Hand-Ground Music at Great Falls

Hand-Ground Music at Great Falls

Organ grinders pay annual visit to Great Falls Tavern.

Even the cicadas couldn’t drown out the sound made by hand-cranked pipe organs at the C&O Canal last Sunday. “It’s a good, happy sound for an outdoor thing,” said Terry Bender, organ grinder.

This year, an outdoor thing meant that the organ grinders had to compete with temperatures in the 90s and drenching humidity. “Last year, it was a little better,” said Carolyn Schaffer of Timonium. “The weather was milder. She and husband Bill were also on hand to play some mechanical music. “The cicadas are no good,” she said.

Jan Bender said she had checked the volume with a sound meter at her home and the cicadas had registered 85 decibels. “They’re louder here,” she said.

The group usually puts on a performance in the afternoon, but canceled it due to the heat.

The Benders, of Great Falls, Va., are members of a group which has been performing at Great Falls Tavern for the past nine years. In addition to the pipe organs, the group put on a display of music boxes.

“What’s fun for me is, I watch the people,” Terry Bender said. Reactions range from those who walk by ignoring him to people who dance with the music. “Some will stop and ask questions,” he said. “You see the little two-year-olds dance. The music has got something for them.”

Bender also lets children take part in the show, cranking a smaller organ than the one he uses.

“It’s not hard,” said Nick Brown, 8 of Alexandria, Va. “It was pretty fun.”

“It’s a pleasure to play for people,” said Carolyn Schaffer. “Showing them some old-timey music that their great-grandfather listened to.”

One year while performing, a couple came up and requested a song from the woman’s native Germany. The Schaffers had the song and played it for them. “She and her husband danced,” said Bill Schaffer, indicating a paved area in front of Great Falls Tavern.

Some organs made now are electronic, and play songs from a cartridge, but Bender uses a traditional model.

The hand-cranked pipe organs, which can range fro $3,000-$15,000 are still made by a handful of companies in England and Germany, Bender said. They work when the grinder turns a crank, pulling a piece of paper with holes in it over a long pipe with 31 holes in it.

The pulling motion creates a small vacuum, Bender said, but when a hole in the paper glides over a hole in the pipe, the vacuum is released and a valve makes air move in one of four possible racks of pipes.

By turning the crank faster or slower, Bender can control the tempo of the song, and by pulling knobs on the side, he can control which of the four racks of pipes will play. “The final blending is something that I do,” he said.