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If you just bought a jaw harp and you whacked yourself in the teeth--you’re in the right place! I’ve done that many a time and over time I’ve learned the proper technique to prevent teeth damage from the jaw harp.
Teeth damage from the jaw harp is caused mostly from improper technique, including teeth position, reed playing angle, improper pressure, and overly rough playing. In combination with jaw harps with stiffer reeds, these factors can lead to teeth damage.
Never fear! The proper technique is not too complicated, it just takes a little bit of knowledge and you’ll know how to play without hurting your precious teeth.
If you want to watch this information in video form, check out my video here:
Crucial Techniques for Playing the Jaw Harp Without Damaging Your Teeth
There are many factors that can lead to broken teeth--which is not fun! So it’s really worth spending the time to know how to play the jaw harp so you can enjoy the instrument without chipping a tooth.
Before we get started, though, it’s super worth it to understand the different parts of a jaw harp so you can know the terminology I’m going to use.
Jaw Harp Anatomy and Basics
The inner frame is where you will be placing part of the jaw harp in your mouth so it needs to be clear, so to do that, you hold the jaw harp by the outer frame without touching the reed (the center piece of flexible metal that’s crimped onto the frame.
To play the jaw harp, you hold the jaw harp against your teeth, with the trigger pointing away from your face. You then use your lips to cover some of the inner frame, and then pull the trigger back (very gently) and release.
Teeth Placement: Jaw Harps Don’t Bite, So You Shouldn’t Bite Them
By far, the biggest mistake people when playing the jaw harp that is very dangerous is to bite the jaw harp.
It’s an easy mistake to make. If you’ve never played before, you’ve probably seen people play and it looks like they are biting the jaw harp. This is not the case--biting the jaw harp can cause damage to your teeth and to your lips. The jaw harp vibrates significantly when played and this kind of rattling is liable to chip something.
So… how are you supposed to play?
Instead of putting the inner frame between your teeth, place the jaw harp firmly against the front of your teeth, like so:
This is not exactly the correct mouth shape, I have my mouth slightly open so you can see how the jawharp is against my teeth instead of between them. However, this also shows that there needs to be a gap between your teeth so that the reed can pass through freely.
An example of how it would look if you have the jaw harp correctly against your teeth with your lips over the inner frame:
Notice how my my lips are creating a seal over the inner frame. You can’t see it, but the jaw harp is being pressed against the front of my teeth.
Also very important: you must keep a gap between your teeth. My teeth are slightly open so the reed has space to move between them. If this gap is too small, then when I press the trigger of the harp the reed will come back and whack me in the teeth.
Summary: The most important thing you can do to protect your teeth and your lips while playing the jaw harp is to not bite the jaw harp.
Playing Angle: No Tilt
A tricky thing to get used to is that the reed is a flexible piece of metal that is pressed by the trigger or striker, which needs to be pressed pressed in only one direction. That is, directly towards your face.
If you strike the trigger at an angle, the reed will respond at that opposite angle, which unfortunately means that it’s going to hit your teeth or your lips. Pull the striker (gently) exactly away from you as you’re playing without any tilt and you’ll make sure the reed goes only straight back.
Flick the Striker Towards Your Mouth
It’s a little tempting to push the striker away from you, but the problem is that it causes a lot of tension that will whip back towards you. This is much more dangerous to your teeth. It’s definitely possible to play both directions but in general try and make it a habit to flick the striker towards your face.
Playing Gently: Don’t Play Pinball With Your Jaw Harp
Did you ever play with one of those old pinball machines? The way you launched the metal ball into the game was to pull back a knob that was attached to a spring.
Because we are human beings, we naturally will pull that spring back as far as possible to let that metal ball fly!
This exact same tendency happens with the jaw harp. Maybe we’re jammin’ out and feeling the music--it’s a tendency to want to pull back the striker as far as possible to try and get more volume.
Resist that inner 10-year old inside you. Rather, pull back the trigger gently and then let it go. It takes some practice to get the hang of the instrument, so practice very gently before trying to increase your volume.
Beware the Catching Ball Trigger
The jaw harp pictures you see above are examples of a jaw harp that does not have a ball trigger. Some jaw harps have the metal coiled up at the end of the trigger. If I had to guess why, I’d say this ball trigger is there to make it easier to push the trigger, or perhaps make it more comfortable than pulling your finger off a thin piece of metal for an extended period of time.
Why beware the ball trigger? The reason why is that the ball (which is usually going to just be the metal coiled up) has an edge at the base of the ball. If you accidentally catch this edge, then you are going to push back the trigger far more than you intended.
This could just make a louder twang, or, it could lift the entire jaw harp away from your face. At this point, when you release the trigger, the entire jaw harp is going to hurtle towards your teeth.
You can remove the ball and just file down the end of the metal to remove any sharp edges, with a slight bend away from you to make it more comfortable, or you can use some extra care with jaw harps that have a ball trigger.
Finding the Exact Pressure Balance To Save Your Teeth
What’s tricky about the jaw harp is that you are using your mouth cavity to resonate the jaw harp, and therefore the jaw harp is being counterbalanced with your skull (essentially), with your teeth as the meeting point.
There’s no getting around it, the jaw harp is going to be in direct contact with your teeth--but proper technique can make this safer.
While playing, you need to have the jaw harp pressed against your teeth firmly.
If you don’t have the jaw harp placed firmly enough, then the jaw harp is going to rattle against your teeth, which is not good for your teeth and not good for your sound.
If you have too much pressure against your teeth then you might experience a jaw ache or a headache.
The goal is to put as little pressure as you can, while still holding enough pressure to keep the jaw harp firmly against your teeth without any rattling.
The Dangers of a Stiff Reed
As I was researching this topic, one thing I learned is that a stiff reed can actually lead to jaw aches! Since you are pressing the jaw harp against your teeth, if the momentum is strong enough such as with a thick, dense, and stiff reed, then your skull and jaw are going to rattle more.
I recommend using a jaw harp that has a more flexible reed so you can avoid this issue.
Don’t Close the Gap
One super fascinating tendency when you’re trying to increase the volume is to actually try and close your lips around the entire inner frame to increase your resonance . This can actually lead to scrapping the inside of your lip. Check out this video for an excellent description how to avoid this:
Alternatives to Playing With Your Teeth: Lip Harps
There’s another instrument called the dan moi. This instrument is actually designed to be played with your lips enclosing it without putting it against your teeth. This has a similar (but different) sound, but can be used as an alternative to a traditional jaw harp that you play against your teeth.
See here for an example (Amazon)
Beginner Jaw Harps That Won’t Destroy Your Teeth
One thing I’ll mention before closing up this post: The most common jaw harp that people know of is Snoopy’s Jaw Harp. It’s perhaps one of the cheapest you can find, which makes sense--but this particular jaw harp has a very stiff reed.
I’d recommend not trying to learn the jaw harp on the Snoopy, because it has such a thick reed, and you’re just getting used to playing--when you mess up and slip, that huge thick reed is going to smack you in the teeth--which is really, really painful.