〜The Wind’s Journey〜
Take a slow breath. Feel the air move through your nose, into your throat, and down to your lungs. Then sing the longest note you can before you need another breath. The air you breathed has now completed its journey from outside of you, through your body and back out again. How many seconds did you sing before you ran out of air? Could you sing longer if you squeezed the air out of your lungs? What if your lungs were bigger, maybe even large enough that you could sing for 10 minutes without taking a second breath? Can you imagine how that would feel?
In many ways, the organ resembles you. It’s like a giant singer, or better yet, like many people singing together. But whether you imagine a soloist or a choir, the organ still sings like you, by taking in air and then sending it through the pipes to create sound. The sound that comes out is so alive, organists say the pipes ‘speak’. And when an organ produces an especially beautiful sound, we say it ‘sings’. And there you have a lovely comparison of the organ’s sound to the sound of your own voice.
Much like your own lungs, the organ has parts that draw air inside itself, bringing it to life. And also like your lungs, the organ must use air pressure to make sound. All those body parts connected to breathing, our respiratory system, help us to breathe. Some parts of the respiratory system we all know, including the nose and mouth, throat and lungs. The organ also has parts that take in and let out air, like your nose and mouth, and still other parts that store or move air through the instrument, just like air travels through you. Even though we can’t make a perfect comparison to the body, we can still try by starting with the nose.
Usually, we breathe in through our noses without thinking about it. It’s an automatic action. With the organ, though, we must choose to make it start breathing. There are two ways to do this, one old and one new. For most of its long history, a person was needed to pump air into the organ. This person assisted the organist by pumping a set of large bellows that supplied enough air for the organist to play for several minutes. Some bellows were operated by hand and others by foot. Without this assistant, called a calcant, the organ had no air, no wind, and so the organist couldn’t play. We don’t know much about the people who worked as calcants, but we can guess that they must have been fairly strong, since most bellows required a lot of effort to work continuously. In fact, some of the largest organs from the 18th and 19th centuries, with their multiple large bellows, must have needed a few calcants. In places with music schools, such as large cities or churches, calcants may have been music students, perhaps singers from the choir or young organists. Either way, these people were essential to the business of playing the organ.
Given their importance, it may surprise you to know that calcants were invisible! Of course, people could see them, but not when they were working, because the bellows of an organ is usually hidden, either behind or to the side of the instrument, or even in another room. This meant that the organist and the calcant couldn’t see each other, so they needed another way to communicate. Since organ builders enjoy solving problems, the earliest builders answered this communication question by adding a small bell with a long handle to the organ. When the organist pulled the handle, the bell near the calcant would tinkle, telling the calcant it was time to begin pumping the bellows. Isn’t it fascinating that a tiny musical instrument, that little bell, was needed to help play a giant instrument, the organ? Even today some old organs still have this kind of bell, and hearing its gentle voice adds a bit of joy when listening to the organ.
The bellows used to be one of the largest and heaviest parts of an organ; the larger the organ, the bigger its bellows. Bellows were built with a solid wooden frame and leather folds that allowed them to expand and contract. Watching the bellows moving up and down is a little like seeing a person’s chest rise and fall when they breathe. Of course, the challenge with any wind instrument — like flutes, oboes or trumpets — is that they always need more air. The organ is especially greedy for wind because there are so many pipes for the air to feed. Because organs need a lot of air, some more recent builders have added another kind of box, the reservoir, where air from the bellows can be stored while waiting for the organist to use more wind, either by pulling more stops or playing more notes.
Do you remember that there are two ways to start an organ breathing? The old way was to hire a calcant, but the new way, invented more than a 100 years ago, is to replace the person with a machine. Organs today are built with an electric blower that supplies unlimited wind to the instrument for as long as it is turned on, and always at the same pressure. By now, most old organs have been updated to include a blower so that a calcant is not needed.
Whether a person or a machine pumps the bellows, though, the wind from the bellows must travel through long wooden tunnels to reach the box where the pipes stand. This tunnel, or wind trunk, connects the organ’s lungs (the bellows) with its voice (the pipes), so a wind trunk acts like your throat. At the other end, the trunk connects to the box-shaped wind chests of the organ. Along with the bellows, wind chests are some of the largest and heaviest parts of an organ. They are also the most complex part, and can be designed in several different ways. Wind chests take the air from the wind trunk and direct it to the pipes. Of course, not all of the pipes will speak at once, so the wind chest is designed with pallets, which are little doors opening under the pipes to let the wind rush in, making the pipes speak.
But even this is not quite the end of the wind’s journey from outside the organ, to inside and back out again, because the wind inside a pipe gets divided into two streams. One of them passes out through the mouth of the pipe while the other vibrates inside the pipe. Once the air has left a pipe, though, it finally returns to the outside, where it might again be pumped back into the organ to make more music. The wind journeys in a giant loop, just like the air we breathe, meaning the organ breathe like us. That breath brings the organ to life, and playing with that wind the organist makes music!