|Wayland Harman, instrument inventor, fine wood-worker, and JawHarpist, examines the essense of
mouth cavity instruments in this running series.
I have had requests for more about the playing of trumps, specifically
tricks and tips. Given my somewhat limited experience, I welcome others to
add their own tricks and will incorporate them into the next Mouthing Off.
I'll give a couple of addresses at the end of the article.
The Quick Tongue
I consider this a trick because I am amazed at how fast some folks can
move the tip of their tongue. A quick up and down movement of the tongue's
tip can trill between several high harmonics. This works well on a
sustained pluck as the energy fades. Move the tongue as if saying "T" or
"D" or "LA", each producing a slight variation on this theme.
The Jew's harp reed can be muted in several ways, including contact with
the tongue. Place the tongue's tip behind the lower front teeth and push
the top of your tongue forward to the upper front teeth. Time the pluck
and tongue push to create a muted pop.
Big Throat vs. No Throat
Two distinct note ranges are available with the trump, though making them
distinctly different takes practice.
The most used range is with air pushing across the reed. This open throat
technique can be expanded upon by opening as big as you can and not using
air. A cavernous sound is available. Practice pitch control by changing
throat size. Conversely, if you close off the throat with the very back of your tongue,
a very different sound is produced. Pitch control is much easier with the
tongue than the throat, and the highest harmonics can be reached. Rhythmic
alterations between these two modes offers unlimited possibilities.
Switching between a variety of techniques in a measured way greatly adds
interest to a trump performance.
Vocalizing either with or against the frequency of a trump adds another
palette of sound textures. Singing a falsetto note sympathetic with the
low pitched Jew's harp is hauntingly beautiful. Singing the same note as
the trump is powerful. With sensitive reeds, great interactions can be
heard as the two vibrating systems "flavor" each other. The results of
phasing the voice slightly out of tune with the trump can be startling.
Since air must eventually be inhaled, vocal techniques are a natural to
combine with a non-vocal accent.
Change the Reed
Alterations in the sound of the reed occur depending on how it is plucked.
A pluck which pushes or pulls the reed at the end (perpendicular to the
length of the reed) has a slightly less brilliant tone than a pluck which
grabs the tip of the trigger and pulls it away from the crimp (parallel to
the reed's length). In the latter, the reed is flexing toward the middle
which excites the higher harmonics more. The difference between these two
plucks varies from instrument to instrument, and may be quite subtle.
Muting the reed can shift its pitch upward or can highlight a specific
overtone similar to muting a guitar string. The effect, however, is not
clear like the guitar's harmonics. This mute is accomplished with a finger
tip or the thumb being placed into contact with the reed. Try different
points moving away from the crimp to find different effects.
Don't Forget to Breathe
Air is a powerful tool, which can gently coax the reed or can completely
overwhelm the instrument. While the strong blast of air is loud and
powerful, the subtle control of lesser amounts of this precious gas defines
the beauty of a Jew's harp. Support your breathing from as low as you can,
not just the diaphragm, but this whole region of muscles, much like a singer
I will only suggest a few of the many variations of this all important
aspect of playing a Jew's harp. Which finger or body part you use to pluck
the reed is up to you. There doesn't seem to be a wrong way. Many people
pluck forward and/or backward with the index finger, some the thumb, some
the heel of the hand. Others pluck by bringing a finger around and
"scratching" at the tip of the reed, thus getting that slightly different
reed brightness. This technique is sometimes expanded to multiple fingers,
each taking turns "scratching" the reed. A rapid back and forth pluck can
be quite impressive, while interspersing double plucking with a single
plucked rhythm allows for wide rhythmic possibilities, and is particularly
useful in playing melodies.
Take It Off Your Teeth
Playing a steel harp like a bamboo instrument (touching lips only) brings
out a muted tone with little resonance. Air can still be very effective
and tongue mutes are fun. Be careful of your lips in doing this; it is
easy to get them pinched between reed and frame. I prefer a fast plucking
tempo to offset the shorter sustain, further enhancing the lip problem.
One Real Trick
Bill Gohring brought back a wonderful trick from the Molln Congress.
He was shown this by a young Austrian girl who apparently was astonished that
he didn't already know how to make a trump whine like a horse. The sound
is really quite easy as Bill showed us at the Jew's Harp Festival last summer.
Holding the harp to your teeth as you normally would, place your plucking
finger on the trigger and push the reed forward and backward while blowing
like crazy. Do not release the reed, just go in and out with it. Trumps
with tight tolerances work best.
Perhaps the best tip I can think of is simply to experiment, relentlessly.
Moving seamlessly from one unique sound to another, and the simultaneous
pitch control to render a song's melody clearly, combine for great playing.
Developing individual skills that can be combined into melodic
soundscapes brings out one of the trumps marvels, that being a voice which
can sing different pitches in a wide array of timbres.
I'm sure there are many techniques I have overlooked and for this I
apologize. If you can help with other tips and tricks, please let me know.
Any feedback would be appreciated. E-mail: