Mouthing Off
Wayland Harman

Wayland Harman, instrument inventor, fine wood-worker, and JawHarpist, examines the essense of mouth cavity  instruments in this running series.

The Humanatone, also known as the nose flute or nose whistle, is a fascinating device for producing flute pitches by changes in mouth size. Powered by exhaling from the nose, it leaves the player’s mouth free to act as a variable resonance chamber. As no fixed vibrating system is used, such as a free reed in the trump, the pitch range is not a series of harmonics, but a full glissando. The nature of a flute is to instantly reflect the physical changes of an enclosed volume of air. With most flutes, this requires the opening and closing of tone holes. Humanatones are like slide whistles, as the volume of enclosed air can be altered infinitely rather than in steps.
    Actually, the nose flute is a name misapplied in the case of a Humanatone, as there is a traditional nose flute, where a pipe with finger holes is played by exhaling from the nose. The Humanatone is by contrast an instrument of modern origin. Manufactured by Grover/Trophy Music, and at about $1.00 each, I have found these plastic gems to be superior to a candy bar as birthday treats for school children. The kids love them and sometimes the teachers do, too. Humanatones are sized for kids’ faces and may require alteration to be used by an adult. I will describe how to do that later in this article.


    The tone of an Humanatone can be sweet or raspy depending on how much force is used when exhaling. Strong airflow and a small mouth cavity combine to produce a loud and somewhat shrill whistle. Softer airflow and large mouth cavity can, with practice, produce very mellow low tones. Producing a soft high note is very difficult and tends to be an airy and wheezing kind of tone. The note range is somewhat limited, as the throat can not be added to increase the resonant capacity of the mouth. In Humanatone playing, the air system (I.E. the diaphragm, lungs, throat, and nose) is kept completely segregated from the resonance system (the mouth); with a closed throat
    When playing the Humanatone, a good air seal to the players nose is necessary, especially when playing low notes. Leaks at the nose take away power and, most importantly, diminish control. From the nose, the air is forced down a channel and across a fipple. This fipple is located in a flat plate which covers the mouth. The area around the fipple must be kept clear of fingers and lips. Fingers should hold near the edges of the instrument, and the lips must be kept slightly above and below the opening in the plate or airflow is disrupted. Disrupting the smooth flow of air through and around the fipple or bore will make playing sweet notes nearly imposible, if indeed the instrument can even be made to sound
    An air seal between the plate and mouth is not critical. Some notes will come more easily if there is a space left between the plate and lips; some are better if a near seal is used. Lifting the plate slightly off of the lower lip when playing low notes makes them easier to obtain but may diminish their volume. This adjustment can be used to compensate for the inability to open up the throat.
    There is a small hole in the plate, presumably intended as a tremolo device, to covered and uncovered it with a fingertip. Typically, this hole is left uncovered, the tongue being the superior tremolo device. I’ve been told it’s there to allow a string to be attached and the instrument worn around the neck. I just ignore it.
    There is great expression to be found with the Humanatone. However, good control of pitch and timbre will only come with practice. Keeping the throat closed and glissando-ing through a wide range of notes is challenging. Matching notes with just the right diaphragm pressure is exactly the same technique that singers learn to employ. Support your notes from deep, deep down. If you are already an accomplished vocalist, the Humanatone may teach you more about breath control, or at least provide a new practice method.


    The Humanatone is a kid-sized instrument, one worthy of a little work to fit individual players. Here are some suggestions for customizing your own.
    Try several different Humanatones to find a good one. Look for nice clean edges in the fipple and bore area. If you pull your upper lip above the plate opening, you can probably get the too small device to sound. Pick the one that sounds the easiest.
Now place the plate over your mouth so that your upper lip can stay in a comfortable position while leaving the hole free. With a mirror, note where the nose cup must be extended to reach and seal against your nose.
    Several options can be used to accomplish this. If only a little extra length is needed, try adding beeswax directly onto the nose cup. Soften a small ball (1/2"dia.) of beeswax by rolling in hands until it can be rolled into a soft rope. Press this wax rope around the inside top edge of the nose cup. Pinch and squeeze the wax to achieve a good seal. More wax can be added as needed. When the wax is correct, smooth with fingers and as a final step, a very brief exposure to flame will meld any surface irregularities. Use a cigarette lighter with a low flame to quickly glaze the wax.
    It may be necessary to extend the nose cup with a ridged extension. Small bits of cardboard can be taped on to widen the nose cup. For my own face, I must extend the length of the instrument as well as the width of the cup. I cast epoxy onto the nose cup using tape to build a form for the glue. The hardened epoxy can be sanded and finished as desired. With this enlarged foundation, beeswax can be applied to fine-tune the fit.
    When wax is used, the instrument must not be exposed to high heat such as a car trunk in summer. If melting may be unavoidable, other material, such as small strips of self adhesive weather strip can be used.
    No alteration of the plate is needed; however, a very fine file or other means can usually help clean the casting line from the fipple. This edge should be clean and sharp.
    My enjoyment of the Humanatone, and its on-stage use, have greatly increased now that I can play comfortably and consistently and without fear of making terrible sounds. How good a performance I can muster depends on many factors, and always comes down to a lot of effort to play well. As they say, "when she’s good she’s very good and when she’s bad she’s horrid". So it is with Humanatones.