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The Harmonium Handbook

Owning, Playing, and Maintaining the Devotional Instrument of India
by Satyaki Kraig Brockschmidt



Chapter 2—To Know and Love Your Harmonium: A User's Guide

By and large, harmoniums need only a little care to keep them beautiful on the outside and melodious on the inside for many years. As we'll see in this chapter, harmoniums are not terribly complex, and knowing more about how they work is helpful in getting the most out of them.

Nearly all Indian harmoniums, no matter their size or any other external features, share a few elements in common: a keyboard, an external bellows on the back, a lock, some number of knobs on the front, and some kind of case that holds it all together (Figure 2-1). Depending on the manufacturer and the particular whims of their craftsmen, certain bits may or may not be present. The cover glass, for instance, might be all wood instead of glass; small hinges that are commonly hidden behind the faceplate might be attached on the outside instead.

Standard harmoniums have carrying handles on the sides and a wooden cover that slips onto the top (Figure 2-2). The cover should be fairly self-explanatory; do note, however, that it slides onto the top horizontally rather than being set down vertically. Small metal brackets on the back corners of the harmonium (Figure 2-3) fit into slots on the cover and hold it in place.

Collapsible harmoniums (as in Figure 2-1 ), fold down into a smaller box (Figure 2-4) and are carried by the handle like a suitcase. Specific instructions for opening and closing such an instrument are given later in this chapter.

With your harmonium you might have a weak excuse for a key, dangling on a similar excuse for a string, that fits into what a might generously be called a "lock" (see Figure 2-1). Let me be blunt: make sure the harmonium is unlocked then throw the key away. They key and lock are rather flimsy and can easily break; not a good thing if this happens when the instrument is closed up. There's almost no reason to use the key anyway if you keep the instrument away from curious young children and gorillas, so you might as well save yourself the trouble and remove the key from your consciousness entirely.

We'll now take a closer look at the various parts of the harmonium and how they work. While it's not necessary to understand these details in order to play the harmonium, they can very much help you understand how to play the harmonium well. Like all instruments, harmoniums have their special quirks.

Keyboard

The harmonium keyboard is likely a familiar sight since it looks like any other black-and-white Western-style keyboard. Harmonium keyboards come in two styles: piano style (Figure 2-5a), wherein the keys have squared ends, and organ style (Figure 2-5b), with rounded ends that extend out a little.

In either case, the harmonium plays much more like an organ than a piano, primarily in that how hard you press a key has relatively little effect on the volume or timbre (quality) of the resulting sound (compared with how you pump the bellows, as described in Chapter Three, pages 47 to 51). A practical upshot of this is that you can be gentle and smooth when playing a harmonium: there is no need to pound the keyboard like those classical pianists who had reputations for destroying even the most robust issues from the master artisans of Europe. In other words, it's entirely possible to break the keys with too much force. So play nice, like Mother always said!

Most harmoniums are built around a C scale, with C being the lowest (leftmost) note. (Only some classical harmoniums manufactured in the nineteenth to early twentieth century were built around an F scale instead.) On C-scale harmoniums, the lowest note is one octave below middle C (Figure 2-6). Depending on your model, there will then be anywhere from 2 to 3 (or more) octaves as you move up the scale to the right. A 2 octave keyboard will end a few notes above High C in the figure; a 3-octave (or larger) keyboard will extend a few more keys above "Really High C."

The keys are specially shaped pieces that are cut from a single block of wood, thereby ensuring that they all fit together nicely. Some kind of plastic or nylon is then glued to the tops of the keys; the white keys also get a piece of the same material on the front, while the black keys are painted on the sides.

Chapter Four will delve into the details of inner keyboard mechanisms for curious readers, but one effect of the mechanics is important to note here. While the keys are designed primarily to move up and down, they usually have a little horizontal and rotational play from side to side. Normally this is not a problem. However, if you push or pull a key to one side while the adjacent key is down, you may find that the first key doesn't pop up when you release it because of sideways friction from the second key. Sometimes a particular key will have more play than usual and will therefore appear to stick more often than others. If you encounter this, fear not! Adjustments can be made either mechanically or in one's playing style!-to appropriately limit the key's motion.

Bellows

The bellows are the breathing diaphragm of the harmonium, invariably located on the back side of the instrument where they can be pumped with either the left or the right hand while the other hand plays the keyboard.

Bellows come in two different styles. Top-fold bellows (Figure 2-7, also called double-fold or triple-fold bellows) are hinged at the bottom so the whole top edge moves in and out. Top-pumping bellows are released by a single latch located midway along the top edge or by two latches on either end. They automatically open up (as shown in the picture) thanks to a little torsion rod that runs between the bottom middle of the bellows and one side of the harmonium's case. Without this rod, you'd have to manually push the bellows out each time before pulling them in again.

Side-fold bellows (Figure 2-8, also called multi-fold bellows) have vertical hinges on both sides that also double as latches. Side-fold bellows are released by swinging one of these two pivot latches aside (Figure 2-8). This means you can open the bellows on either side, depending on the hand you use for pumping (typically the left.) Don't release both sides at once, however, or your bellows will be hanging limply from the back of the harmonium with no hinge point whatsoever!

Side-fold bellows also open automatically thanks to a spiral spring that's located inside the bellows themselves. If you want the bellows to pop open farther than they do, you can remove the valve cover on the back of the bellows, remove the spring, stretch it open a little more, and reassemble everything.

One Bellows or Two?

The quality of sound produced by a harmonium depends in large part on having a reasonably constant air flow passing through the instrument throughout any given performance. For this purpose, all harmoniums actually have a second bellows that is typically hidden inside the case, along with some way for air to move in and out of the case itself. (Standard harmoniums have holes on the back side underneath the external bellows; collapsible harmoniums have a gap between the upper part and the case.)

The internal bellows serve as a buffer for the air brought in by the external bellows. In most harmonium designs, the internal bellows are horizontally positioned inside the instrument's case, underneath the reed chamber, and are never visible. In some designs, like the "Dulcetina" (Figure 2-9), the internal bellows are located on the front of the instrument, where you can actually see their buffering operation. It is quite instructive to watch a Dulcetina in action.

The two bellows work in tandem through a pair of one-way valves; for more details of the mechanisms involved, see Chapter Four (page 91). For now, it's sufficient to say that when you pump the external bellows, air pressure builds inside the internal bellows, pressure that is not allowed to escape except through the reeds. When you depress one or more keys, this pressure is gradually released through the corresponding reeds, causing them to vibrate. One or more springs attached to the internal bellows help the process along, gradually squeezing out all the air. This is why the harmonium continues to produce sound for a time after you stop pumping the external bellows.

With this two-bellows design, you shouldn't pump the external bellows more than two or three times without having at least one air stop open and at least one key depressed. Otherwise you will build up pressure inside either bellows, possibly causing one or the other to spring a leak. When this happens, the harmonium won't be able to sustain a good sound and becomes what is lovingly called a "wheezer."

When closing and latching the bellows, always depress some keys to allow all internal air to escape. This is especially important with collapsible harmoniums because collapsing compresses both the external and internal bellows to their fullest extent. Any residual pressure in the internal bellows would thus increase, possibly damaging them.

It's also good to periodically take a small paintbrush or toothbrush and clean out any dust and other particular matter that might have accumulated in the folds of the external bellows. This material can eventually form lumps that might damage the bellows when you close them.

Stops and Drones

Depending on the model and manufacturer, an Indian harmonium will have anywhere from zero to as many as nine or ten knobs sticking out of the front of the case. For specific details of common Bina harmonium models, see Appendix A (page 125). Generally speaking, however, each knob serves one of three purposes: air stops, drones, and the tremolo.

Air Stop Knobs

Air stop knobs open holes between the internal bellows and a specific reed chamber, allowing air to pass through those reeds when keys are depressed. Double-reed harmoniums typically have a bass set of reeds (low register) and a male set (middle register); triple-reed harmoniums add a female set (high register). Each set of reeds will sound only if at least one air stop is open for that particular set; the more stops you have open for a particular set, the more air you allow to flow past those reeds.

These air stops are not all-or-nothing propositions: each stop can be opened only partway. This, along with there possibly being more than one stop per set of reeds on your particular harmonium, allows you to finely adjust the volume of the reed sets relative to one another. So if you want more of one register, you can open additional stops for that one or partially close stops for the other registers. Whenever you start to work with a new harmonium, it's well worth a little experimentation to see how each air stop affects the overall sound. (It's also fun to have a friend play the instrument while you fiddle with the stops.)

Do note, however, that some instruments lack a good seal between the reed chambers such that the different sets are not isolated. In these cases, you won't hear much difference between the air stops.

Drone Knobs

With at least one air stop open (typically for the male set or the tremolo), these knobs activate special drone reeds (visible in Figure 2-1 1) that produce sound independently of the keyboard. Drone reeds are usually thicker than the other reeds in the harmonium and thus produce a slightly different and somewhat softer sound. This means that you can't really hear them much over other notes you play on the keyboard. Still, if used sensitively they can add a certain depth to particular songs.

In most Indian harmoniums, the specific drone notes (however many) correspond to the black keys (flats/sharps) on the keyboard: D b/C #, E b/D #, G b/F #, A b/G #, and B b/A #. This means that unless you're playing a piece in an appropriate key and/or primarily with chords that include the specific notes in question, the built-in drones on your harmonium may or may not be all that useful to you. Furthermore, you can use any note on the keyboard as a drone, as befits the song being played (see Chapter Three, page 59). So there's no need to feel guilty if you never use the built-in drones.

HINT: You can also simulate a drone with any given key by removing the cover glass (or wood, if that's the case) and gently moving the little metal spring on that key to an adjacent key (Figure 2-1 0). This will cause the key to stay down, thereby producing a continuous sound.

The Tremolo Knob

This knob (there is only ever one) activates a fascinating mechanism for one set of reeds, provided no other air stops are open for that set. This special feature is a carryover from the original Western classical harmoniums in which various manufacturers tried all sorts of ingenious methods to produce a vibrato effect.

The particular mechanism that continues to be built into most Indian harmoniums is perhaps the least sophisticated of them all'it consists of a flap of leather that is glued down on one edge of a stop block. This flap covers an air hole (through the block) from the internal bellows to one of the reed chambers (Figure 2-1 1). A small block of wood is glued to the top of this flap to weigh it down. When the tremolo knob is pulled out'and again, it works only if no other air stops are open'the air pressure from the internal bellows pushes the weighted flap up, allowing air to flow past the reeds as you play. However, the flap and its little weight naturally want to snap back down; when they do so, they momentarily stop the flow of air and thus stop the sound. Of course, the air pressure will immediately open the flap up again, resuming the sound, only to have it momentarily stopped again.

As intriguing as this mechanism is, the resulting sound is'in short'a kind of, well, flapping warble that you probably won't want to use unless you're playing "Amazing Grace" at some excessively mawkish funeral. To make it even more fun, the rate of flapping changes with pressure: it slows down if you depress more keys and speeds up if you depress fewer. It also runs a little faster for high notes and slower for low notes (as the air flow differs between them). Personally, I don't know of anyone who actually uses this feature; my guess is that you'll probably exclude it from your own personal devotions.

Besides, the tremolo is not always reliable; in some harmoniums it never really gets going. In the worst case, it simply acts more or less like a weak air stop.



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