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CLAVIERS BAROQUES -- Moving a harpsichord

People who play pianos rarely have to move their instruments, because everywhere they go, there is a piano. Not so with harpsichords, and if there is one there, it might not be anything you'd actually want to play.

So, here is how to move a harpsichord safely, and a survey of the vehicles that you can move one in.

Procedure:

  • make sure everything loose is out of the instrument -- propstick, tuning wrench, music desk, pencils, etc.
  • secure things that will move around. On some harpsichords the keyboard(s) are not attached so you will have to hold it/them in place for transport. Poke around to see what moves on your instrument and think about how you will be tilting it or whatever. Tape is not recommended. Packing material is usually a better choice.. Styrofoam, cardboard, rubber string mutes, balled-up towels and rolls of toilet paper have all been used to keep the keyboard in place; do whatever works for your instrument.
  • Close the lid and secure it. If you have a cover, fine, that will do the job; if not use something that will hold it shut tight but not mar the finish. Surgical tubing is good, works like a big rubber band, or shipping wrap or kitchen Saran wrap or similar. Note: if you are moving a very fussy instrument, or for a very fussy person, you may want to put paper towel or something along the top edges so the lid doesn't grind paint-to-paint. Nother note: if your instrument has a fallboard, we recommend that you *not* move the instrument with it in place. Because if your instrument takes a bump on, say, the upper treble corner it will just flex the wood a bit -- usually no harm done. But if there is a fallboard, the force will be transferred to the lower bass corner, and will do its best to remove the side of the instrument from the bottom. That is usually not reparable, even by us, and we're pretty good at repairing harpsichords.
  • wrap the instrument. See section on cover.
  • if you have a large instrument and don't have lots of people, or have to go down stairs or in an elevator, you may want to put it on a skid.
  • If you have a long way to go before you get to the vehicle, you may want to put the instrument (on the skid or not) on a dolly.
  • Check that you have everything: harpsichord, stand, music desk, propstick, bench. Music, tuning kit. If necessary make a list, and be *sure* to check it before leaving in the vehicle and again when you arrive at your destination.


If you have a good cover and a skid, you can take a harpsichord
about anywhere easily and safely.

Sometimes a dolly can come in handy, too.

 

Recommended vehicles: A single-manual instrument will fit in most mini-vans and in *some* of the new-fangled hatch-backs that have foldy-down seats and such. The key is not so much size, but you have to be able to get the instrument inside. Loading from the back is easiest on the instrument and the tempers of the movers. Here is our Althea, a Canadian single approx 6'2" x 30", in a Suzuki Aerio. It goes in from the back and sits in the (folded down) passenger-side seats. We like to do it with two people since it has to turn part way in as the hatch-back opening isn't quite wide enough to take it standing on edge. You could probably do it with one person if you were careful, though. It goes even better into a Honda FIT because the front seats fold flatter. The tail tucks under the dashboard and visibility is much better.

One harpsichordist we know had a box made for her Italian (thin-wall construction, weight approx 60 lbs, but nearly 8' long) and she hoicked it around on the roof-rack of her Toyota Tercel. She'd dragoon members of the audience to help her load up after concerts. Here is a sampling of the vehicles we have used and the instruments we have moved in them:


  • "Van Strype" the Dodge Ram van
    -- you can move anything up to a Walther fortepiano in one of these. Van Strype had originally been an airport mini-bus so was extra-long and heated all the way to the back -- very good for the instruments. We have carried two French doubles, two Canadian singles and a couple of clavichords at the same time. If you only have only one French double to move, you can give the quartet (and their instruments) a lift, too. We miss him terribly.
  • Honda FIT -- Canadian single and other singles up to maybe 6'4" long on edge. These are amazing little vehicles! Remove the passenger-side headrests, recline the front passenger seat all the way and slide it forward, fold down all the back seats, slide the instrument in from the back and then raise the driver's-side rear seat, which holds your harpsichord in place. Tons of room left over for a knock-down stand, music, tool boxes, concert clothes, etc.
  • Suzuki Aerio -- Canadian single and other singles up to maybe 6'4" long on edge. Same drill as for the FIT but it's not so tidy. Fold the front seat down rather than recline it (it doesn't recline), fold down all the back seats, slide the instrument in from the back and then raise the driver's-side rear seat, which holds your harpsichord in place.
  • GMC Safari/Chevy Astro --You have to remove the passenger seats. Comes in two lengths. The longer model will carry anything up to a 8' French double flat, and can take two if you stack them. The shorter model will take one or two 6' 2" Canadian or Italian singles flat; longer French doubles, Flemishes, etc will go on edge if you put the tail of the instrument between the front seats. Note: some of the revival instruments have cases that are too high for that, esp those with a 16' stop.
  • Dodge Grand Caravan -- You have to take out the passenger seats ('cargo configuration'), but it will carry anything up to a 8' French double flat. The back door isn't as high as a French double so you have to take it in on angle, then lower it. So you can only take one.
  • Toyota 'Previa' van -- one of the few small-engine mini-vans that will carry a French double, owing to the large distance between the front seats. Just slide your h'chord in from the back, tail first, and the seats will hold it up. Brilliant!

We'll add more vehicles as we test them, and if you have harpsichord moving suggestions, warnings -- or stories -- to share please let us know and we'll post them here.

 

 

Cover: A good cover is a big help in moving an instrument easily and safely. It holds the lid in place so it doesn't swing up and then come down on your fingers, it protects the instrument from scrapes and dents and it gives a good hand-hold for the mover-people. A good cover costs around $1,000 CAD/US these days and is worth every penny. What is a good cover? Our favourites are made of three layers of fabric -- ballistic nylon on the outside, Borg or other fake-fur on the inside and a layer of Dacron or similar quilting in between -- reinforced with leather at the corners and with all-around (not just sewn-on) straps made from the same stuff as car seatbelts. The covers attach with rope drawstrings through cloth loops. Velcro doesn't hold well enough, metal fittings such as zippers, buckles and grommets can (and probably will) scratch the finish. We love our covers.

Putting on the cover: Slip the cover over the closed instrument and snug it down over the sides. Then lift the harpsichord in the cover up and put it back down on the stand on edge. Two people are best for this, one at the keyboard end and one at the tail. Do up the drawstring and secure. You are now ready to transfer the harpsichord to a skid, dolly and/or vehicle. To unwrap, reverse the procedure. Note: it's lots of fun to watch a 4-man stage crew try to undo the drawstring when they have put the harpsichord flat on its stand instead of on edge.

Don't have a cover? You can improvise with a packing quilt or two or three, and some shipping wrap. Haven't got that either? OK, use some blankets or big towels and some kitchen Saran wrap, the stretchy kind is best. A sweatshirt makes a good impromptu leg bag.

If you are moving your instrument a lot you really, really should have a cover, though; send us your instrument's measurements or a tracing and we'll give you a quote. Or if you have someone near you who can do the job (upholstery shops, sailmakers, places that make boat covers, etc.) we can send a diagram and some photos so they'll know what to do.

 

Skid: A wooden plank with runners used to support and protect a harpsichord (or piano or such) when moving it. It makes moving even a big harpsichord a two or even one-person job, allows you to slide it down stairs without injury to you or the instrument and allows you to drag it across carpets and wooden floors without marring them. A good skid usually has oak runners -- oak is tough but won't scratch hardwood floors, which are usually also oak. The runners should not be finished, but watch out for splinters. The skid should be an inch or so wider than your harpsichord but doesn't have to be as long, 2 or 3 feet shorter is usually fine. It should have a solidly attached ledge at the 'nose' end to support the instrument in case you have to stand it on end to turn it or in an elevator, and it should have straps -- three is ideal -- to attach it to the instrument while in transit. Carpet or other padding on the top of the skid is nice, it protects the instrument and also gives some grip against the cover.

If you have a small and/or light instrument a skid won't be necessary, but if you have a 300 lb French double and need to get it down the elevator from the 15th floor often, a skid would be a worthwhile investment. We can make you a good sturdy one for around $250, let us know how big your instrument is and we'll give you a quote.

 

 

Dolly: a platform, usually wooden, on wheels, used for moving heavy objects. We have several nice, small ones that we use made of cedar -- light and strong -- with various kinds of wheels including ones that swivel and ones that have brakes. You can probably get a suitable dolly at Canadian Tire or KMart Auto or such, but if you can't find one that will do the job for you, contact us and we'll give you a quote or send you some plans or whatever.

 

 

Checklist: Have you got everything?

  • harpsichord
  • all parts of the stand including screws or pegs if applicable
  • music desk
  • lid and flap (usually attached but not always, and if not, have you got the hinge pins?)
  • fallboard, if any, and preferably *not* in the instrument.
  • propstick(s)
  • do you need a screwdriver or wrench for anything, eg disassembling/reassembling the stand?
  • cover
  • skid
  • dolly
  • music
  • tuning wrench and meter and/or tuning/maintenance kit
  • concert clothes
  • water and snack
 

 

Carrying a harpsichord in a regular car: Possible but not recommended.

It is unfortunate that we in North America did not continue with the British custom of driving on the left side of the road, since that would have meant that an h'chord would fit in nearly any passenger car. In Britain you can slide the tail of the harpsichord into/on top of the passenger seat (which is on the right) and the keyboard end sits on the rear seats. However, we did it the other way here which means you'd have to put your harpsichord upside-down. Which you can technically do but we don't recommend it since things fall out, like the jacks and the keyboard. Even if they don't fall actually out everything gets shifted around and you are up for a lot of readjustment when you get it where it's going. You can screw everything down, I suppose, but moving a harpsichord in a regular car not a good option unless it is the only one.

 

 

Insurance: The Early Music Society of America has an instrument insurance plan for players. It is not available to builders, alas, so we don't have first-hand knowledge of it, but it is highly recommended by globe-trotting musicians we know.

Note: I was reading the insurance info on theirs website and it appears that the instrument insurance onluy works in the US. That's news to me, but check it out to see if it will work for you.

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