|Playing Techniques||+ How to hold
the jew's harp
+ How to pluck
+ Vibrato and Mordent
+ Finger Capodastro
+ Articulation by Breathing
+ Articulation with the Tongue
+ Sound Effects
+ Pitches, How to Play Melodies
+ Jew's Harp Weight: Play without contact to the teeth
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is no such thing as a single and universally accepted
technique. Therefore the techniques described below are suggestions
meant to be altered and improved just as you like. The figures and
sound examples present bow-shaped jew's harps, but the techniques
described are valid for all jew's harps.
There are numerous ways of holding and plucking the jew's harp. See the gallery of pictures from jew's harp musicians to get an impression. To find the best technique for yourself, it is a good idea to study, copy and try out different ways of playing.
In the following my suggestions:
How to hold the jew's harp
With one hand the jew's harp is put against the slightly opened lips in such a way, that the reed can swing through them (figure 1, 2). Bow-shaped jew's harps have to touch the opened incisors also (see quickstart). The end of the frame (lamellate jew's harps, figure 2 right) or the reed (bow-shaped ones, figure 2 left) is plucked with the fingers of the other hand. It produces the fundamental note (or prime tone) of the instrument that is heard continuously while playing. The oral cavity and other resonance chambers amplify different overtones of this fundamental note, thus producing the tone colours and pitches of your playing. Read more about this subject in the chapter tones and pitches.
How to Pluck
By plucking the reed the fingers play separated tones, producing tone lengths and rhythm. The reed may be plucked by one stretched finger, picking the reed from below and away from the mouth (figure 1 und 3 A, solid arrow). The finger may also pick the reed in the opposite direction (figure 3 A, broken arrow). Thus plucked back and forth, melodies with fast rhythm patterns can be played, as in sound example 1 (158 KB).
Tremolo: regular and rapid repetition of a single note
If the palm of the plucking hand is turned towards the mouth (figure 4), forefinger, middle-finger and ring-finger can pick the reed alternately and in quick succession, somewhat alike the way a flamenco-guitar-player works the guitar strings (figure 3 B). The effect can be heard in sound example 2 (299 KB). This technique needs a lot of practice before the plucking gets regular and the reed is prevented from hitting the frame of the jew's harp. To keep the hand still and only the fingers moving, the thump may support the hand on the cheek bone (figure 4).
The musician and video artist Vladiswar Nadishana
(see gallery) invented
the following techniques, producing vibrato and a mordent. To produce
the reed is plucked by one stretched finger towards the mouth.
Continuing its movement, the finger knocks several times gently on the
lips. At each knock the amplitude and pitch of the jew's harp sound is
slightly raised (left side of figure 5, and sound example
3, 144 kB).
Mordent: The jew's harp is held between thumb, index finger and middle finger like on the right side of figure 5. Now the ring finger nail can briefly and gently touch the newly plucked, vibrating reed. By this the pitch of the fundamental note is raised for an instant, producing an upper or inverted mordent (sound example 4, 276 kB).
finger-capodastro is another finger technique: The
reed of the jew's harp can be
between thumb and forefinger or middle finger of the hand holding the
jew's harp frame. The basic tone is muted, and it gets a higher
pitch, like in sound
example 5 (144 KB).
Articulation by Breathing
holding the frame and plucking the reed, almost everything in playing
the jew's harp happens inside your mouth and throat, or is done by
the diaphragm, by breathing: Separated, articulated tones can be
produced by short breaths. When breathing in and out, the air stream
amplifies the fundamental note. In sound
example 6 (173 KB) the
jew's harp is plucked regularly. By breathing rasping sounds are
produced between the plucks.
Articulation with the Tongue
A succession of tones can be "pronounced" by the tongue, alike articulation on the recorder or flute. When playing the recorder, the tongue interrupts the air stream. With the jew's harp, no air stream is needed. In this case the tongue opens and closes the oral cavity, allowing and interrupting resonance. With or without air stream, the technique is very alike. For slow melodies I suggest to open and close the cavity with the tongue just behind the upper incisors, like pronouncing de de de. For quick successions of tones you may express doodle doodle doodle, using a swinging move of the tongue on the palate. However, flute players use de ge de ge deg. In sound example 7 (155 KB) the harp is again plucked regularly. In between the plucks articulation is done by expressing de de de, doodle doodle doodle and doodle de doodle de doodle. This technique is easy and can be played very fast. Nevertheless it is rarely heard on jew's harp recordings.
I combined rapid picking with one finger like in figure 4 A with articulation by the tongue, like pronouncing det det dedledet to produce short, detached notes: staccato (sound example 8, 350 kB)
playing techniques produce sound effects that influence both melody
and rhythm. The number of possible sound effects may be unlimited. It
is worth just to try out and discover ever new effects. Especially
the tongue is a very talented organ. In the following some
An interesting effect that can be used for articulation originates from the voice organ: The voice chink (glottis) is the opening that regulates the flow of air through the oral cords (figure 4 in tones and pitches). When closed, the resonance is altered in such a way that in addition to the "normal" overtones deeper overtones are amplified. Two overtones can be heard simultaneously and influenced independent of each other. To achieve this, the voice chink has to be closed. This is the same action that is used when talking to pronounce a single vowel: "What? #I don't get this." At the # the chink is closed for an instant to pronounce the vowel "I". When coughing it is the voice chink that holds back and suddenly releases the breath. In sound example 9 (235 KB) a melody is heard. Than the chink is closed and opened repeatedly and the additional tones of the altered resonance are heard as well as the opening and closure of the glottis.
Nasal and oral cavity are important resonance chambers of the jew's harp. Movements in these cavities directly affect the sound of the harp. The nasal cavity can be closed against the resonace chambers of bronchial tubes and chest by the soft palate (figure 4 in tones and pitches). It is this "closing" of the nose you may use if you talk and want to sound like you catched cold. The connection between oral cavity and air tube is closed by the tongue when speaking "ng" like in the suffix "-ing": Silently pronouncing "ing ing ing ing" while playing the jew's harp results in an interesting effect that is heard in the first part of sound example 10 (160 KB). The second part illustrates another tongue effect: The middle part of the tongue is put against the upper molar teeth, and the tip touches and leaves the palate - like speaking "ne ne ne".
To produce a percussion effect you may hold the jew's harp against your pursed lips. The sound is muted. If the lips are closed, the reed claps against them. By parting the lips just after the clap you get the effect of sound example 11 (259 KB).
On the jew's harp different pitches are produced by the same movements of the tongue used in speech when pronouncing the different vowels. Use the following exercise to try this out: Play on your jew's harp and listen to the fundamental note, the pitch of the reed. Now without jew's harp sing this note. While singing constantly, form the vowel u (like in "boot"), than change slowly to i (like in "reed") and back again to u. Listen to the changing sound: You hear the overtones or harmonics of your voice, from deeper to higher notes and back again. Now play the jew's harp again and use the same movements of the tongue as before. Together with the fundamental note you can hear the changing pitches and resonances of the second formant region (more explanations in Tones and Pitches: Resonances).
A second way to imagine the notes, that is, the resonances of the second formant region is quite simple: Whistle a tune. Again you use and hear the variable sound of the oral cavity that corresponds to the second formant region. The only difference between whistling tunes and playing them on the jew's harp is the way the sound is generated. The movements of the tongue, influencing the sound of the oral cavity, are equal and produce the same pitches.
Deep accompanying notes
It is more difficult to imagine and control the deeper resonances of the first formant region, formed in the throat. These resonances can be used to play accompanying notes. You can hear the effect on the title "Kein schöner Land" (see music): The first verse is played without, the second with deeper accompanying notes. You may give it a try as follows (don't worry if it does not work): Play a constant note on the jew's harp, e.g. an octave of the fundamental reed note. While playing and without voice, form the succession of the vowals u - o (like in "law") - a (like "father") - o - u. The note played shal remain constant. In speech the vowels u and o are formed by movements in the throat an by pursuing the lips. Here the lips are not moved, they stay on the jew's harp frame. The sounds of the deeper notes of the first formant are formed by movments in the throat.
The deep notes are especially clear when you breath softly while playing, or when you close the voice chink (see above: Sound effects and sound example 9 (235 KB)).
In this way tunes can be played using the overtones of the fundamental note provided by the jew's harp reed (see natural harmonic row). At the higher part of the row the overtones are so near each other that practically every melody can be played irrespective of the fundamental note. In the lower part of the row the distance between the overtones is more pronounced and not every note can be played. As the fundamental note is heard all the time, a melody played with the overtones will sound best if the fundamental note fits in. For example, a jew's harp tuned C (that is, C is the fundamental note) will be good to play melodies on the C major (as well as minor) key. The basic tone reminds on the drone of bagpipes and medieval stringed instruments, as illustrated in a section of La Quarte Estampie Real in sound example 12 (209 KB).
To play printed music, you have to recognize the melody, since unlike on a piano, the notes of a melody cannot be produced mechanically. The playing of melodies functions like whistling or singing: They are formed freely inside the mouth/throat.
How to play without contact to the teeth on bow-shaped jew's harps
spare your teeth, I recommend to attach the harps to a piece of wood or
a piece of metal tube (figure 6). Fixed to
an object of some weight, the jew's harp can be played without
contact to the teeth. You just have to put the frame against your
lips. The sound is the same as normal (only the player himself/herself
the sound differently, as it is transported to the ears via the skull
when using the teeth). Playing without
teeth is very comfortable, especially when playing or exercising a
With such a weight attached to the jew's harp, the lips can be opend and closed while playing, like in sound example 13 (221 kB).
A good sound without teeth is achieved by a weight of 200 to 300 g that is 20 to 30 cm long. The size is essential for the functioning of the weight: The reed vibrates in a rotating manner (figure 6, right, blue arrow). The weight has to function as a lever-arm against the rotation (red arrow).
In figure 6, the jew's harp is clamped between two peaces of wood and attached to the metal tube by a lace. The lace goes through the tube and is tied to a wooden pin. By turning the pin, the lace is twisted and tightened.
The company Dan Moi has adopted my idea and offers the jew's harp weight as accessory (see links).
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