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Richard Washington

Tuning Reeds

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How easy is it to tune reeds? Is this something I could usefully consider doing myself?

 

The CCT who look after the organ I play doubtless have other priorities for their money, and as a result the instrument sees one day of maintenance a year, if it is lucky. Meanwhile, I am there every week, trying to enjoy the experience of playing the instrument. It occurs to me that I might be able to enhance the experience by getting my own hands dirty from time to time. In fact, I've already had to crawl into the back of the instrument to unstick some sticky notes on the swell - surprisingly a few twitches of the action made all the difference.

 

Regarding the reeds, I think part of the problem is the lack of any heating in the church, apart from a bit of electric heating in the organ. I'm fairly sure the reeds sound better right now than they did in the winter. That said, some notes are conspicuously bad, especially on the clarion.

 

Any thoughts or advice on this subject would be gladly received.

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Tuning reeds is not really that difficult at all. On the continent and in Germany in particular, the church organists regularly tune their own reeds. I would welcome that in this country as well. All you need is a little bit of instruction and an ear good enough to hear the beats when the pipe is not in tune. One normally tunes to the Principal 4 on the manual concerned. Some organ tuners are reluctant to instruct the organists to tune as they fear it will put them out of a job, but in instances like your church, this really is a nonsense. See if you can find a local organ tuner who is prepared to give you some instruction. You may have to pay for this, but it could be money well spent.

 

John Pike Mander

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Thanks for the encouragement, John. With your comments in mind, I hope shortly to meet the fellow who maintains the organ. I learned at the weekend that it will be getting its day of maintenance within the next month. With any luck, he will feel able to spend a few moments going over the various problems which I might be able to fix as they occur, in addition to advice on keeping the reeds in good order.

 

Thanks.

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In Finland all organists (should) take care of the reeds. Tuning is teached at the Sibelius Academy, and it belongs to the weekly duties of every church musician. Tuning the 13 reeds of my organ takes about an hour, if the air temperature hasn't changed a lot. Regular tuning keeps the reeds in shape and thus the time needed for the job will keep low. If they are neglected, they will eventually sound uneven and it will take more time to tune them.

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It is interesting that you say they should be tuned so frequently. You prompt me to ask a few more questions on this subject, being as I am in almost complete ignorance at present.

 

I presume then, that little or no harm can come to the reeds from regular careful tuning, for instance from wear from those parts which are adjusted. Is this right? As reed tuning doesn't seem to be a matter for organists in this country, How frequently would British organ tuners like to see reeds tuned? How much does the temperature have to change for the tuning to become horrible? Marko says the reeds '...will eventually sound uneven...'. Is this a reference just to the pitch or to the voicing of the reeds as well?

 

My organ certainly does not get regular attention to its reeds. With just 6 reeds I guess the task will be smaller than Marko's, but I have to say that access looks to be something of a nightmare. Whilst I can see where I would have to be to tune the manual reeds, the pedal's 16' Trombone looks to be largely inaccessible, Do larger reeds need less regular adjustment?

 

Sorry, what a lot of questions. Thanks.

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Ideally, the reeds should be tuned at least once every three months. It would not normally be necessary to tune them more often than once a month unless there was a sudden change in temperature. Of course, if you have a special occasion, there is no harm in tuning them for that.

 

With regard to damage, if done carefully, there will be no damage to the pipes at all. One needs to be careful with the "reed knife" to ensure that one does not bash the wrong parts. You may be amused to know that as a very small boy (of about 6) I climbed into a newly restored organ which had been assembled and tuned in the works and proceeded to make the sort of noises I had heard being made inside the instrument with a reed knife which was handy. But of course I was not doing the right thing and did a lot of damage. Take care and nothing untoward will happen. Above all, don't knock the reed spring down so far that it goes off he end of the tongue and if you do, definitely don't knock it back up again.

 

Temperature change is the main cause of reeds going out of tune. But they also have a tendency to wander a bit anyway. With regard to "sounding horrid" there are two issues. Firstly, being out of tune will make them sound horrid and if you have to tune every pipe, the chances are that as everything is disturbed it will not stand in tune for long very well. When out of tune however, the voicing (or regulation) is also likely to be awry, so that will not help either.

 

If you tune reeds regularly, it is advisable to leave those notes which are in tune or very close well alone. This applies particularly to those stops which go out of tune easily. Being tolerant can ultimately lead to better stability. In general terms, a regular tuning "touching up" and doing relatively little is better than major tuning at infrequent intervals.

 

I hope that answers the questions.

 

John Pike Mander

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What's the situation with personal liability and insurance for an organist tuning the reeds in an organ? I wouldn't want to trip and fall head first onto the great pipework while tuning the reeds without some form of insurance...

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...a regular tuning "touching up" and doing relatively little is better than major tuning at infrequent intervals.

 

That is exactly what I meant. It would take a lot longer than an hour to actually tune 13 reeds, but an hour is needed to check all the reeds and tune those not so many pipes that are actually out of tune. More tuning is needed in the summer, when temperature changes are rapid. In winter when the church is heated, the temperature stays better.

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