Tabourot’s Law is a concept you might have only come across should you be learning to play the theremin. In fact, until this post, the phrase “Tabourot’s Law” was almost a googlewhack – except I’m cheating because true googlewhacks only happen with two words but no quote marks.
You’re saying, “shut up about the googlewhacking, what the hell is a theremin?”, aren’t you?
A theremin is a musical instrument (picture courtesy of Theremin World). It was invented by a Russian man named Lev Terman, or Leon Theremin in the West, about 90 years ago. You play it by moving your hands around the two antennae, one of which controls pitch, the other volume, attached to oscillators.
You have heard one: its sound (though not the instrument itself) is used in the Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations – listen for the “quavery wobble”. It’s also one of Hannibal Lector’s two favourite instruments.
The theremin, and Tabourot’s Law, came to my attention through the auspices of The Reverend Guppy’s Aquarium: Encounters with heroes of the English language, from the Earl of Sandwich to Joseph P. Frisbee by Philip Dodd. It is, of course, a (fascinating) book about eponyms – words derived from people’s names, and obviously enough, Theremin is one of them (described in the chapter about Adolphe Sax).
Dodd mentions a teach-yourself theremin book. Thanks to a reference on the theremin site, at the bottom of this page of discussion, I now know it was probably Dr. R.B.Sexton’s Method for the Theremin. Ah yes, the famous Saxon Method: wave your hands around the antennae.
Saxon provides a piece of advice he in turn got from Tabourot, who was a castenet tutor who wrote Castanuelas, Olè. I can’t quite tell if this was written relatively recently or 500 years ago by a monk (and republished relatively recently) whose real name wasn’t even Tabourot anyway.
I’ll quote Dodd: “Its central method was that if you are having problems trying to achieve something difficult and are convinced you will never make any progress, then at the very point you are about to give up in frustration, that is precisely when you are going to make a breakthrough”.
Or, to quote Saxon himself, in more vivid terms:
Tabourot’s Law states that success always comes after you start screaming in frustration but before you actually give up.
Dodd says, “It’s an excellent law, which I recommend applying to most human endeavours” – including the endeavour of writing fiction. And not just human endeavours, either – when we were teaching our dog the ‘down’ command – old dog, new trick – he barked in frantic and high-pitched frustration just before he finally worked out what we wanted from him, the exact expression of Tabourot’s Law.
I’m sure the mental anguish and stress that tends to accompany a breakthrough – the outward expression of the mental force being expended – has a name in psychological research and has been studied extensively, but I find “Tabourot’s Law” to be picturesque.
Next time you’re working on a story or a scene and you’ve been going around in circles and it seems like it’s just never going to work and you should just pack the whole thing in and go do something actually rewarding like learning to play an obscure musical instrument, mutter to yourself, “Tabourot’s Law” and keep trying just that little bit longer.