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The acoustics of the jaw harp: Robert Vandré and the fascination of jaw harp physics

Where is the connection between playing the jaw harp and speaking? Robert Vandré says one learns a lot about the jaw harp when dealing with the physiological and psychological speaking processes. There are similar patterns at work that generate the sound while speaking or playing the jaw harp, e.g. the movement of the tongue or the various resonant spaces in the area of the head. Robert Vandré is a hobby musician and for over 20 years a jaw harp acoustics specialist. Vandré is author of a jaw harp school and an authority for meticulous jaw harp acousticians as he examined and measured the instrument very thoroughly. Currently, there are only a few studies about acoustic parameters of the jaw harp. His website rvandre.de that is online since 2002 is one of the few sources that comprehensively analyse the sound properties of the jaw harp based on substantiated figures. That is why it is a treasure for instrument researchers and acousticians, but at the same time for jaw harp players that are seeking a better understanding about the functionality of the instrument. Helen from DAN MOI met Robert in 2017 at the Ancient Trance Festival in Taucha, near Leipzig.

Quote: http://rvandre.de/toene.html

The mouth harp as natural scientific object

I’ve been always very interested in the acoustic conditions of the mouth harp. I am a natural scientist, ecologist and am working as a soil scientist and a botanist. Music is my hobby. So I have a completely different approach to those instruments, if compared to other jaw harp players. Of course I am alsointerested in the feel and how jaw harp music is influencing the soul, butI alsolook closely at the different factors and want to know how the instruments work on a physical level. I am rather a technician who says: that is rhythm, that melody, that happens via the diaphragm, those are the fingers, that comes from breathing, that is articulation.

Robert Vandré acoustically examined and measured the jaw harp and evaluated the data. He recorded the tones of a jaw harp and by support of a computer software he measured the frequency range of those tones. The range displays the overtones that resonate in a jaw harp tone (photo frequency). Since the year 2002 Robert Vandré is having a website called rvandre.de, where he documents and provides public access to this research. The graphs show what overtones are present in a sound to what degree, which helps to understand how a sound is physically built. The outcome of the research was astonishing, says Robert Vandré, “I was very surprised how regularly the pattern of the sound the tongue generates is”. Due to his measurements one can comprehend how the jaw harp works: each jaw harp has a basic tone and all other tones of the mouth harp are overtones of the basic tone that can be generated by specific movements of the mouth and throat area.

"I discovered the jaw harp many years ago at a festival. There were jaw harps from Schwarz, Austria. So I bought one and played a little on it. At first I was thinking of Snoopy from the Peanuts. He is playing the jaw harp, for instance in the bus. So I tried around a bit and came to the point, where I could play melodies that others in my surroundings were able to guess. Then the instrument was lying around for years and I forgot about it until I went to the music fair in Frankfurt. That also was many years ago. There was a booth with Hungarian jaw harps from Szilágyi. I bought one and on the train ride back home it totally got me: It was really cool to play a good jaw harp and to try out things on it. And that really triggered my curiosity: how does a jaw harp work, what is the physical background? I started to try around, to think about it and read things, for example from linguistic scientists who describe how a tone is generated and formed in the vocal tract."

How choose your jaw harp

The acoustic curiosity is not limited to a theoretical level. Robert Vandré developed his own technique on how he improves mouth harps that do not sound as well. “I love to play the jaw harps of Josef Jofen who unfortunately does not make any more as he retired. I also like to play on Schlütter’s and Szilágyi’s jaw harps as they both are very good. If one does not sound so well I take pincers and shorten the end of the tongue that one strikes with the fingers. The tone pitch isn’t right anymore, but I don’t care. These are my best jaw harps today.

To find a good instrument is for beginners already very important. But how does one find a good beginner’s instrument? “If there is the opportunity at a jaw harp booth it is a definitely a good idea to try out a couple of them.”, Robert suggests. “It is important to choose an instrument with a soft tongue, so that the tongue of the instrument does not vibrate with too much energy at the teeth. The jaw harp still should have a good sound.” For Robert the secret of a well-sounding and well-playable jaw harp lies in the length of the bended part of the tongue. As described above, it should be short, so the counteracting vibration is not too strong. Then the instrument can produce a beautiful sound.

Quote: http://rvandre.de/spieltechnik.html

To play with body control

Like most jaw harp players, Robert is an autodidact, but eventually he has passed on his knowledge to others. To give beginners a better start he compiled his knowledge in a course that is also published as a book. Every now and then, Robert Vandré also conducts workshops for jaw harp beginners and advanced players.

What keeps me going with the jaw harp is that the sound reaches the inside and it really gives pleasure. It’s just so nice to play. I also enjoy playing the jaw harp in body control, i.e. controlling my breath as Aron Szilágyi demonstrates in a beautiful manner. Controlled rhythms, controlled pieces, chorales, folk songs, so really playing music on the jaw harp and not only sounds. That is what I am interested in. I’d like to make some proper music with it. As I discovered the jaw harp for myself it was virtually non-present in public space as far as I remember. Merely the sound of the coil spring as a sound effect showed up here and there.

Apart from that there was the jingle of the German kid’s programme “Sesamstraße”, but there the jaw harp plays only 2 tones in the rhythm. The jaw harp as a melodic instrument did not seem to be present at all. As far as I see it, there is almost no living jaw harp tradition in Germany, apart perhaps towards the Alpine area, around Molln in Austria. There, playing the jaw harp was completely re-invented. Here in Germany, the world music scene has brought the jaw harp back to life, more precisely the people dealing with spirituality, who gain access to the jaw harp via the feeling.

In 2007 he has seen really good jaw harp players for the first time at the Ancient Trance Festival that back then was hosted in Leipzig, says Robert Vandré. “To watch the good players live was my motivation to keep on dealing with jaw harps.

Robert Vandré playing "Abendspaziergang":