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May 11, 2017
So you want a harmonium and you're not sure which one is right for you?
I can help with that.
If you're looking for a quick and easy recommendation, you might appreciate this video:
If alternatively, you're really interested in exploring and learning about all the options, features and other factors you might consider in your purchase, this article is for you.
I started importing harmoniums in 2010. Prior to that I toured a lot as a musician. A lot of the people I work with are in the yoga world, or have interests in ethnic musical traditions, but my background is more that of a general music nerd.
While touring throughout my twenties, it was the interest of other musicians and fans that gave me the idea to start importing, but the technical part of the job - tuning reeds, nudging and refining this and that - is really what captured my interest. I find this kind of "tedious" work to be pretty meditative.
For a short documentary version of my story, you can check out this PBS video -
All and all, it has happened that my life's journey has led to this -
My full time job is to find the people who are still building great traditional instruments (like harmoniums, sitars, and such) in India, nurture quality relationships with them, and know their instruments sufficiently that I can set them up properly and be a valuable resource to my customers.
My answer to the question, "What do you do?" gets a lot of funny responses. And you can probably imagine how much stranger it is to my Indian friends when I show up and tear into their instruments to show them all the crazy ways I have learned to modify them...
So, I'm a bit of a tinkerer, I'm a Midwesterner, and I'm a musician. And for this article, I will be your guide through this instrument that I know just about as well as anyone else you're going to meet.
Should you make it through this article, you can have confidence that while you may still have some questions, you will know more than most and be adequately prepared to make an educated decision.
While the origin of the harmonium is in Europe, modern harmoniums are almost exclusively built in India. In India, there are two primary and very distinct regional styles of harmonium construction. These originate in Delhi and Kolkata.
Delhi harmoniums are where most people start, and in general, from beginner to professional, they are what you'll see most most people playing.
In almost every way possible, Kolkata harmoniums are fundamentally different from those that are produced in Delhi. Not surprisingly, they also look, sound, and feel very different from their Delhi style counterparts.
Most people start with a good Delhi style box. On a budget of $500-700, you can get a good Delhi style harmonium that will play well, sound nice, and with proper maintenance, last you a long time.
Beyond that, it's not uncommon for harmonium players to begin to collect instruments. Some are purchased to achieve a specific tone, others for travel - they all serve different purposes. And if you get there, a good Kolkata style harmonium is certainly something to consider adding to your collection.
More than not, harmonium buyers tend to be at least a little nomadic. They take their harmoniums to yoga class, sound therapy sessions, on vacation, on tour, etc.
With all this moving around, "small" and "lightweight" may seem or even be ideal / necessary. But since this is an acoustic instrument, there are a few things you'll want to consider before shopping exclusively for a "small" harmonium.
Harmoniums breath. Air is drawn into the instrument through a primary set of bellows that are generally played with the musicians left hand. The air that is drawn into the instrument is retained inside a secondary set of bellows, acting like the instruments lungs, and then steadily through the reeds.
Since this relationship exists, and the depletion of physical size correlates to LESS air capacity inside your harmonium, which is not optimal.
Does this mean you should not buy a smaller harmonium? No. It doesn't, but it does mean that you are making a sacrifice in sound quality and sustain when you do so.
It's not uncommon for a harmonium to loose air somewhere between the external bellows and the reeds. Big or small, your harmonium needs to retain air without leaking.
A cheap harmonium is almost always a leaky harmonium. Spend your money wisely and buy from someone who will sell you something that isn't leaking. If you don't, you'll regret it.
If a smaller harmonium is definitely for you, be sure you know what you're getting and read the fine print.
"Small" does not necessarily mean "light," and "collapsing" does not always mean "easily portable."
Here's what I mean -
Example 1. The "Laptop" Harmonium -
These instruments are neat in concept, but if you absorbed what I wrote about air capacity, you'll note the secondary bellows are pretty limiting. Further, if you read the specs, you'll see they weighs in around 24-25 lbs., which is more than Delhi harmoniums.
It's a neat idea in theory, but really disappointing in reality since it's actually pretty heavy and a lousy performer.
Example 2. The "Portable" Scale Changer
The Paul & Co. 13/4 Scale Changer shown above is an awesome instrument, but to call this collapsing harmonium "portable" is misleading. It weighs 48 lbs. and is an absolute monster to carry.
By comparison, the heaviest standard, non-collapsing Delhi style harmoniums I stock are roughly half the weight of this "portable" Paul & Co.
Big or small, make sure your harmonium is built squarely, well-sealed, and properly set up by the seller to ensure optimal performance.
If that's all done and all things are equal, a larger harmonium is going to outperform a smaller one because of improved air capacity. Full-size instruments are almost always what you'll want for recording or performance purposes.
If you do decide to go small, buying a good one that retains and moves air effectively (not too fast) is critical.
Whatever you're looking at, read the fine print to confirm what you are buying is actually something you can handle. Not everything that is designed or advertised as "portable" is really that easy to get around, and there are actually a lot of very portable non-collapsing harmoniums that sound great and will generally be more reliable since they have fewer moving parts.
Modern Indian harmoniums are primarily built in two shapes - Standard and Collapsing. Within these categories, there are some variations, and beyond these categories, there are of course some options. Since this is a fairly exhaustive article, many of these will be explored in this section.
To keep things concise, I will simply list the advantages and disadvantages of each common box design.
Standard harmoniums are characterized by a solid shell, stable design, and great tone. They are generally ideal for everything but air travel.
Traditional collapsing harmoniums have a fixed bellows and a removable lid. While bulkier than the folding "safari" models, they are generally more reliable.
Folding "safari" style harmoniums are absolutely our best sellers, and the concept is great. They fold small for travel and perform better than other small harmonium concepts such as the dulcetina. Sadly, the same components that allow them to fold up small are also clunky and prone to failure.
On a typical harmonium, the secondary bellows are inside the instrument. On a Dulcetina, sometimes referred to as a Compactina, the secondary bellows are located outside the instrument, just like what you see on a Shruti box.
These unique and very simplified boxes give you the ability to pace the room, studio or stage while playing a harmonium...or you can sit down with it just as easy. Your choice.
These fold down to be very thin, but don't confuse thin with lightweight - they are deceptively heavy.
This is not a harmonium, but it's closely related and similarly constructed.
Whether an old relic or an even more rare modern collapsing build, these harmoniums can be played with two hands.
There are a lot of different harmonium concepts. The most standard and the most common styles are typically what I suggest for beginners or people looking for versatility. From there, feel free to explore these other options.
I tend to think of this as a "non-issue" issue. The important topic that gets less discussion is air retention, which is critical. The secondary issue of the bellows style, because it is visible, gets a lot of discussion, but it's not that important.
Whether the air is brought in by a mechanism folding down from the top or alternatively opening from the side of the instrument impacts very little when it comes to playing, because most people play with their left hand on the top or side of the bellows, which you can do with both style bellows.
The only note with that is for side fold bellows to be played with the right hand, which is non-traditional, a spring needs to be modified internally. If you would like this adjustment made, it's fairly easy to do yourself or on a new instrument, feel free to reach out to us and request this modification be made.
The harmonium in the video above has top fold bellows. They are opened from the top and can be pumped on the side or in the middle with either hand.
The harmonium above has side fold bellows. These can be (and are typically) played from the top as shown in the video above.
Alternatively, they can be played from the side. It's not common, but KD does it, so I guess it's cool... :-)
Get a harmonium that holds air. That's the main thing. It's not a rule, but more than not, you'll find side fold bellows on the more expensive harmoniums.
Bellows are generally played with your left hand. If you wish to play a side fold bellows harmonium with your right hand, there is a modification that should be to the bellows spring. You can make this modification yourself, or if you are buying from our store, just let us know in advance and we'll make that change for you.
I'll begin this section with a tip.
If an online seller (see eBay) refers to the knobs shown above as "stoppers," that's a HUGE red flag.
If an online seller (see eBay) refers to the knobs shown above as "stoppers," that's a HUGE red flag.
Their use of this term "stopper" means they know less than you will know after reading this section.
Let's discuss now what those knobs, buttons, slides and levers actually do.
With your stops, you can determine which sets of reeds get air and how much air. The following video explains the basic functions of different stop settings on a traditional Delhi style harmonium:
Drones perform a single note constantly underneath the primary notes you are playing with the keys. You can make a drone using a factory installed note attached to a knob or on Delhi style harmoniums, you can set any note to play as a drone, as shown in the following video:
An octave coupler allows you to double the note you are playing with an additional note one octave away from the note you are actually playing. In the following videos, I illustrate how this works:
This function is only found on Kolkata style harmoniums. It allows you to modify the key you are playing in up or down (higher or lower in pitch) without changing your chord shapes or note patterns. The following video shows you how that works:
A "eleven stopper SUPER scale changer" doesn't have 11 stops. It likely has 4 stops and 7 drones, a left action coupler, and somewhere between 5-13 scale position options. Anyone you want to buy from is going to understand this.
In short, never grade a harmonium only by how many buttons it has.
Consider first whether it's built well and will be capable of using it's air optimally. Then consider tuning. If those things are good and you're buying from someone who will make sure that's all in check, consider how many stops, drones or other features you want.
The short answer. YES!
I've personally done it thousands of times.
Q: But aren't they fragile?
A: Somewhat. But if you pack them right, they do just fine.
Q: But wouldn't it be better to just pick one up locally?
A: It's an idea, but I actually buy my guitars from a guy in Montana because he's an expert on the guitars I'm interested in and the guys at the music shops just don't know how to set them up properly...
Old Delhi Music Harmonium Shipping Stats: 2010-2017
Along with harmoniums, I'm a bit of a number nerd.
It probably sounds strange, but unless if I am shipping something internationally, I no longer buy shipping insurance.
To be clear, if you're our customer, and I ship something to you domestically, you are covered in the case of damage. We'll take care of you.
The bigger point here is that the likelihood of a harmonium being broken is low. We pack things well and have a good track record.
A final disclaimer:
I do want to note that the damage I am describing above is "breakage" of parts or an entire instrument. In terms of something arriving shaken or otherwise disturbed, that's more common, but typically, it's only a minor adjustment that is needed, and again, whatever is needed, we have you covered.
Learning how to make small adjustments on your instrument is part of owning a harmonium or any other acoustic instrument. Since you'll probably be intimidated at first, please know that I am always available to help with troubleshooting and that we even have a YouTube channel where we post a lot of videos on common troubleshooting topics.
If you have just skipped to this section, you have missed a lot.
For the purpose of narrowing your search, I will categorize and highlight some great options below.
Category 1: Kolkata Sound
Kolkata harmoniums are complexly engineered, always heavy, and without fail, a significant investment. But if that sweet, whispering Palitana reed tone is what you're needing, these classic Kolkata builds are some of the best:
Category 2: Delhi Sound
A Delhi harmonium is a simple machine, but tone quality can range from gross to gorgeous. For the recording studio or live stage, not much can beat the sound of a quality constructed, well-adjusted standard Delhi style harmonium. Here are some examples:
Category 3: Travel Friendly and Great Sound
While a choice to size down or compact will invariably change the sound and sustain an instrument produces, there are definitely some travelers that beat out the competition. Here are some examples:
Category 4: Give me SMALL or give me death!
Gotcha. Keep a real harmonium at home and take one of these to yoga class:
Good for you! You know a lot now, don't you?
Reach out to me with your remaining questions. Again, this is my job, and working with customers like you is the best part.
I am most reachable during normal business days / hours (CST) --
Hope to hear from you soon. - Nic
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April 20, 2017