Solving Harmonium Problems  


The most common problems with harmoniums are sticky keys, notes which play even when the key is not pressed, rattling noises and buzzy reeds. Leaks can occur as well, particularly in our dry Boulder climate

Sticky Keys

If a key sticks down after being played, it usually is rubbing against an adjacent key. I have often found when moving from one chord to another if I drag my finger across two keys, I can end up pulling one key into the other and they stick together. They are a couple of solutions depending on the exact cause, but they are usually easy to fix. 

Sometimes the board directly below the keyboard is too tight and presses against one or more keys causing them to stick. Loosen the screws on either side and see if that solves the problem.

Stuck Notes

Sometimes a note will sound after the key is released, or even if you don’t play the key. This occurs when the far end of the key, which normally seals the holes above the reeds does not seal completely. Stop playing and GENTLY squeeze the bellows to maintain air pressure until you hear the note. When you start to feel any resistance in the bellows, stop squeezing as there is now enough air pressure in the system and you don’t want to add anymore and risk damaging the bellows. 

Play the keyboard until you find the offending note. Alternatively, you again GENTLY squeeze the bellows to maintain air pressure while lifting up on each front of each key to help the key seal in the back. This is not a solution, but helps you find which key needs works.

Rattles

Sometimes when playing you here a rattling noise, or possibly a squeak. Most often the rattling is the top cover, either the whole cover or just the glass in the cover. Try removing the cover and see if the rattle goes away. If it does, then you’ve found the culprit. Hold the cover in one hand a gently tap the glass with the other. If it rattles in the cover you need to find a way to keep the glass from moving in the frame of the cover. Sometimes  small pieces of paper or business card placed in the slot where the glass is held by the frame can prevent it from rattling. Make the pieces small enough that you don’t have to look at them with the cover in place. To avoid damaging the wood finish, it’s best to avoid using glue or tape to hold the glass in place. 

Squeaks

One common cause of squeaks in a harmonium with side pumped (versus top pumped) bellows, is the pivot hinge rubbing on the metal corners of the bellows back plate. Sometimes the hinge rubs on the nails which hold the corners in place. Open the pivot hinge on the right side of the bellows (unless you pump it with your right hand in which case the bellows hinge on the left side), and wrap some electrical tape around the hinge on the top and bottom where it contacts the metal parts of the bellows back plate. I have also used thin foam insulation like what is used to insulate windows and doors. Cut two pieces about the height of each metal corner, removing the backing of the tape and stick it to each corner where the pivot hinge contacts them, then carefully push the pivot hinge back over the bellows so it rests on the foam tape. 

Buzzing or Dead Notes

If something gets stuck between the reed and its holder (frame), the reed may not vibrate at all, or will make a horrible buzzing noise instead of playing the desired note. Fixing this can be somewhat involved and requires gently scraping the edge of the reed or the reed frame. If it is not a constant problem, it can be helpful to me if you not only determine what key has the bad reed, but also whether it is the lower (bass) reeds or the upper (male) reeds. While playing the key with the bad reed, open the main (not drone) stops until you hear the buzzing (or don’t hear the dead note!) and make a note of it.

Here is the sound of a low bass reed buzzing a bit, then getting choked off.

Coupler Clicks

Many harmoniums have a coupler mechanism which couples the key one octave or below to the depressed key to get a fuller sound. In the picture below, the coupler mechanism is enabled by pushing the lever forward.

Screen Shot 2017-01-30 at 11.26.21 AM


These coupler mechanisms can often cause clicks, stuck notes and other problems. They are usually very easy to remove and I can do it in a matter of a few minutes, and is recommended.

Leaks

To determine if you have a leak, or how bad it is, try this test…carefully and gently.

Close all the stops and don’t press any keys. The goal here is to fully “charge” the bellows in the case of the harmonium, the one under the keyboard and reeds that you can’t see. Again GENTLY AND SLOWLY squeeze the bellows until you start to feel resistance. It make take a few pumps of the bellows until this happens. Be careful here because you don’t want to cause more leaks! Now keep very gentle pressure on the bellows and estimate how long it takes for the bellows to fully close. It should take between five and eight seconds. If when gently squeezing the bellows you never feel any resistance, then you have a serious leak.

Leaks can come from a key that is not properly seated, which will usually cause that note to drone even when no keys are pressed. It also possible that the keyboard/reed board is not sufficiently tight and air is leaking around the edges. An easy fix you can do yourself is to remove the glass cover and locate the two big flat head screws towards the back of the instrument. Make sure these are really tight. If the screw will not fully tighten, the hole may be too large. I fix this by gluing a wood dowel the same size as the hole into the hole then drilling a new hole for the screw.  

The more notes you play at a time, and the more stops you have open, the more air it takes to keep the reeds sounding so sometimes there isn’t actually a leak, but it’s how you play. 

One possible cause of leaks, or a failure to play at all when you squeeze the bellows, is the flap or flaps at the back of the harmonium not closing. Some harmonium have a single flap and others have two. 

Valve Flap

In this picture the right valve flap is slightly open. 
It will seal once the bellows are squeezed and is normal.

In the case of another harmonium, the spring inside the bellows had come slightly loose and rotated down. The flap caught on the spring and never closed. When the owner played it, no sound came out as all of the air leaked out of the back. 

Spring out of place Left

The spring is out of position and was catching the valve flap. 

The back plate was removed and the screw holding the spring was loosened and the spring rotated clockwise to move it farther to the left and out of the way of the valve flaps. 

Spring Correct Left

Here is the spring in the correct position. Make sure the screw is tight.

You might consider removing the screw and adding a washer so the screw can hold the spring tighter. This is best done with the harmonium on its front so the spring doesn’t fall down into the chamber.

MAKE SURE THE SPRING DOES NOT CONTACT THE INSIDE OF THE BELLOWS! If it does, you will wear a hole in the bellows and that would be bad.  

Finding LeaksLeaks

What works fairly well to find leaks is a stick of incense that you move around various places in and around the instrument while gently pumping the bellows and observing the smoke. Close all the stops when doing this. Check the paper cover in the back of the stop board which is at a 45 degree angle. Also check all around the bellows. Be aware that around the gap between the inner and outer case (assuming a collapsible harmonium) there will be air flow when pumping the bellows. This is because pumping the back bellows directs air through that manifold and into the bottom bellows, which expands downwards, forcing air out along those edges. 

Harmonium Tuning

Here is an audio sample of a harmonium before and after tuning.

For the ‘before’ part I am just playing the bass reeds from the second C up. I had already tuned the male reeds and the first octave of the bass reeds before deciding to record this demonstration. I am playing 5ths chromatically to the upper register. It is a 3 1/2 octave harmonium.

The ‘after’ part is both bass and male reeds and I am playing a 5th and an octave chromatically over the full range so you are hearing 6 reeds at a time. I did make a mistake playing the 4th set of notes however.


Top: Harmonium Repair

Types of Keyboards

Key/Reed and Stop Boards


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