This article first appeared in the AMERICAN HARP SOCIETY JOURNAL - Summer 2008
The Art of Harp Maintenance
A Weekend at the Salvi Harp Factory
On February 8th & 9th, 2008 the Lyon & Healy/Salvi Harp Technicians Guild meeting was held in Piasco, Italy at the Salvi Harp Factory. Thirty international technicians met to discuss every aspect of harp maintenance, mechanical problems, improvements, design changes and the latest R&D. It was all about making a better harp, keeping new and old harps functioning as smoothly as possible, and thus making the harpist a happy player. We were also able to see the harp factory, visit the Salvi Harp Museum and sample some of the wonderful Italian cuisine.
The Lyon & Healy/Salvi Technicians Guild is a highly skilled group of professional harp repair artisans who are certified by both companies. Technicians, also known as Regulators, are the people at the factory who assemble a harp, adjusting the pedals, rods and disks for perfect motion and intonation. They also take care of the general maintenance of a harp on a regular basis to assure that it works smoothly, plays in tune and stays as buzz-free as possible. Traveling technicians are often independent, working for themselves or in affiliation with the major harp companies. Sometimes referred to as “harp doctors” or “buzz doctors,” the true art of being a technician is discovering the source of a harp’s unwanted sounds- buzzes, clicks, squeaks, knocks, thwanks and grinds, and eliminating them. It is a humbling profession that requires much ingenuity and patience. With over 2,000 moving parts in a harp, there’s plenty that can go wrong and be heard on an instrument designed to amplify and project sounds.
The tiny village of Piasco, Italy is nestled at the foot of the Italian Alps about an hour south of Turin. Monviso looms over the area, its peak made famous as the mascot of Paramount Motion Pictures. Victor Salvi chose this area for his factory because of its long tradition of fine wood carving. The factory is two large multi-leveled buildings containing offices, a small lecture hall, show room and concert hall, a luncheon room with a fabulous coffee machine, as well as the Salvi Antique Harp Museum.
The day of my arrival was gorgeous and clear, displaying the Swiss and Italian Alps in all their glory. From the moment we landed it was a constant stream of harp repair talk. Most regulators feel somewhat isolated, relying on the phone or e-mail to discuss solutions so this was an eye opening experience and opportunity to share information about new products, techniques for all kinds of repair, road stories and harp horror stories with other technicians: basically, the good, the bad and the ugly of harp repair.
Few harpists ever hear what goes on behind the scenes of harp building and maintenance. Straddling both worlds, as both a professional performing harpist and harp technician in the San Francisco Bay Area, I spend about 20% of my time regulating harps and the rest performing and teaching. What amazed me over the two days in Italy, was the importance of bringing together harp builders and the technicians. Wherever there is a harp, there is the need for a technician. Along with the regulators at the factory, these are the guys who are in the trenches daily, fixing 50-500 harps a year, traveling thousands of miles all over the globe to maintain harps, through the USA, Europe, Mexico, South America, Korea, China, Australia, Alaska, South Africa, East Asia, Israel, Egypt, the Baltic countries, and Russia. Besides the basic regulations, they deal with many of the major issues of buzzes, broken rods, problematic actions and general ‘wear and tear’ that present themselves over time and plague every harpist, long after the harp has left the factory. Sounding boards pull up, necks twist, actions wear out and things just generally move about. Gravity and the forces of nature take their toll. All this affects the performance of the instrument, creating problems for the regulators to fix in the field. Most of these issues are not seen in the factory, where they deal primarily with new harps. Advising a harpist about the condition of their instrument is an important service of the professional technician. Harps are sometimes returned to be partially or fully rebuilt at the factory, but the technician repairing a harp in the middle of Texas, China or the Canary Islands, cannot afford the luxury of sending the harp to the factory. They need to fix it fast when dealing with the harp in its present condition.
For two whirlwind days we were in constant motion, joined by Victor Salvi himself. Overseeing our visit at the factory were Marco Ghibaudo, Managing Director of Salvi Harps, head technician Davide Arduino, and Giorgio Peirano in research & development. After a lovely greeting, we were taken on an extensive tour of the factory where the harps are entirely produced and built there in Italy. It was truly amazing to see the lumber come into one part of the building, and emerge many stages later as a finished concert harp. Machines run by computers cut and carve many of the parts in 3-dimensions, such as the neck and knee blocks of the harp. These parts are then hand-sanded. Other machines press wood into shapes and laminate layers together for the body and bases. Workers carve the intricate patterns of the column and feet, while others hand-paint designs on sounding boards. For spray painting and lacquer finishes there are special booths that resemble the local dry cleaners, with harp parts hanging on rotating conveyer belts. Certain harps are gilded with gold leaf in special rooms. All this occurs before the final assembly and regulation. The harps are then sent onto the showroom floor. A tour of a harp factory is a fascinating experience and most welcome visitors. I have seen it dozens of times and it never ceases to thrill and amaze me.
The company is investing a lot of time and money into R&D by testing woods, metals, and plastics, experimenting with new styles and designs. They are also testing the effects of different products on sound, projection and efficiency of the mechanics. Headed by Giorgio and physicist Armando Belmondo (a former Fiat engineer and father of harpist Letizia Belmondo) they work with complex computers and graphics, analyzing data and experiments. All parts of the harp are drawn with specialized computer programs that recreate the effects of design changes on any surrounding parts. CNC machines can then recreate and produce the parts that are designed and modeled from the computer’s final analysis. The company is constantly experimenting with new products, and Davide was only too happy to provide me with a new type of pedal felts to test on my harps.
The meetings functioned as a free-flowing exchange of ideas with Davide of Salvi moderating from an extensive handout detailing all possible problems. Much of the discussions revolved around the never-ending quest to solve the problem of buzzes. Defects can occur in every area of the harp, and be caused by loose parts, the wrong type of part or material, worn-out parts, and parts that no longer fit due to the age of the instrument. The parts can also be damaged by mishandling that can come from adjustments done by someone unqualified (though well intentioned.) Prevention of this is a main reason why the Lyon & Healy/Salvi Technicians Guild was formed, so harpists can identify a technician whom the manufacturer recognizes as well trained. We also talked about what types of oils, greases, disks, screws, rods, casings, felts, glues, washers, and plastics will optimize performance and lessen buzzes. Representatives included: From Lyon & Healy Harps of Chicago, Jason Azem, production manager-assembly and John Popadolias, technician as well as Joe Pilolla, Mechanism Department Manager and independent technicians Ed Galchick, Robert Hohlbauch, Peter Wiley and myself from the USA, Bastien Golliard and Francois Langella of France, Antoni Gralak and Hilmar Gusik of Lyon & Healy Europe-Germany, Billy Hornby of England and Dalibor Bernatovic of Slovenia as well as the entire regulation staff of Salvi. Everyone contributed with standard and creative ways to solve these problems. Peter Wiley was a huge force in keeping the discussion going, and as Davide noted “if Peter hadn’t been there, we would have finished a day early!”. Strings were another topic of discussion. Billy Hornby is a Mel Gibson look-a-like who now works as an independent technician. The former senior manager of Bow Brand Strings in the UK, Hornby was responsible for developing the casing on the gut strings. He filled us in on several upcoming string-related improvements, including a new anchor on the lower wire strings, designed to prevent the strings from getting stuck inside the holes of the sounding board.
Both days the company put on wonderful luncheon spreads of pizza, small Italian-style sandwiches, and local specialties for dessert. The lunch room was a huge hit, offering gorgeous views of the mountains as well as unlimited access to a most-impressive coffee machine. Towering before us at 4 ft high and about 2 ft wide (the coffee machine, not the mountain), it dispensed the most amazing array of coffee selections, from espressos to cappuccinos, machiattos to lattes, all with exact amounts of sugar, milk, foam, sprinkles of chocolate or cinnamon, and a spoon! According to Armando Belmondo, 60% of the manufactured modules for the USA space stations have been designed and produced in Turin, Italy. With so much space-age technology at hand, it’s not surprising that the Italians make such superb coffee machines.
During one of the afternoon coffee breaks, Victor’s wife, Julia Salvi, took me on a personal tour of the museum, showcasing the unique and one-of-a-kind harps. The newly-renovated museum includes harps from Africa, Asia and South America. Also on display are the very first harps L&H and Erard ever produced. All the harps in the museum--three centuries worth-- have been restored to absolutely pristine condition.
That evening Victor Salvi hosted a special welcoming dinner for all the visiting technicians. Wine flowed beneath the beautiful arched brick ceilings, as the evening played host to terrific conversation and many plates of fine Italian cuisine. The background of the visiting technicians was incredibly varied, included many performing guitarists (both classical and rock ‘n roll), bass and jazz sax players, a guitar builder, a piano technician, a geology major, a string maker, a cabinet builder, a furniture restorer, a salesman, several engineers and two of us who teach and play harp professionally. Being with 30 smart, fun and interesting guys was a terrific way to spend a weekend in Italy.
For more information on Regulations or the Technicians Guild visit