop ... Keep playing!! And so I obeyed and continued playing allowing this grief to pour through me and the didge into the vast chasm of space and silence. I do not recall much of what happened only that I was aware of a profoundly mournful wailing sound that gradually transformed itself into a beautiful lyrical, playful and rapturous sound which melted into an infinite stillness. It was an experience I will treasure forever.

Your question about words coming to me from other languages or during didge voice performances reminded me of something that Antonio Machardo said ... "my boat struck something deep ... nothing happened ... sounds, silence, waves ... nothing happened? ... perhaps everything happened and I am standing in the middle of my new life".

In talking about the didge voice, you said that language could be transformed into something sacred and mystical. I wonder at those times if you feel less a transmitter and more of a receiver of this language? In other words, the didgeridoo becomes a conduit to the divine? And as such the player because part of a connection to a more grand intelligence. Would that be a leap or does your experience support a notion like that?

A very dear friend of mine who is a spiritual healer heard me play some time ago and asked me the following questions which I am still trying to come to grips with:

  • When you play what message/s are you receiving ?
  • Who or from where are these messages coming ?
  • What are you doing with these messages ?
Timber Slide Didge
Timber Slide Didge

For some time now I have been struggling with a dilemma which is the following ... my journey with the didge is first and foremost a very pure learning experience that borders on the sacred. At some level it is a very lonely journey because I am going into unchartered territory ... no maps, no landmarks, no support, no outcome, no expectations ... almost as if it centers around no-thing. In spite of this I am in love with every part of the process and the journey. At some level I would be very content to just continue doing this for the rest of my life. What is happening now is that as people hear me playing I am increasingly being asked to perform in public... the CD I recently produced and sent you a copy of was only made because Sven Frischen requested it given what he had heard about my playing in Germany last year. While I obviously enjoy sharing my playing with others my concern is that in becoming more public and professional, I will begin to lose the sacred connection with this beloved instrument. When I am playing for others who are expecting to be impressed or inspired this is very different to what happens when I am playing simply for the sake of playing... I would appreciate your comments, thoughts or suggestions on this.

Yes when I am playing by myself I definitely am aware of a connection with a higher being or source ... almost as if I am creating and being created at the same time. I must stress that this connection is much stronger in didge sounding than in didge voice. Maybe this is because language is finite and sound is infinite.

I often take my didge to bed with me and literally fall asleep playing it ... it sort of accompanies me to the sleep world. I frequently have a very strong urge to play as soon as I awaken which may be in the middle of the night or early in the morning. When I respond to this it is like having didge and not breakfast in bed. Playing the didge lying down is a very different experience ... not sure why but suspect it may have something to do with changes in the middle ear.

Would you tell us a little about your current didge collection? I'm also particularly interested in your selection process, what you look for now in an instrument and if your special techniques guide that somewhat.

One of my objectives has been to get to the point where I move beyond having preferences or favourite didges. For me real mastery would mean that I can pick up anything and breathe "sound life" into it as a living being is it not I that must change and be moulded rather than the didge which is solid and steady. I have made great strides in this respect but have certainly not got there yet since I still have numerous preferences. I suspect that my ego and need to satisfy myself and please others who hear me playing, is closely linked to these preferences ... for example I will use one of my long and very low didges in A1 to demonstrate the range of notes I can play. I would not use a shorter higher didge because currently the range I have on these is smaller!!! Of course I am aware that the law of physics play a part in the sounds that can be created but believe intuitively that through true mastery it is possible to work within these laws.

I have a large range of didges (see photo attachment for a few of them) ... different woods, glass fibre, hemp, aluminium, bamboo, traveller didges, plastic PVC and sisal (cactus plant). I must say that I have played and heard many traditional aboriginal termite formed didges and have not been very impressed. Shannon Wright, a South African master craftsman is making what I consider to be the best didges I have ever played or heard. These remarkable sisal didges are extremely resonant, very light and strong and about twice as loud as most didges. Will send you photos.

Have you seen the traveller didge made in Germany? ... They are flat boxes 50cm long, 4cm thick and 17cm wide. Sound exactly like a conventional low didge e.g. C1 ... Will send you photos.

Hexagonal Didges
Hexagonal Didges

I have over the years tried to select didges that are very different and that will challenge and surprise me. My first serious didge which was a pine one in A! (4th from the bottom in the attached photo) was selected in 1998 because it was the only one I could not play when I was shown a selection of about 20 didges. It was on this didge that I learnt to play and circular breathe on the following notes A1 d2 B3 E3 G4 C5. It will always hold a special place in my heart ... I am playing this didge in the photo together with an African dun dun drum.

I can play with a mouth piece of virtually any size and do not need to even create a seal. I play my big sisal didge from both sides ... The wooden mouth piece side is 32mm in diameter and the other exit side is 200mm in diameter. When I play it from this wrong side my whole face is in the opening and I am able to get a reasonable seal using my face and forehead ... this might sound crazy and bizarre but most people would not be able to tell the difference in the drone tone that emerges from the mouthpiece end!! My preferences are wooden or plastic mouth pieces between 30 and 35mm. I am often moving the didge from one side of my mouth to the other while playing and am also constantly changing the shape of my mouth and the tension in my lips ... beeswax and rubber latex mouthpieces pose serious restrictions to doing this without pain and discomfort.

Because I like to move around and also play dual didge the weight is important and the lighter the better. When for example I do my beach runs I use my light 60cm long and 4cm diameter PVC didges (2nd from the bottom in the attachment).

I also use a longer PVC didge for my water playing both while swimming and playing in rock pools. By submerging the end of the didge under water and changing the depth, I am able to blow against the weight of the water and in this way get an amazing didge related respiratory workout which has undoubtedly contributed significantly to the techniques I have developed. Doing this in the bath is great fun especially in a bubble bath where the sounds become bubbles and ones body is treated to a powerful dose of liquid sound vibration. You may have seen the didge soundbox which appeared in one of the Didgeridoo and Co Magazine editions. Thought it would be great to create a curved didge that would enable one to lie on the bench, play the didge and give yourself a whole body sound massage ... what do you think Ed? ... I suspect you might be shaking your head in disbelief at this point and thinking that this mad South African needs to be institutionalised ... if this were ever the case my didge would come with and be heard in the wards and padded cells!

I have a wonderful selection of conch shells and antelope horns (Kudu antelope) and often play these with each other and the didge ... will send you photos. In short I am interested in blowing into anything that has a hole at one end and an opening at the other.

Sisal Silhouette
Sisal Silhouette