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How to Pump Your Harmonium Bellows

Folks often ask me about how to pump their bellows effectively and appropriately. Each harmonium is unique, and the key is to refrain from over, or under pumping the bellows. Hand placement and airflow management are key places to focus.

Here are a few things to know…

1. Hand placement: You can pump around the side or over the top. You can play attached, or unattached. 

You can pump around the side like Krishna Das (see above image by Ann Summa), or over the top like Nina Rao (see below).

My preference is to play over the top. In addition, I brace my thumb against the instrument (for stability) as in the picture below. This is called “connected/attached,” vs Nina Rao who, as pictured above, is “disconnected/unattached.”

As a guy with big hands, playing attached works well for me. However, someone with smaller hands may prefer to play unattached so they can get a full extension of the bellows and thus, optimal air flow.  This is definitely a situation where you want to experiment and find out “what works for you” on any given harmonium. 

2. Air Flow Management: How to avoid over or under pumping your bellows

Each harmonium is unique, and will require an appropriate level of pumping to keep the air flow and sound steady. The most important thing is that you don’t under or over- or under-fill the bellows, and that you ultimately achieve a steady tone with whatever kind of harmonium you are working with.

Imagine you are driving your car on the highway without cruise control and want to keep your speed at sixty miles per hour. What would you do with your foot? You wouldn’t slam it down until you reached 90 mph, and then back off until you slowed down to 30. Instead you’d feather the gas pedal with your foot- applying just enough pressure to stay right at 60mph. That’s how you want to approach pumping your bellows.

Have you ever got behind the wheel in a rental car and discovered that the gas and brake pedals require a greater or lesser degree of sensitivity than you’re used to? In order to have a smooth ride in the renal car you;’ll need to make some adjustments. Similarly, if you play a new harmonium you’ll have to make some adjustments as well.

  • On a smaller harmonium like David Estes uses in his video (Ragamala Peti 27), you’re going to be pumping more quickly.
  • On a mid-sized harmonium like Nic uses in his video (Bhava Mini), you’ll pump a little less frequently, but still steadily.
  • If you are using an even larger sized harmonium the demand for air will be lower, so you’ll pump less frequently than if you were playing a Bhava Mini.

Like a car, each harmonium is unique, so you’ll need to make adjustments if you play on more than one instrument.

3. Angle Your Harmonium.

One little trick is about how you place your harmonium in relation to your body. Rather than playing with your body directly in line with your harmonium, I suggest you angle the harmonium toward your crotch on the side which you are pumping the bellows.

So, if you are playing with your right hand on the keyboard, angle the left side of the harmonium towards your crotch. This will shorten the distance from your shoulder to the bellows, making it less likely you’ll need to lean over (and break your straight up and down back posture). In addition, I’ve found this little tilt actually helps make it easier to play with my right hand on the keyboard.

If you are playing left handed on the keyboard, merely reverse the instructions above.

4. Harmonium Bellows Technique advice from harmonium makers.

Learn more through this video by Old Delhi Music founder Nic Dillon.

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