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Early yearsRockmore was born as Clara Reisenberg to a Jewish family in Vilnius, Vilna Governorate, Russian Empire (now Lithuania). Early in her childhood she emerged as a violin prodigy and joined the Saint Petersburg Conservatory at the age of five, where she studied violin under the prominent Hungarian violinist Leopold Auer. After moving to the United States, Rockmore enrolled at the Curtis Institute of Music. As a teenager she was affected by tendinitis in her bow arm, attributed to childhood malnutrition, and was obliged to give up the violin. However, after meeting Léon Theremin and being introduced to his electronic instrument theremin, she became its most prominent player, performing widely and helping Theremin to refine his instrument.
CareerRockmore made orchestral appearances in New York and Philadelphia and went on coast-to-coast tours with Paul Robeson, but it was not until 1977 that she released a commercial recording called The Art of the Theremin. The album, which was produced by Bob Moog and Shirleigh Moog, featured Rockmore's theremin playing with piano accompaniment by her sister Nadia Reisenberg. Rockmore’s approach to theremin playing emphasized physical and emotional control. As she described it herself in an interview: “You cannot register any of your internal emotion at all. You cannot shake your head, for instance, or sway back and forth on your feet. That would change your tone.”
She died in New York City on May 10, 1998, at age 87. Though her health had been in rapid decline for almost a year, she professed her determination to live to see the birth of her grandniece, who was born just two days before her death.
Contributions to the theremin
Developmental influenceRockmore saw limitations of the original instrument and helped to develop the instrument to fulfill her needs, and because of her close personal relationship with Léon Theremin, she was able to influence the design and evolution of the instrument, suggesting changes such as lowering the profile of the instrument so the performer is more visible, increasing the sensitivity of the pitch antenna, and increasing range from three octaves to five.
Public influenceBy the time Rockmore was playing large scale public concerts such as New York City's Town Hall in 1938, she was becoming increasingly known for impressing critics with her artistry of the theremin during a time in which much of the general public had come to rather negative conclusions of what was possible on the instrument.
On 9th March 2016 Google published a Google Doodle about her as Google did for Robert Moog in 2012.
Clara's RCA theremin, given to her and later modified by Theremin himself (also modified by Robert Moog) can be viewed at the Artist's Gallery of the Musical Instruments Museum in Phoenix, Arizona. The instrument is on loan by the Sherman family.