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Jonathan Lilley

(Not) blowing into organ pipes

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Can someone kindly explain the science behind the rule that one doesn't blow into (metal) organ pipes, what would be the consequences of doing so, and whether indeed it's sensible to be handling them in the first place?

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We tend to blow hot air... no jokes please... which affects the pitch of the pipe which you have blown into and so then takes ages to cool down so you can put it back into tune again. Same goes for just picking them up. I would add that it isn't so important if you want to pick up a 16ft Violone and blow down it!

Hope all have had a good Christmas

Peter

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I was told by Geoffrey Coffin when on a visit to his works to see progress on the new organ for Stratford-upon-Avon's Guild Chapel that it was especially important not to blow into reed pipes because of the likelihood of causing corrosion to the reed itself, our breath being hot and mildly acidic.

 

 

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If you blow into a reed pipe tip you risk damaging the curvature of the tongue and putting it off speech. If a reed pipe doesn't sound blowing into it will not make any difference.

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7 hours ago, P DeVile said:

We tend to blow hot air... no jokes please... which affects the pitch of the pipe which you have blown into and so then takes ages to cool down so you can put it back into tune again. Same goes for just picking them up. I would add that it isn't so important if you want to pick up a 16ft Violone and blow down it!

Hope all have had a good Christmas

Peter

Yet you see voicers blowing into pipes actually within the organ (rather than in the voicing shop)!

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Henry Willis 4 told a party of students visiting the Petersfield works in about 1977 that one shouldn't blow into reed pipes because the alcohol on one's breath corroded the brass.

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15 hours ago, Contrabombarde said:

And I presume blowing into a metal flue risks lead poisoning!

You shouldn't ever see any good organ builder blowing directly into any pipe tip particularly not with old pipes. You place your hand around the tip and blow into that.

 

13 hours ago, David Drinkell said:

Henry Willis 4 told a party of students visiting the Petersfield works in about 1977 that one shouldn't blow into reed pipes because the alcohol on one's breath corroded the brass.

Well he would say that!

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23 hours ago, David Drinkell said:

Henry Willis 4 told a party of students visiting the Petersfield works in about 1977 that one shouldn't blow into reed pipes because the alcohol on one's breath corroded the brass.

Clearly, he knew students and their proclivities!

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He also claimed to be able to tell from what material the girls' clothes were made by the sound they made when they walked. As to the alcohol, I can well believe that blowing into a reed pipe after consumption of West Country rough cider could have dire results.  Maybe one reason that old French reeds sound the way they do is because of the consumption of vin ordinaire by the voicers and tuners...... 

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2 hours ago, David Drinkell said:

  Maybe one reason that old French reeds sound the way they do is because of the consumption of vin ordinaire by the voicers and tuners...... 

Ha!  Cue academic paper on the effect of malt whiskies on Scottish builders. :) 

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To bring this back to serious discussion:

There is no harm done when blowing into a flue pipe, although it will take some time to come back into tune. Provided you don't chew the tip, there is no danger of lead poisoning. I have been blowing into pipes to assess quickness for more years than I care to admit to, but the level of lead in my blood remains significantly lower than the safe recommended maximum level for women of child-bearing age or babies. Because all our levels were so very low, we stopped bothering with testing.

Reed pipes are different, the damp in the breath is said to encourage the brass tongues to go green with verdigris, although I have never seen evidence of this. If you want to check the speech of a reed, you suck it from the other end, rather than blowing from the tip. Not many voicers do this though.

One exception to all this is if you see a white coating on the pipe which may indicate lead salts being present, which are easily absorbed into the body (and can taste sweet, but don't try). The Romans used to boil honey in lead pots for hours to make the honey sweeter by making such lead salts which had the sweetening effect.

Another exception is when looking at an organ. Please never take a pipe out and blow it, nor blow any dust out of it. Some poor organ tuner has probably worked hard to tune the pipes and any such action can alter the tuning significantly. Playing the pipe in the normal fashion will tell you all you need to know.

John

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I've heard more than one experienced tuner say that quite often a little tickle with a feather round the mouth will bring a pipe back into tune, whereas the less adept might fiddle with the slide or (worse still) take the cone to a pipe as well as taking it out and blowing it. One sure sign of a good, well-built organ is that it holds its tuning well. Philip Prosser, who looked after the organ in Belfast Cathedral, recounted that when he was with HN&B they were contracted for a day's maintenance each month at Peterborough Cathedral and the problem was that it stayed in tune so well that there was very little to be done. At Belfast, the tuning was as solid as a rock, everything being of highest quality (Billy Jones reeds, Blossom strings, etc) and the very rare bad note was almost invariably due to a slide slipping or the weight coming off a reed. I don't remember even the Vox Humana giving trouble.  At St. John's, Newfoundland,  we had no end of trouble due to muck falling into the pipes from to ceiling above them. The Tuba was particularly prone to going off speech (it was in the Solo box but the box had shutters on top).  There was a lot of slipping a five-dollar bill between reed and shallot to clean things up.  North American organs tend not to have the reeds hooded, so any dirt gets funnelled straight down onto the reed.  Life is easier at Fredericton in that respect - the organ is clean inside and there's no dust to mess up the regulation.

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Interesting comment from John above - I didn't know that any organbuilder's workforce would ever routinely check blood lead levels but kudos for doing so (and hopefully in the process helping to nail the regrettable proposed lead organ pipe ban a few years ago by demonstrating that you had no increased occupational exposure). Of course there are hazards with organs - at least one tuner has fallen to their death from the top of a pipe (Westminster Cathedral) and theoretically a humidifier could be a source of Legionella and bugs could be dispersed throughout the pipes of an organ - though I'm not aware that's ever been reported!

Would it be advantageous for all organs to have at least a thin (acoustically transparent) covering over the unenclosed divisions, if not a solid wood roof that projected sound forward, just to keep dust, roof plaster etc from settling inside pipes? How does one best protect an organ from getting covered with dust over time, other than a decent filter over the blower? (And checking periodically the condition of the blower filter - I know of one organ that was disposed of as the winding was so inadequate. It was assumed the reservoirs and action must have terminal leaks. During the dismantling, the blower was decommissioned and found to have so much dust clogging the filter it was a wonder any pipes had managed to speak, but it was too late to stop the dismantling by that stage as a replacement organ was already being assembled in the building!)

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On 02/01/2018 at 13:44, John Pike Mander said:

 

One exception to all this is if you see a white coating on the pipe which may indicate lead salts being present, which are easily absorbed into the body (and can taste sweet, but don't try). The Romans used to boil honey in lead pots for hours to make the honey sweeter by making such lead salts which had the sweetening effect.

I recall reading somewhere that in the past there was a serious problem with rats eating organ pipes because of the lead salts. Or perhaps they still do!

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Willis' web site has pictures of metal pipes which have been eaten away by mice (at Whitney-on-Wye). Perhaps they start on the pipes when they've eaten the leather.

Of course it's the contamination resulting from the use of lead that is the problem. I've heard a couple of stories of potty organ pipe makers, but that was from a Dutch organ builder talking about the "good" old days before fume extraction was considered desirable, so nobody you or I would know. In the west of England where I come from, lead was used as a lubricant in, inter alia, cider presses. This added a certain sweetness to the end product, only a little consolation to go with the Devonshire Colic. And one of my forbears was a hatter - I often wonder whether mercury poisoning is hereditary.

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