It is a paradox.
The basic technology of pipe organ construction has remained unchanged for 2,000 years, yet the design and construction of a pipe organ continues to be an act of supreme mechanical mastery and outstanding craftsmanship.
This is especially true of mechanical action instruments. In organ parlance, “action” refers to the means by which the keys work to open the valves that admit air into the pipes. In “electronic action” instruments, this is process is aided by a series of electric contacts, switches, and wires that do the work electronically. In “mechanical action” instruments, the the key at the console is connected–mechanically–to the pipe, so that the pressure of the finger on the key actually does the work of letting air into the pipe. Because the long rods that run from the console to the chest are called trackers, one often hears this referred to as “tracker” action. The organ at Trinity is a tracker.
One of the many links in this “tracker” mechanism is a leather strap that connects a hook on a pull-down from the tracker (coming up from below) to another hook from the pallet inside the chest (coming down from above). If the organ-lingo double-talk is confusing, here is a visual:
Leather is used, I think, because it is durable yet supple enough to give slightly when the action is operated so that the player does’t feel any “hitch.” There are limits to leather’s durability, however, especially in a place like this with high humidity, constant air-conditioning, and salty ocean air. This leather straps on this organ have begun to become brittle and break. When this happens, the action is no longer connected to the pipes and there is a dead note.
Of course the straps only fail at the most inopportune times and places–middle C, for example, ten minutes before the service starts!
So I decided that replacing these leather straps, once and for all, would be a relatively simple matter. I sent away for a 12″ x 12″ piece of leather that was slightly thicker than the straps that were beginning to fail. This, along with a leather hole punch, set the church music budget back a whopping $30. It took two afternoons to cut the strips and punch the holes, and another afternoon to switch out the old straps and put in the new ones.
No more dead notes–at least not for a while!
For more adventures in organ maintenance, see a previous blog post on organ tuning here.