Mouthing Off
with Wayland Harman #2

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

Listening from the inside out,
As only the player can;
Reinventing every note,
The tip of the tongue and
Deep in your throat
Listening from the inside out,
Tiny voices learn to shout,
As only the player can.


Holding The Instrument

Wayland playing a steel 'harpThere are many ways to hold the harp. The playing area must be held firmly to the teeth. If you feel the harp rattling against your teeth, you must press harder and equally against upper and lower teeth. If your jaw feels like it's going to fall off, take a break and try not to push quite so hard. The teeth rest on the flats of the square stock, not all the way out on the corner, and especially not any closer to the reed than necessary. The reed must have a clear area to zip in and out between your teeth. Keep this in mind at all times. This is pretty much a beginner's problem and becomes very natural with practice.

The hand holding the instrument must not interfere with the free movement of the reed. If any fingers touch the reed, its sound will be muted. To further complicate matters, holding the harp on the outside edges may compress the playing area and cause the reed to hit the frame.

I hold the steel harp with my thumb right behind the crimped reed connection and my fingers around on the front side. Find what works best for you, keeping these requirements in mind. Different instruments or tired fingers may lead to varied techniques.

Plucking The Steel Jew's Harp

Start softly and pluck straight. Many beginners want to play louder and feel that plucking harder is the thing to do. Usually, this is not the case. Creating accurate mouth cavity sizes and efficient use of air flow over the reed will have a much greater effect; and your harp will last longer. The harp is a very subtle instrument which must be coaxed into life, not whipped into submission.

As with holding the instrument, the pluck can be performed in a variety of different ways. One common method is to use the index finger to push the reed out and away. The fingers are held perpendicular to the reed and powered by wrist action. This method can be expanded to create a rapid out/in plucking action - good for fast rhythms and showing off if you get good at doing it.

My preference is to raise my elbow and hold my fingers parallel to the reed. I can then pluck the reed with my middle finger using only the finger muscles. The pluck itself has a slightly different sound as the energy going into the reed is a bit more complex. Perhaps an article on harmonic content of vibrating systems could explain what I mean by that. For now I had better move on.

No matter how you get the reed moving, it must be kept straight. If you pluck at an angle, the reed will deflect sideways and hit the frame. If your reed doesn't hit the frame, no matter how badly you pluck it, then you could probably close the gap a little.

The pluck sets the tempo of your music. Maintaining a steady beat is critical.

Plucking and holding the harp are the rudiments and, once you have them down, will allow you to concentrate on the other aspects of this fascinating instrument.

Air Flow

The sound of a Jew's harp is greatly altered with variations in air flow or lack of air flow. A good seal around the playing area frame with the lips directs more air through the spaces between reed and frame. Be careful not to mute the reed with your lips. Inhaling and exhaling in rapid succession will add a vibrato effect. Hard blasts of air can overblow the reed causing a kind of base distortion.

The air flow can be opened and closed sharply by closing of the throat with the base of your tongue as in saying the letter "K". This on-off switch is very effective way to add additional rhythms and counterpoint.

Some harps can be made to speak with only well directed air. The spaces between frame and reed must be very tight and usually the reed is thin and flexes easily.

The Tongue and The Ear

You already know this part, and it is a good thing because if you didn't, I couldn't explain it. I am working on the assumption that you can talk; that your ear instantaneously receives sound and redirects your tongue in an incredibly complex performance that we usually take for granted by the time we are 5 years old. Speech and Jew's harp playing are a lot alike.

While playing, the formation of letter shapes become your notes. Try mouthing the vowels while playing. Now try exaggerating those shapes. Make the "E" as close to the front of your mouth as you can. Make your "O" sound as big as you can. Play with the "A" - going between hard "A" and soft "A". Some good consonant shapes to work on are D, G, K, L and T.

Now it is time to use your ears to help your mouth find the different notes. While plucking slowly, move from your biggest "O" to your smallest "E". You should here a series of notes comes and go as you slide by them. Practice finding them individually to create melodies. The more accurately you match the mouth to the harmonic, the clearer the note.

All Together Now

Playing the Jew's harp is an exciting way to make music. How you perform the specific elements is up to you. The pitches and rhythms you find will be yours because they come from within you. Be expressive and creative and enjoy this wonderful mouth instrument.

Thanks for stopping by and please check back.

Peace, Wayland


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