The many names of the Jew’s harp–jaw harp, mouth harp, maultrommel, mungharpe, munngiga, and trump–attest to the instrument’s popularity. Ron Berry is an Australian instrument maker as well as a Jew’s harp player and importer. “I like to play them at the market and watch people’s eyes go wide,” he says. “It’s just one of those sounds I guess. People love them because they’re nice and easy to play. You can pick them up and get a sound out of them straight away without much technique.”
Jew’s harps have carved a niche in nearly every part of the world and can be found in quite a few shapes and styles. This tutorial focuses on those jaw harps held against a musician’s parted teeth.
Parts of a Jew’s Harp
A Jew’s harp consists of two parts–the frame and the tongue or reed. The vibration of this tongue produces sound.
A player can pull back on a Jew’s harp’s tongue and listen for the tone. On a quality mouth harp, the sound will be quiet but clear and sustained. This tone needs a resonator, and that’s where a musician’s mouth comes in.
How to Hold the Jew’s Harp
A right handed player will hold the frame where the tongue is attached with his left hand. To comfortably grip a Jew’s harp with a rounded frame, he will make a “C” with his fingers and thumb then wrap them around the instrument. When playing a jaw harp with a less rounded frame, a player will grip the instrument by placing his thumb on the back and pointer and middle fingers on the front.
The right hand will be responsible for operating the jaw harp’s tongue. The trigger for plucking should be pointed away from the player.
How to Play the Jaw Harp
Now for the fun part–to get a sound from the Jew’s harp, the narrow part of the frame through which the tongue passes must be pressed firmly against a musician’s teeth. The teeth should fit nicely against the jaw harp’s beveled edges. Pressing the harp firmly will prevent it from rattling. If a musician doesn’t like the feel of metal against his teeth, there are also jaw harps crafted from Plexiglas and wood.
A musician will want to be certain his teeth are parted. Once the mouth harp’s tongue is plucked, it will pass in and out of the player’s mouth rapidly. Knocking a tooth or nicking the tongue is a common but unpleasant beginner’s mistake. As musicians become comfortable with the instrument, this error should diminish.
Now, with the right pointer finger, a musician can pluck the jaw harp’s tongue. According to Berry, “inward plucking gets the best tone.” Because the vibrating tongue causes the mouth harp’s sound, it’s important a musician makes sure neither his fingers, nor lips hamper its movement.
“You can get a sound out of it straight away,” comments Berry, “but The hardest part is getting a really defined sound. After a while, the way you hold it and how you play it changes bit by bit until the sound becomes more defined.”
How to Play Rhythm on Mouth Harps
There are three ways to get rhythm going on the mouth harp. A player can pluck the tongue, breathe, or use articulation.
Some players choose to pluck the jaw harp’s tongue rapidly first toward themselves and then away. Others pluck the tongue alternately with the pointer and middle fingers.
A more subtle way to create rhythm is by adding articulation to sustained notes. Flute players use their tongues to articulate harder notes with “tukutuku,” and softer notes with “dugudugu”. Jew’s harpists can experiment by shaping different vowels and consonants as they play as well. Forming the words, “Di diddle, di, diddle di,” is an easy way to jump into the rhythm of a tune. Breathing rhythmically is another way to add a beat and some flavor to a tune.
How Breathing Affects a Mouth Harp’s Sound
Many beginners attempt to increase volume by plucking the tongue harder. This actually has little effect, but inhaling or exhaling while the Jew’s harp’s tongue vibrates dramatically increases volume.
“You can breathe through a mouth harp to get a tremolo effect,” Berry says. Musicians perform this by breathing or panting rapidly while the Jew’s harp plays a sustained note. This technique can be a particularly fun way to end a tune with flare.
How to Play Different Notes on a Jew’s Harp
To achieve different pitches, a musician will need to use his tongue to alter the space inside his mouth. Bringing the tongue closer to the front teeth creates a smaller sound chamber and higher pitched notes. Pulling the tongue back forms a larger sound chamber and lower pitched notes.
“Mouth harps resonate in different sinus cavities,” Berry explains. “so where you put your tongue and how open your mouth is can take you from a high pitched sound down to a low sound. For a bit of bass, you can drop your Adam’s apple to let the sound resonate in your esophagus. You can sing through them and break the note up with a harmonic. By adding your voice to it and accentuating different harmonics, there are all sorts of possibilities.”
When using the Jew’s harp for rhythmic back up, high and low pitches offer accompaniment reminiscent to a plucked double bass or bass guitar. Experienced jaw harpists can even take a solo break and play a tune’s melody though this is sometimes accomplished by quickly switching between harps of different keys.
One simple mouth harp technique involves pinching the frame of the harp tightly with the left hand during a sustained note. This constricts the tongue and causes the pitch to rise.
“Putting these effects together into a nice rhythm and using the overtones to make melodies is where it starts getting musical,”Berry remarks.
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