Music Fans and History Buffs Will Love the Majestic Sound of the Reed Organ

The Conklin Reed Organ & History Museum proudly displays over 100 fully restored and working antique reed organs. Visitors to the museum are often treated to the beautiful sounds of these antique instruments, as they are in playable condition. The collection includes parlor, cottage and church organs along with elegant rosewood melodeons, some dating as far back as the mid-1800’s. 

What is a Reed Organ? We asked expert and famed reed organist, Rodney Jantzi, from Ontario Canada, what we need to know to enjoy these beautiful instruments. 

What got you interested in reed organs?

In 1994 my wife Lori and I were at a family reunion on her side of the family, in a northern Ontario settlement called Wabewawa.  There, we visited the church where her great grandmother, grandmother and mother all played the old pump organ.  The church was basically not used anymore at this time, but the organ was still there – functioning but not the healthiest of instruments.  Regardless of the poor condition, the rich sound that came from it surprised me, and it was at that point that I wondered if I was wrong all this time about a reed organ being an “inferior” instrument. 

Fourteen years later, the church officially closed, and Lori and I were given the honor to be the next care takers of the reed organ from the church.  This is when I started to learn how to restore, and once the restoration was complete and I could hear the organ for the first time the way it was meant to be heard - I was officially hooked.

How exactly does a reed organ work?

The most common reed organ found in North America will be the suction reed organ.  When the player presses on the foot treadle, it operated the bellows that creates a suction.  This suction or vacuum is then  ‘stored’ in the reservoir (also called an equalizer).  When a key is pressed, it opens up a valve for that note, and allows the wind from the suction to draw through a brass reed, which causes it to vibrate, which then makes the sound that you can hear.  Each reed is in its own compartment or cell, and they are shaped and painstakingly tuned so that they vibrate at the correct pitch.  There can be anywhere from a few dozen reeds in a small organ to 600 and more in the larger instruments, with each reed in its own cell.  It can get rather complex with the larger organs once you add the wind channels, valves, stops and couplers, all mechanically controlled by the musician.  There is another cousin to the reed organ called a harmonium, which is similar to a reed organ with treadles but playing it effectively requires a complete different technique. These harmoniums do not use suction, but use air pressure to make the reeds sound, some harmoniums even have little piano like hammers inside that strike the reed first – this is called percussion.  At the Been Creek Reed Organ Festival, you will be able to see and hear firsthand the difference between a reed organ and harmonium.

How is it different then playing a church organ or a upright piano?

A piano player has a sustain pedal, which helps smooth out the notes and “sustains” the note even after the note is released.

An organ does not sustain – the moment you remove your finger off the note the note stops.  The hand technique to play the organ is then very different from piano, as you need to play the next note just as the last note is being lifted off.

A piano player can make the piano louder or softer by the varying the pressure that the keys are pressed.

A church organ player uses stop selections or the swell (volume) control with their foot.

A reed organ (with treadles) is made loud and soft by the pressure used on the treadles.  This can be difficult for many musicians as it is a natural for most people to use our feet for tapping out rhythm or dancing.  I always say that when playing a reed organ, you need to separate your feet from your brain and connect them to your feelings or emotions – your feet are now the expressive part of the music.  You also need to use your knees to control volume and stops in combination with your foot treadles at the same time, and play the right notes of course…

A piano has one keyboard, with one voice, but many ways to use it.

An organ can have many keyboards, a pedalboard with notes to play with your feet, many voices, and endless combinations of using it.

What time period were they being used?

Melodeons began to be more popular in the 1850s – these were the first of the reed organs to be mass produced in America.  By the 1860s and early 70s, the cabinet organs were the fashion.  During the 1870s to 1890s, reed organ manufacturing was the business to be in!  Many manufactures could not keep up with the demand, and with the new Victorian styles and more frills than ever, it became a show of high stature and success to own one.   After the 1900s, the demand started to drop off, as pianos became more affordable as did the gramophone (why learn to play a keyboard when all you need is to set a needle on a spinning cylinder or disk?)

What’s unique about the Conklin Reed Organ Museum collection in Hanover?

Conklin has a vast array of different types of organs, from the early elbow melodeon all the way to the large church organs.  There are small ones, frilly ones, self-playing organs, plain serious musician organs, all from different time periods and personal tastes at the time.  At other museums, you can only look at the organ in the display – that does not make it a musical instrument because it is silent.  At Conklin, it is a history you can see, feel and hear – this makes it very special unlike most other museums where the organs are untouchable.  The Conklin Reed Organ Museum also hosts monthly workshops, in which the organs in the collection are carefully repaired and restored.  It is a great place to learn and even get some hands on work at keeping this important part of our history alive.  These instruments are not made anymore, and the staff and volunteers at Conklin are doing a wonderful job at preserving the sights and sounds for generations to come.

If anyone who is a musician that has never seen or heard a reed organ before, this is the place to learn what they really are – it is an instrument unlike a pipe organ or piano, it is in a class of its own.

To learn more about Rodney Jantzi, check out his website, follow him on Facebook and watch his very popular YouTube Videos.

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