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This article comes from Amateur Work, a Victorian Do-It-Yourself magazine published about 1890. The original article may be downloaded as a PDF file (1175 KB) here.



IT is doubtful whether there is another musical instrument which, when out of order, requires so little to put right again, and is yet so troublesome to put right. The violin, when out of tune, needs only a turn of the peg to set right again ; a string breaks, and is replaced in a second or two ; if the flute sounds flat or sharp, a movement of the slide makes all right ; the guitar and banjo are as easily tuned as any of the violin tribe ; the clarionet and oboe require a little more care to produce correct intonation, but no clarionet or oboe player ever thinks of calling in the aid of another to assist him in the matter ; and even in the case of the pianoforte, it is a much easier matter to tune a single note, when you know how, and is oftener attempted, than to accomplish a similar result with a melodeon or concertina. A tuning-key is not in everybody's possession, but, a pair of pincers, or a movable spanner, might be made to take its place in an emergency - say, just before an evening party or a concert, when only one or two notes had to be corrected, and nothing more in the form of appliances would be required, and the operation need not take more than ten minutes altogether. But now - to come to close quarters with our subject - the case is different with the instruments we have more immediately to do with. A concertina or melodeon out of tune, even only in respect to a single note, is useless until put right again. One may try to avoid the faulty note, but it is sure to come in when least expected, and the instrument is thrown aside in disgust. Not one in twenty, I should say. who play the concertina could tune a note of his instrument ; and not one in a hundred put in and tune a new reed when required.

So few tools are required, so little practical knowledge, and such trifling ability beyond a good ear, that it is rather surprising more do not tune their own instruments than really do. The following remarks are intended to meet the wants of those whose desire it is to perform this interesting operation for themselves; and it may be premised that the writer is himself an amateur, who, from business relations having been in a sense compelled to tune and repair the instruments under question, acquired the necessary ability without the least aid from anyone - not a great matter, certainly, but stated here for the encouragement of those whose motto is "Try."

A few tools are first of all requisite: a flat file, three or four inches long, finely cut, a pair of neat pliers, a pair of cutting pliers, a small hammer and punch, a bradawl or two, a small anvil, such as can be purchased for 2s. or 3s., a small hand-vice, and a small screw-driver. In addition to these, and coming under the heading of appliances, there are required two other very useful articles, which I found I had to make for myself. The one is for the purpose of enabling the old rivet of the tongue (or reed) plate to be taken out more readily; and I found nothing better or more easily procured than a good-sized gas-burner inverted, and firmly embedded in a block of end-wood, so as to steady it. The manner of using it will appear further on. The second appliance is for the purpose of facilitating the tuning of the reed when it is required to he made flatter, which means scraping away at hilt, or near rivet. The reed will not stand the scraping unless supported from beneath, and an ordinary thimble with a small tack stuck through from the inside, so that the point protrude 1/8 inch, answers the purpose admirably, when the point has been ground away, and as broad a surface as the reed-opening will allow left on the tack to support the reed. A very thin piece of steel, 1 inch by 1/2 inch, will be found also extremely useful to support the reed when the point is being operated upon, by slipping it beneath. A piece of broken stay-steel will do, if cleaned and polished.

Having our instrument before us, which let us suppose is a concertina, there is a fault to remedy. If all the notes sound, but one or two are out of tune, there is a possibility of rectifying these without much trouble, viz., simple tuning; but although this may be the remedy, in nine out of ten cases where a reed has become flat, there is a flaw in it, and although brought up to pitch, it will not stand, and the ultimate mortification of having to put in a new reed after all the trouble taken to make the old one "do," is most frequently the result. It is much better then, when a reed is out of tune, to test it thoroughly by raising it repeatedly with the point of a knife ; if it stands at present pitch, then it may stand tuning ; the flatness observable being attributable to some other cause than a flaw in the metal-such as damp, producing accumulation of verdigris, overflowing of the cement used for attaching the small leather flap behind reed, the presence of small particles of dirt, etc. In the first of these, the verdigris has to be scraped carefully off, after the thin slip of steel formerly referred to has been slipped under reed, after which, test the reed to ascertain whether in tune or not, and sharpen by taking a little off the point with the fine file, or a very sharp penknife. To ascertain when it is in tune, the octave, lower or higher, must be used as a guide, particularly when the instrument has two reeds sounding for each key. When only one reed sounds - as with the cheaper class of instruments -it may be tuned by using the notes on same plate as guide. Here it is necessary to give some idea of the order in which the reeds are arranged. The key-tone or "scale" of concertinas is bound down by no fixed rule. Each maker seems at liberty to adopt any note he may consider best for the scale of his instruments, consequently, from a dozen concertinas, taken at random, eight or nine different scales may be found: D, E flat, E, F, G, A flat, and A, being in pretty frequent use. Now, it is a matter of small importance to the tuner what may be the key of his concertina, it is the relation of all the other tones to the key that most concerns him ; and, with few exceptions, this relation is the same in all concertinas, no matter what key the scale is built upon. Taking the right hand first, and " drawing" and "pushing" alternately, we find the notes to run as follows :-Top row (in key D, say) : C sharp D, E F sharp, G A, B D, C sharp F sharp ; bottom row : G sharp A, B C sharp, D E, F sharp A, G sharp C sharp. Left hand, top row (drawing and pushing): B A, G F sharp, E D, C sharp A,A D; bottom row: F sharp E, D C sharp, B A, G sharp E, E A. In each case begin with the first finger, and work to the fourth. The above is, as stated, for the scale of D ; but the relation being the chief concern (and the same in all keys), the foregoing letters will be of more service if translated thus : Right hand, top row, commencing with first finger as before : leading note- tonic, supertonic - mediant, subdominant - dominant, submediant - tonic, leading note - mediant ; bottom row, precisely the same relative notes, transposed fifth above. Left hand, top row : Submediant - dominant, subdominant - mediant, supertonic - tonic, leading note - dominant, dominant - tonic ; bottom row : Same relative notes transposed a fifth above. To make this relation perfectly clear, so that anyone who has the merest scrap of musical knowledge, may have no difficulty in understanding it : the notes on the right hand can be represented once more in simple sol-fa as follows : t1 d, r m, f s, l d1, t m1 ; fe s,l t, d1 r1, m1 so1, fe1 t1. Left hand : l1 s1, f1 m1,r1 d1, t2 s2, s2 d2; m r, d t1, l1 s1, fe1 r1, r1 s1.

Having made, as I hope, the relation of the notes or tongues quite clear, let me now proceed to explain the whole method of taking out a faulty reed, replacing it with a new one, and finally tuning same. With our screwdriver the "lid " of concertina is first taken off, and the screws laid carefully aside. Observe that as the plates are exposed to view, that side represents the one which is acted upon when the concertina is "pushed" in playing, and the underside of the plates I tontai is the reeds acted upon when the instrument is "drawn." You will now, if you have not done so already, fix upon the particular note or notes which are to be corrected, and which may not exhibit their defects to the eye. By taking the body of the instrument between the knees while seated, holding the "lid" on firmly with the hand, and giving one or two "draws," or "pushes," the faulty notes will at once reveal their whereabouts, and the plates containing them, or so many as are required to work upon at a time, will next be lifted from their position, It will also be noticed that the row of reeds corresponding to the top row of keys on the outside is at the bottom and the bottom row of keys have their reeds at the top. Having taken the plate out, and found it necessary to put in a new reed, the block of wood with the inverted gas-burner fixed into it, is called into operation for the purpose of getting out the old rivet. After filing the rivet down on the side where the reed is fastened, so as to give a better surface for the punch to act upon it, place the block on its end on the bench or table, and the old rivet will be very easily struck out by means of the punch. A reed of suitable length and breadth, to fit the opening precisely, is then selected. If one should not be found exactly fitting, prefer to take one a little long, but correct breadth, to one the precise length, but rather broad. On no account must it be visibly too short or too narrow, otherwise the tone will be weak and unsatisfactory from the escape of wind which will result The reed has next to be reduced, even if correct dimensions, being much too thick. This is done by filing carefully, resting on a wooden block, and the reed held by means of the small hand-vice. See that the reed is not twisted or doubled up in the filing, as it is very apt to be if not reduced with care. To facilitate tuning, let the reed be held by the vice in such a manner as to expose only that part which will vibrate when fixed, and from time to time give it a twang, and if your ear be good at all, it will decide when sufficient has been taken off, and it is nearly in tune. Let it be inclined rather to the flat side than the sharp, as much easier to correct when fixed on the plate. This is a system of working which does away with the expensive tuning apparatus-one of which I had, but sold again very readily, as I found no use for it, being able to tune a reed in the hand-vice to within the smallest interval, perceptible to a good ear, of the pitch required.

You will observe the thickness of the reeds circumjacent, and reduce in the first place to about the same, before thinking to bring to pitch. File evenly, steadily, avoiding reducing too much at any particular part, which, at the hilt or rivet end, more particularly weakens the reed, and is apt to make it uncertain in tone. To rivet it, instead of wire, I find that a small brass sprig, to be had at any ironmonger's, is much more serviceable. By means of it the reed is fixed on the plate, protruding part being cut away with the cutting nippers, and by means of a few firm taps on the anvil, pressing the reed well into the reed-opening to keep it perfectly straight, the job is so far accomplished. A slight twang will indicate whether it is firmly riveted, whether the reed vibrates clear of the sides, and also how far from being in tune. By filing at one end or other, the reed is brought to proper pitch, so far as the car can distinguish from a mere touch by a penknife, trying with its octave above, the octave below, or, better still, from its companion reed, when the concertina is one having two sets of reeds tuned in unison. There is a class termed "Celestial," which, properly, should have the one note tuned the slightest degree sharper than the other. This can be ascertained by trying some of the other pairs. The plate or plates are then replaced. The lid is held firmly on body of instrument, and the body held between the knees, and a push or draw given. If there was any doubt as to whether all was right before, it is soon decided by this process. A common fault is to have the new reed slow in speech ; in fact, rather like a stammerer beginning behind time and bursting out all at once. Another fault is to have the new reed strike a note of certain pitch, and glide up or down (generally up) perhaps as much as a major third. In the first of these cases, very probably the reed has been made too small for the opening, and it does not speak before a great amount of wind has escaped ; in which circumstances, although the fault may be, to a certain extent, corrected by pasting a small slip of notepaper as close to the reed as possible over the opening to be closed, it is generally found necessary to replace the reed by a new one - very provoking, therefore to be avoided by extra care in the initiatory stages in fitting reed accurate]y. In the second case, the fault is generally attributable to irregular reducing of reed, causing one part - say the point where it is thinnest - to act quicker than the other, thus producing a note of different pitch to start with from what is sounded when once the whole reed is set in vibration. For this defect, a careful manipulation of the file may do much, but in five out of six cases, the work has to be done, de novo, as in the former instance.

These remarks apply equally well to melodeons as to concertinas. The lid is then replaced and screwed on, and the work done. The relation of the note in the melodeon is rather different from that in the concertina, but scarcely require special explanation.

With respect to repairs, the commonest of these is the replacement of a spring. In concertinas, the lid is taken off, and the wooden "tray" containing the "hoppers," or little levers which are acted upon by the keys, is taken out. The arrangement of the springs is easily seen, and a new one, by means of the pliers, put in, the sharp point of the spring being pressed into the wood to keep it in position. In melodeons, the lid is taken off, and two small screw's inside taken out, when the part containing the keys will come away, and reveal the springs - rathe stronger than those in concertinas, but made and fastened on the same principle. If these two screws are not refastened sufficiently secure, the valves will not close over the respective openings, and a terrible concatenation of sounds will result when playing is attempted. The cure is evident. It frequently happens that a valve gets knocked off, and mixing with' the levers or hoppers (in a concertina}, or among the other valves of a melodeon, causes one or more notes to keep sounding continually A little glue is all that is necessary to set matters right, when the cause is ascertained. In melodeons the valves are beneath the perforated cover below the keys, which is taken off by inserting the edge of a knife beneath, and gently prising it up. Burst bellows may be repaired by pieces of old kid gloves. Bells with their hammers, on melodeons, are so easily put on and made to work correctly, that no explanation is necessary.

Attention to the foregoing remarks will enable anyone to tune all kinds of melodeons and concertinas. All the necessary material can be had from Butler, Haymarket, or, indeed, any respectable musical instrument dealer. Country readers must search the directories of their nearest town and make selections. Concertina reeds cost from 1s 6d. to 2s, per gross, assorted ; melodeon reeds from 2s. to 4s. Plates, with sets of reeds, ready tuned (concertina) from 1s. to 5s. the set; melodeon, 3s. to 8s. per set. Concertina springs, 6d. to 1s. per gross ; melodeon springs, 1s. to 1s. 6d. Concertina straps, 1s. 6d. to 2s. 6d. per dozen. Long screws, 2s. per gross. Concertina keys (German silver), 1s. 6d.; other kinds up to 5s.; melodeon keys (German silver), 4s. per gross. Should further information, within the scope of the writer's knowledge, be desired, he will be only too happy to afford it.

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© wes williams January 2013.
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