Tag Archives: pipe organ

The Art of Hearing

Every time that I feel like I had a rough pipe organ Sunday, without fail, a very sweet elderly lady comes up after the church service and tells me how much she appreciated my playing. Different lady each time, but it happens without fail. Every time. This odd bit of trivia got me to thinking today – We all hear music differently.

My brother-in-law loves to quote lyrics as Facebook responses. Pretty universally, stuff I don’t know. Whatever he’s quoting is not part of my Internal Song Book. Let’s just say that our musical tastes differ wildly. I still kind of like that he leaves the quotes though. I figure music’s music, and I’m all for the thrill it brings people, no matter what the lyrics are. (Besides, I love a good rhyme.)

Whoops – almost passed it. There’s my point.

My Internal Song Book is made up of the poetry of Lorenz Hart, Ira Gershwin, Dorothy Fields, Frank Loesser, Cole Porter. Our great American tune poets of the 20th Century. Same deal, I figure. Much as I don’t live in the musical world that Brother-in-Law does, he’d need a map to navigate my musical landscape. I don’t reply in kind with my own lyrics, but it’s fun to think about the confusion I could create if I left a response in Porter-ese –

Brother-in-Law – Went to church today. I never sing the hymns.
Me – “I hate paradin’ my seranadin’ as I’ll probably miss a bar …”


Brother-in-Law – Poker game tonight with the boys.
Me – “I don’t like crap games with barons and earls …”

True, he’d probably ask what the hell I’m talking about. But he’d get it. That is, he wouldn’t know exactly why I love that music, but he’d know exactly how I love it.

Perhaps then, music is, if not the universal language, a universal understanding. It’s one of the few things we all get. It’s one of the few things that for all our differences in taste and experience, we understand the love of it.



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A Cipher in My Own Home

“And will you treat me as a cypher in my own home?!”

Mister Darling asks this of the Lost Boys, after being brought back from Neverland, meaning, “Will you treat me as a nothing, a zero, a mistake?” They sure ask the big questions in the musical Peter Pan. We’re not talking about that kind of cipher. We’re talking about a pipe organ cipher.

If you play a pipe organ, sooner or later you are going to get a cipher. Aside from a potential wiring issue, pipes and wind chests are sensitive to temperatures. Right on time, with the cooler weather, I had a stuck note Tuesday morning. Pipe organists are often amateur organ mechanics. In my case, I know just enough for a simple fix or two.

A cipher is when a note gets stuck “on.” That is, an air valve gets stuck open. That particular note sounds, and won’t turn off. There are a few quick fixes – stuff a rag in the pipe mouth, gently pull it out of the wind chest (if it’s a small one), or  lift the offending pipe out and re-seat it with a small piece of paper underneath, blocking the air flow. So. The other morning – Cipher! – Time to get out the ladder.

You can imagine, how irritating the whine of a stuck note is. In this case, it was a low, hooty one – which told me it was a wooden pipe. (An F, if you’re curious.) Up I go, and there it is. I can tell it’s coming from that row of wooden pipes way in the back, middle of the below photo. Besides knowing it was a wooden pipe (from the sound), I knew it was medium-sized. In addition to following my ears, there are only two ranks of wooden pipes about that size, so I knew where to look.

Up close, nothing seemed to be out of order. Of course, I had to unseat the pipe and look around underneath, but it was too dark for a photo of that. The offender was two pipes over from the pipe that is leaning a little bit forward. (Pictured.) Everything looked fine, so I decided to get back down and try to un-stick it from the console before blocking the air-flow to that pipe.

Sometimes, you can un-stick the air-valve from the console. You can try repeatedly playing the note over and over again, repeatedly sending an electric signal to the valve. You can also try is mashing down a bunch of notes at once, with lots of stops open. My theory is that this both sends a signal to the pipe, and also takes some of the air pressure off that particular note, because it’s going to lots of other notes. At any rate, both these attempts speak to trying to wiggle the air valve on the stuck note. It worked!

At any rate, we’re due for an organ check-up and tuning with the official Organ Tech soon, so I think we’re in pretty good shape. You have a great day too!


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Tales from the Organ Loft #2

Have you ever seen the guts of a pipe organ?

It’s awesome. I wanted to get a feel for what needs done when we call the organ technician, so I went up in the organ loft last thursday. Other than a tuning and a slightly leaky bellows leather, we’re in good shape. And something needs tweaked in the wiring for the chimes, but that’s no big. The organ at St. Luke’s is really a marvel. It was brought to the church by an amazing gentleman named Ranny Duncan. This is the second pipe organ installed at St. Luke’s. The first was installed in 1901, and the current organ was installed in 1973. (I think. I’m hoping I have that date right.)

A pipe organ is made up of thousands of pipes, relays, cables, switches, racks, the control console, huge bellows. A pipe organ is truly built into a place, a part of the building. Some of the pipes are smaller than a pencil, some are as big as … well, I don’t know. But they’re big. I can hardly believe that Ranny disassembled this thing and brought it to Saranac Lake; then reconfigured, tweaked, and reassembled it! Amazing achievement by an amazing guy.

Why don’t I tell you a little bit about it? I know just enough to be dangerous.

Here’s a good shot of some wooden pipes. Wooden pipes are particularly good for producing strong fundamental tones – the meat and potatoes. The main bass-producing pipes in most organs are made from wood.

The straight up-and-down metal cylindrical pipes are called flue pipes. This is where you get your flute and principal organ sounds. They’re made of a metal alloy. The wider the diameter of the pipe, the more mellow and flute-like the sound, and the more tin there is in the alloy, the brighter the sound. Flue pipes have a mouth on the side, and kind of look (and act) like a giant whistle. Air from the bellows enters the pipe through the foot, passes the mouth, and a tone is produced.

These are reed pipes. Reed pipes are slightly conical. The tone is made by the vibration of a metal reed located in the base (or “boot”) of the pipe. The boot also contains a shallot, which is like a woodwind mouthpiece. It focuses the air, and with the reed, produces the pitch.

Now, for the question I get asked most. “Which pipes make that big Phantom of the Opera or Toccata and Fugue sound?” Tricky answer. It’s not really one set of pipes. It’s that the control console on a pipe organ is capable of coupling many pipes together. For instance, if I wanted that sound, I could couple the 16-foot principal (flue) pipes with the 8′ principals, plus the 2′ principals. And add the reeds. Add some overtones (or “harmonics”). Plus the big bass sound of the pedals. So, you see, that sound is not found in one type of pipe as much as it is found in the combination of pipes. What you’re hearing is the fact that most of the pipes on the organ are being used – that is, the organist has “pulled out all the stops.”

On this particular organ, when I want some variant of that big glorious sound, I use just about everything, except maybe the crumhorns and regals, which sort of sound like bagpipes. And sometimes, I even use those.

At any rate. Ours a fabulous instrument, us at St. Luke’s, and I am privileged to play it, sweet little flutes to that big pipe organ roar. Thank you, Ranny, and don’t you worry. We’re going to keep her in great shape.


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Pomp and Circumstance

Guess where I spent my morning practicing? Nothing like nice, loud Bach prelude to start the blood pumping!


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