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What's Up With My Harmonium?!

chant at home harmonium May 23, 2022

As far as hand made instruments go, harmoniums are incredibly low maintenance. That said, since harmoniums are made of wood and metal they are sensitive to changes in temperature (hot and cold) and humidity (ex., humid in India, dry in Colorado).

Like any hand made/tuned instrument, over the first six months a brand new harmonium may experience minor shifts that cause sticky keys, buzzy reeds, etc. This issues may go away over time, or not. From my perspective, they seem to crop up a bit more frequently during the winter when it's cold (so the heat is on) and extra dry in states like Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and some parts of California. If you live in one of these states (or a state with a similar climate) I strongly suggest you put a humidifier in the room where you keep your instrument.  

This blog post is to designed to help you if...

  1. You bought a substandard harmonium and are trying to asses what's wrong with it, and if it needs to be replaced. 
  2. You bought a great harmonium, but it's having minor issues due to your climate. 
  3. You have an older harmonium and want to assess what's wrong and how to fix it. 
  4. You have and older harmonium and are trying to asses if it needs to be replaced. 
  5. You merely want to feel the satisfaction of having a great harmonium without any of the issues that can arise!

Harmonium Bliss

Every week I receive many emails asking “Where can I buy a great harmonium?”

I LOVE this question. It’s one of my all time favorites. Right up there with “who’s up for a trip to Hawaii?” Or “Anyone want a free ticket to the Krishna Das event?”

This question informs me that another person has fallen in love with Kirtan. In fact, they have fallen so deeply in love with Kirtan they are taking the first step towards launching their home chant practice and chanting their heart open on the regular.

I point these folks to my blogs How to Buy a Harmonium, Not a Headache, What's the Right Harmonium for Me? and Harmonium Taste Test for guidance on buying a great harmonium at the right price. In almost all cases my recommendation is the Bhava Mini Kirtan harmonium by Old Delhi Music, which will almost always put you in a state of harmonium bliss.

Harmonium Blues

Unfortunately, I regularly communicate with folks who ask a question that breaks my heart. They say, “I bought a harmonium and it doesn’t sound right. I’m not sure what’s going on, but it doesn't seem good. Can you help?”

These folks bought (or inherited) a harmonium without expert guidance. As a result, their harmonium is giving them the blues.

Below is a list of problems that show up in broken or low quality harmoniums, instruments ordered direct from India, and old or new instruments in need of repair. If your harmonium is acting/sounding funny, here's what could be happening and how to fix it. Where possible I’ve included a link to a relevant video on the Old Delhi Music YouTube channel.

  1. Buzzy reeds
  2. Sticky keys - Video #1 and Video #2.
  3. A reed that is stuck “on” - ie, a note that won't stop playing
  4. Silent reeds - ie, a note that is stuck “off” and won't play
  5. Broken coupler - the "appendix" of the harmonium. Not so useful and breaks frequently. 
  6. Leaking between chambers - can negatively impact sustain
  7. Stripped screw hole
  8. Bellows making clicking noises
  9. Out of tune notes - notes that sound very out of tune 
  10. Inadequate sustain - a good harmonium ought to sustain a 2-note chord for 4-7 seconds. Any less than 4 seconds and you'll have to pump constantly, which is a distraction.  Here's a "sustain test" you can try.
  • First, check to make sure the hooks on the sides of your instrument are hooked. If not, the instrument will leak air, which will decrease your sustain.
  • Second, engage the notes Middle C and Middle G on your keyboard. Be sure to play the notes in the middle of the harmonium, not at the top or bottom of your keyboard.
  • Third, pump vigorously three or four times (just once won't do).
  • Finally, stop pumping, continue holding the notes, then count the number of seconds your instrument sustains those two notes. 

If your harmonium has one or more of these issues, here are ways forward:

  1. Work around the problem - ie, just deal with it. 
  2. Repair it yourself
  3. Find a harmonium repair person
  4. Replace your instrument with a brand new, high quality harmonium. 

Please keep in mind, a lousy harmonium - even when in perfect working condition - is still a lousy harmonium. It’s likely to not sound or perform well, even under the best of circumstances. This is akin to the 1988 Ford Escort I drove in my early 20’s. Even at it's best it was no Mercedes. 

And, you may have a good, or even great, instrument that's just in need of some tender loving care. If this is the case, email [email protected] and I'll let you know if I know of a repair person in your neck of the woods. 

Conclusion

Whether you are seeking to obtain harmonium bliss, or attempting to get rid of the harmonium blues, I hope the resources above help you get behind a great instrument so you can chant your heart open. 

Want to learn more? Click HERE for a brief history of the harmonium and HERE to learn about how the harmonium is super easy to learn.  

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