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Of artificial hearts and artificial harps in a Pittsburgh lab

SHARE Of artificial hearts and artificial harps in a Pittsburgh lab

PITTSBURGH -- When Henry Bahnson, a retired heart-transplant surgeon at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, showed up for Howard Levy's harmonica class, he was brimming with questions.

How did Mr. Levy, a harmonica virtuoso, manage to hit notes that eluded others? What was his tongue doing? His epiglottis? His hard palate?Mr. Levy confessed he didn't know what a hard palate is, so Dr. Bahnson brought anatomy charts to class. Then he scored a coup: He talked Mr. Levy into volunteering for his research.

Together with his collaborator, bioengineer James Antaki, Dr. Bahnson performed a series of experiments on Mr. Levy. They stuck a fiber-optic camera through a hole drilled in the back of a harmonica and videotaped Mr. Levy -- from inside his mouth -- playing "America the Beautiful." (The result: extreme close-ups of a gyrating tongue and dancing uvula.) They had him lie on his back, play hard-to-hit notes, then freeze. Then they filled his mouth with water to measure his oral cavity, leaving him gagging and sputtering.

"We almost drowned him," Dr. Antaki jokes.

No matter that Mr. Levy says the experiments reminded him of a Mel Brooks movie. The research, done in the first half of this decade, has established Drs. Bahnson and Antaki as unlikely authorities on the acoustics of the harmonica and the physiology of playing it.

Last spring, the Journal of the Acoustical Society published their research, a rare scholarly treatise on the instrument patented in the 1820s and known variously as the mouth organ, French harp, pocket piano and Mississippi saxophone. The study, titled "Acoustical and Physical Dynamics of the Diatonic Harmonica," is getting a close look from hard-core harmonica buffs who go online to debate its technical and sometimes surprising findings on how reeds behave.

Moreover, Dr. Bahnson, after a long delay, recently got a patent for his "Bahnson Overblow Harmonica," which has a slide mechanism that makes it easier for less-experienced players to hit notes only a master like Mr. Levy can play on a diatonic harmonica. He has sold about 200 of them.

Dr. Antaki, whose day job is trying to develop an artificial heart, is about to apply for a patent of his own -- for an electronic harmonica he calls "the Artificial Harp." He says the instrument will be unlike any harmonica extant. Each reed on the instrument will be electronically linked to an amplifier.

More research by the duo is in the offing. They plan to recruit Pittsburgh-area harmonica players for additional tests using videoendoscopy, untrasonography and fluoroscopy. One question they are interested in: How does cupping one's hands around the instrument -- a common practice among players -- affect the sound? Musicians know it introduces vibrato and alters the timbre of the sound, though they don't know the whys and hows of such a "resonance chamber."

"These two have done more pure research on the science of (harmonica) reeds and harmonica-sound physiology than anyone else," says Paul Messinger, a Chapel Hill, N.C., musician who recently held a confab of talented harmonica players and invited the doctors as observers because of their work as "harmonicologists." "They aren't just a couple of guys in goofy white coats."

That's clear from their credentials. The 78-year-old Dr. Bahnson is an institution at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, having founded the center's renowned heart-transplant program. He performed the first heart transplant in Pennsylvania in 1968.

The 35-year-old Dr. Antaki leads the artificial-heart design team at the medical facility's McGowan Center for Artificial Organ Development. His experimental artificial-heart device, called the "Streamliner," was implanted for a few hours in a healthy calf last July. He hopes to conduct human trials by the fall of 2001.

Over the years, the scientists' passions for hearts and harmonicas have became intertwined, even complementary. Brad Paden, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of California at Santa Barbara, is currently making a magnetic bearing for Dr. Antaki's artificial heart, and using some of the same equipment to work on electrifying the "Artificial Harp." Andy Holmes, a member of the artificial-heart team, recently made a prototype for a "tongue blocker" designed by Dr. Antaki to help train intermediate harmonica players to improve their tongue control.

"Hearts and harmonicas, it's all the same," Mr. Holmes says. "It's just a matter of figuring out a problem." Such crossover projects are fine with Bartley Griffith, the director of the McGowan Center. "We don't have a softball team, but we have this," he says.

Dr. Antaki, who uses the harmonica moniker "Turbo Dog," was drawn into harmonica research by Dr. Bahnson. Dr. Bahnson was fascinated with the physics of the harmonica but frustrated to find only one serious paper on the subject, by an Australian scientist. Dr. Bahnson was particularly intrigued by the fact that while the widely played diatonic harmonica has a range of 22 tones, only 19 different tones can be readily played because it has only 20 vibrating metal reeds and one tone is repeated. Advanced players are able to hit the "missing" notes and give their music the needed blues and jazz touches, by "bending" notes and "overblowing" -- techniques that change the pitch of the notes but are hard for novices to perform. (Stevie Wonder, another master of the harmonica, plays a chromatic harmonica, which has no missing notes.)

The acknowledged pioneer of these techniques is Mr. Levy, who lives in Chicago and has recorded with everyone from Dolly Parton and Kenny Loggins to Bela Fleck and the Flecktones (with whom he won a Grammy in 1996). He plays Bulgarian folk tunes and Middle Eastern melodies, and he has performed commercial jingles for McDonald's and Pizza Hut. He was impressed with the videotape made at the medical center. "It was pretty amazing to actually see this complex bunch of muscles that makes up your tongue," he says.

Still, he had trouble taking some of the research seriously. When the two white-coated researchers tried to pour liquid into his mouth, he says, "I laughed so hard I spit water all over the room." When they headed for his nose, he drew the line. "I didn't let them intrude into my nasal cavity with a fiber-optic scope," he says. So Dr. Bahnson tried that device on himself.