Technical Library

TROPICS I: Looking after your instrument

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Growth proliferates when it’s hot and wet:
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Looking after your instrument in the tropics…

There are many parts of the world today where we might want to live and play real musical instruments, and perhaps not all areas are blessed by baroque Europe’s relatively stable climatic conditions—the provenance of our beloved instrument. I have long thought about writing on my tropical experiences, especially in response to the type and number of questions asked by musicians who would dearly love to own a harpsichord, but are afraid because of where they live. I trust the practical information I provide here will prove useful as well as entertaining to those who may not only live near the equator, but just somewhere wet.

Good harpsichords based on historic principles are a lot more stable and durable than the overall reputation of the instrument might suggest. If you’re feeling uncomfortable somewhere because of the climate, your harpsichord is probably also a little uncomfortable.

Most problems in the tropics are caused by high humidity and temperature. Wood expands, and bugs proliferate. Your harpsichord might even sound soggy: Water and harpsichords especially don’t mix. Return the humidity to normal range, and you should expect your very human instrument to breathe a sigh of relief.

High temperature by itself should not be too much of a problem, although in a home environment you should want to keep the temperature below 28°C for your own comfort. Stability is best.

You may have heard of tropicalized pianos, but how about harpsichords? Even a plywood or laminated soundboard might not stay flat in humid conditions—plywood is notorious for its bizarre behaviour when wet—and the resulting sound may not impress you at all. Heavy ribbing on a traditional soundboard structure is a misguided attempt to keep it flat, and will destroy the tone. Sometimes the tropicalization involves sealing the instrument interior and underside of the soundboard with a varnish containing fungicide. Instruments have been built with an extraordinarily rigid structure, or even an iron frame, but with no tonal advantage, and often prove even a structural disappointment.

You might think an aluminum soundboard to have some benefit: There is a tale which expanded to urban myth proportions, about a removalist carelessly dropping E. Power Biggs’s Challis harpsichord in the Potomac on the morning of the day of a concert. Well, if the truth be known, it was indeed a Challis, but owned by Fernando Valenti, and the truck actually slid into a lake in Aspen Colorado a few days before the concert—it can be pretty foolhardy trucking in an instrument on the actual day it’s required, especially if you’re not in the habit of using the handbrake when parking. The crate and padded cover offered some protection, but not from total immersion. The Challis was probably the only type of harpsichord in history that could be reasonably expected to wheel on stage after being pulled from the water, drained, and dried off under the strings with a towel…Asia map: Perth to Cairns 11K jpeg

Take heart that while your own conditions might sometimes seem severe, spend a thought for Kaye, who in 1998 moved with her Carey Beebe 1987 Flemish Single Harpsichord from the hot, dry summers of Perth’s climate (on Australia’s west coast), to the wettest part of Australia, Babinda, just south of Cairns near the Great Barrier Reef. During the cyclone in February 1999, the nearby mountain, Bellenden Kerr received 2m—that’s almost 80˝ on the old scale—of rain in only 24 hours, and when I visited for a weekend in April 1999, it hadn’t stopped raining for twelve straight days and nights. Everything just absolutely dripped, but it was possible for the harpsichord to play even under such extreme conditions. Kaye has recently moved a little further north, closer to Cairns proper, and her instrument is often seen in concert along that part of the coast.

Here follows a discussion of the major problems you might notice during or after exposure to high humidity, and what you can do to alleviate them.

Please feel free to contact our workshop for assistance with any specific problems you may find, eMailing Carey Beebe at any time.

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