Mouthing Off
Wayland Harman

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


What’s the Idioglot?

Two distinctly different types of instruments exist in the world of trumps (Jew's harps). The design most familiar to Western and European musicians is a steel frame into which a second piece of steel is set. The technical term for this type is heteroglot - made from two or more parts. The idioglot is made of a single part and is, as a matter of fact, the topic of this column.

The first idioglot I saw was the Philippine Kubing. These wonderful instruments are hand cut from a straight grained bamboo stick, approximately 10" x 5/8" x 1/8". The exterior surface of the large culm (4-5") is present on one side. This is decorated by scratching away the smooth and blackening the resulting patterns. This artwork includes a family mark which identifies the maker. Keep in mind the Kubing is one of a very broad range of similar bamboo instruments. It is, however, the one with which I am most familiar. I will return to the Kubing after a look at the engineering of the idioglots, which can also be constructed of brass.

With a steel trump, a rigid frame holds a flexible reed that is plucked directly. The reed must be strong enough to withstand the plucking many, many times. The whole assembly requires contact with the player's teeth to achieve its full volume.

With idioglots, a flexible frame holds an even more flexible reed that is never plucked directly. The frame must be rigid enough to withstand many plucks, yet flexible to allow the pluck to transfer to the reed. As the frame snaps back straight, the reed cannot keep up and is left to catch up, which is the start of its vibration cycle. The reed must be very flexible to allow this.

No Contact Sport

No contact with the teeth is required to achieve full volume, just a little air. These instruments rest lightly on the lips, this being the most apparent difference to a steel harp player.

Kubings are played with the pretty side facing the audience. The holding hand FIRMLY holds the instrument with thumb and forefinger opposing each other, very near but not interfering with the free end of the reed. This firm clamping of the bamboo adds the mass, which is missing in this light and flexible idioglot. Holding the instrument more loosely will diminish its volume.

The embouchure (best playing spot) generally occurs at the free end of the reed, the last inch or so. This is where the reed is moving the most and the fastest. Your thumb should be close to this area and may well rest against your cheek. The instrument will rest on the lips or it will mute the sound a bit.

The plucking hand produces sharp plucks, not necessarily strong ones. The action is nearly percussive. A sharp release of the frame produces the strongest tone, usually but not always pulling the frame toward the player. Rapid forward and backward plucking is possible but difficult.

Due to the closed frame design inherent with this harp, the very straight pluck (in line with the reed's flexing) required with steel harps is not as critical. Plucking can occur at some angle to the end, and the reed will not be driven to click against the frame. This characteristic of the Kubing allows multiple finger plucks more easily than steel. Spreading the fingers of the plucking hand and raking them across the end yields a rapid succession of plucks. Finger plucks like those of a strung concert harp player, a scratching type movement, work well if the intensity and sharpness of the pluck is maintained.

While the volume of Kubings is less than a good steel harp, the tone is unique and satisfying, though the sound decays rapidly.

Big Brass

Akin to the Kubing, is the brass Hmong harp. These are powerful instruments and may have volume which rivals all but very loud steel harps. The sustain is long and true with air flow being extremely effective. Smaller than their bamboo cousins, a firm clamping of the frame is still essential. Some practice at supplying the necessary thumb and finger pressure will be needed. The flat side faces the audience and it is recommended that they be plucked toward the player only. Back and forth plucking may damage these somewhat fragile instruments.

Brass harps are great for singing with. The very flexible and relatively light reeds are so sensitive to air flow that even that of a sung note has effect. Matching the vocal frequency to the harps lowest pitch creates a powerful note. Some mismatches will yield three notes; the voice, the harp and the beats between the two. Singing the harp's low note while producing the high harmonics with mouth movement is easy and beautiful. These same techniques are available with steel trumps but take on especially silky attributes with Hmong harps.

While the mouth and throat manipulations used in playing the idioglots are very similar to those used in playing steel harps, there are a few differences. If a lot of air flow is used, the reed can be overdriven and lose its sustain, growling to a stop. Conversely, the air which can be forced through with a tongue thrust is enough to mimic a short blast of diaphragm air on a steel harp. When playing higher harmonics, the drone of the open reed is not as pronounced as that of the steel harp. This is especially true of the Hmong harp and may be due to the lack of contact with the players teeth.

Idioglots, being cut from one piece, have very tight tolerances. Steel harps must make more allowance for deflection in the reed's path due to direct plucking of the reed. In the construction of a Kubing, the parallel fibers of bamboo are pealed up between crosswise stop cuts, creating V shaped troughs with just penetrate the smooth side of the bamboo blank. With the complete outline of the reed just cut through a free flexing reed which is permanently aligned with the frame is created.

Hmong harps are cut from a brass blank approximately 3" x 1/2" x .025 thousands thick. The reed's shape may have a single long point or can be double-tongued (two long points) or may have an extra couple of short points at the base of 1 long point.

These reeds are carved from 1 side of the blank by cutting or scraping the metal until the outline of the reed is visible on the flat side without cutting through brass being fairly soft will distort before it cuts through. This distortion can be sanded off the flat side that completes the cut.

Once the reed is free to flex within its frame, adjustments are made to maximize playability. Both frame and reed are thinned in the area where they are joined. This increases flexibility and lowers the harp’s pitch and increases sustain. The reed's thickness may also be reduced to reduce mass and raise the pitch. Balancing these adjustments to bring out the best tone takes experience. Making an idioglot is a challenge and these instruments are cultural works of art. No trumpist's kit is complete without an idioglot, a wonderful alternative to steel harps. – Wayland *


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