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Tuning a Pipe Organ: Maintaining a Pipe Organ’s Sound Quality a Laborious Job

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Leading a tour to the various pipe chambers, one of which consumes the entire left side of the backstage area, Dilworth and Harris are full of interesting facts.

“It’s the only musical instrument you can walk around inside of when it’s playing,” Dilworth notes.

Up inside one of the hidden chambers, Harris fiddles with the pipes. The theater is suddenly filled with crazy sound effects, including one particular honk that sounds very much like flatulence. Dilworth and the journalist chuckle. Fart noises—who said theater pipe organ isn’t fun?

Harris explains how the organ mimics the voices one hears in an orchestra.

“Some of them are close to the real thing. Others, you have to use your imagination a little bit,” he says. “There are trumpets, flutes, oboes, clarinets. There are tune percussions like the xylophone, glockenspiel, marimba, tuned sleigh bells. There’s actually a series of sleigh bells that you can play a song on.”

“But,” the journalist asks, thinking about a popular “Saturday Night Live” skit, “does it have cowbell?” Dilworth and Harris seem somewhat deflated by the question.

“Well, no,” Harris says. “We have something close to that, but nothing that exactly fits the idea.”

Harris, the retired chemist, and his volunteer crew of engineers and scientists, meet every Friday to work on the organ for four or five hours. The job calls for carpentry skills, a knowledge of electronics and some musical skills. Says Harris, “It also requires a bit of dexterity in terms of being able to climb almost inaccessible places sometimes and bending yourself like a pretzel.”

The organ crew does not tune the organ in total. A professional is hired between concerts. A single tuning session can take 10 to 12 hours.

“Some ranks don’t go out of tune easily,” Harris says. “Some go out of tune if you look at them wrong. Any instrument with this complexity always has something wrong with it. It may not be obvious to everybody, but we do our best to keep everything going.”

The organ connects through wires to an electronic relay mechanism that delivers a signal to the pipe. This is where the pipe organ technician takes over. “Usually, the pipe speaks when it shouldn’t or it doesn’t speak when it should,” Harris says. “Those two problems are the most common ones.

Harris explains precisely how the organ works: There is one mechanism for every pipe in the organ. So when the mechanism gets a signal from the console, a tiny electromagnet draws up an armature in the pipe. That opens a series of air channels that allows air into the pipe. The air passing through the opening in the pipe creates a particular sound.

“It’s a fairly simple mechanism,” he says, “but there’s lots of it. This is where things generally go wrong. It’s pretty simple, but it’s amazing that it all works.

Dilworth and Harris continue to rattle off the instruments the organ can imitate: bass drum, snare drums, cymbals, triangle, a couple of flutes. They will talk about their beloved Kimball as long as anyone will listen.

“The harmonic flutes, I think, are beautiful,” Harris says. “The organ is versatile enough that you can take a series of pipes like that and play a beautiful solo on it with a little soft accompaniment and it’s not the big majesty that you hear all the time.”

“Then again,” Dilworth says, “it can make your chest thump.”

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