chest organ tuning sense and nonsense

how to avoid a waste of time and energy

Small continuo organs in their boxes that can be driven from concert to concert are very practical. They fit in the Volvo, although I never want to find out whether the heavy-duty straps I use for securing the load really hold. They can, with some center-of-gravity-awareness, almost be handled by one strong person and a dolly. This means that they also will be handled by one person, who comes a little earlier to the pre-concert rehearsal. They come with transposing keyboards. They are, finally, relatively easy to tune.

There are a few things that dampen the full effect of happiness that these characteristics rightfully should trigger. The first of these is the fact that the pipe names inside the organ are usually only noted down at one pitch, and that tuning the instrument with the keyboard transposed hence becomes a matter of mental gymnastics, especially for someone who has to fight the side effects of a small dose of perfect pitch. The second, that some pipes seem unreachable by people with normal hands without de-tuning a whole rank of other pipes. But all these things can be overcome with a little patience, and a period of absolutely undisturbed work.

The real problem in connection with these instruments would be the average enlightened continuo player’s lack of true understanding of why these things need to be tuned at all before concerts. There are two and a half most likely reasons for an organ to de-tune. 1) Someone has handled the box in a rough fashion and the stops of the gedackt 8′ have shifted, or the temperature and/or humidity of the hall is different from the temperature where the organ was tuned. This condition would indeed call for re-tuning 2) The organ only seems out of sorts, but really isn’t at all. This is when it has been stored in a place with conditions other than in yesterday’s concert hall and in today’s concert hall.

A continuo guru solution for condition 2) that I would not recommend is to whack the organ down on stage, whip out a beep-machine, order a key-press slave to assist, tune the whole 8′ rank of pipes and start rehearsing. True, this action conveys an air of authoritative control, but within the hour the stubborn organ re-acclimatizes, which equals a complete destruction of the just-laid temperament. At the end of the rehearsal the whole tuning process needs to be repeated with a sigh (why do these stupid organs never keep their pitch?). In fact, condition 2) does, most of the time, not call for re-tuning at all.

One of the things one learns during many years of touring is that concert hall conditions usually are similar in various places, that also churches all have a similar climate and that either of these is different from the average car garage. One of the things a person familiar with wood properties could contribute to the reasoning is that, under normal conditions, de-tuning due to reasons of temperature or humidity changes is fully reversible (this applies even to many harpsichords – or should apply), if the wooden pipes are given time to acclimatize. The only thing really needed is patience.

A garage-tempered continuo organ will have to stand up to two hours on stage for its tuning to recover. This process is greatly sped up if the instrument is actually played during that time. Just having the fan on does, of course, not help at all. The air needs to stream through the pipes for the wood to react. This is a trying problem, because a cold organ with wooden pipes will always be way off pitch and cannot be used for rehearsing. The organ hauler must, simply, arrive half an hour early, set up the instrument and play until everyone else is in place. Then the temperament will at least be bearable, and it will improve during the rehearsal. At the end, one probably does not even need to touch up single notes.



4 Responses to “chest organ tuning sense and nonsense”

  1. Paul Poletti Says:

    Hi Tilman,

    it’s not the wood changing that causes small organs to go out of tune, it’s just the temperature of the air. Speed of sound changes quite a bit with minor temperature changes, whereas wood movement is very small and in the wrong direction. To change pitch you need length changes; the minor changes in width or depth that wood movement might cause will be inconsequential for pitch change. Wind instruments and string instruments have fundamentally different mechanisms driving their instability, and folks with experience in the one may well confuse the one for the other.



  2. David Jensen Says:

    This is all yes, and no. My experience (tuning two different continuo organs in different pitches in different temperaments several times a week during the school year) is that with respect to wood pipes, temperature is a minor player, whereas humidity can play real havoc which takes longer than a couple of hours to rectify. On the other hand, metal pipes are acutely sensitive to temperature variations, much less so to humidity. The specific density of air – as a reflection of temperature – must be considered a very minor player, unless you manage to tune the instrument in an unheated garage at -10 c, and then haul it on stage to play under the performance lights.
    The major hazard is if one has an organ that has, for example, a 4′ rank that is half wood (middle c and down) and metal (c# and up), as we have on a Marcussen continuo organ. Great fun when the stage temperature drops 5 c and the humidity goes up ten points, causing the bass to go flat and the treble to go sharp. It’s like herding cats.

  3. PETER JONES Says:

    I am surprised that no-one has mentioned the effect of the blower, which, in these small organs, warms the air to an alarming degree. This is not helped by the fact that almost all performers treat the continuo organ as if it is an electronic, in that they switch it on and just leave it running – in use or not – sometimes for hours. (eg. Rehearsing, then going for a break, then more rehearsing, then the time between the last rehearsal and the start of the concert, all with the organ left on.)

  4. skowroneck Says:

    Right, I didn’t mention the blower heat. Very true – after a whole day of rehearsals, the pitch is in the skies, no matter what the temperature of the room has done in the meantime. Thanks.
    Now I actually don’t agree with Paul about the word “just” and about the effect of changes in the wood. I have made 10 recorders albeit long ago. One of the things that make these instruments work is that by reaming out relatively little material, or filing about in the holes just that much, one can tune them (or thoroughly mess up their tuning, for that matter). A wooden pipe that changes shape due to heat/dryness/humidity certainly changes its pitch.

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