Hidden Talents Revealed on Temple Square

  • 14 October 2010

Article Highlights

  • The organ techs service 70 pianos, 12 organs, and 2 harpsichords on and around Temple Square.
  • Being an organ tech requires a wide variety of skills.
  • The organ techs seek the guidance of the Spirit in their work.

Organs of the size and caliber of the Tabernacle organ are, in some ways, “too customized for standard fixes.”

—Robert Poll, organ techician.

 

Much praise is given to the organists who perform on the world-class Tabernacle organ on Temple Square, as well as to the organ itself. The organists have earned the attention. Credit for the organ’s performance, however, goes not to the instrument alone but to two men whose behind-the-scenes efforts have allowed the organ to fulfill its musical potential: the organ technicians.

Robert Poll and Lamont Anderson have been working with the Tabernacle organ for more than 25 years. Their job responsibilities cover many other instruments on and around Temple Square, including 8 pipe organs, 2 harpsichords, 4 electronic organs, and over 70 pianos. The techs listen constantly to the instruments, says Poll, especially before events. They also have a form that can be filled out by organists with a description of any problems and delivered to the techs so they know to check a particular instrument.

Poll divides the work he and Lamont share into three categories: tuning, mechanical maintenance, and renovation. The tuning usually involves individual pipes rather than the organ as a whole; tuning the entire Tabernacle organ takes roughly a month to complete. Mechanical maintenance primarily entails the refurbishment of malfunctioning pieces such as leather pouches or slider solenoids. Renovation is also focused mainly on smaller projects, including replacing the felts on pipe shutters so that the shutters seal better and create a greater contrast in volume.

The techs’ methods of caring for the instruments are constantly evolving. This applies most to care involving the large organs. Organs of the size and caliber of the Tabernacle organ are, in some ways, “too customized for standard fixes,” says Poll, and require a detailed knowledge of many areas as well as the ability to innovate. In one case, a high-pressure air regulator in the Conference Center organ kept going into oscillation. In the process, it set up resonant frequencies that sounded like the playing of one of the low pipes. After the builder of the organ implemented a fix that didn’t last, Poll used a piece of wire tied between two points to apply sideways pressure on the valve. This makeshift solution continues to prevent the problem.

Poll credits inspiration for his ability to solve many of the issues that arise in his work. For example, he keeps records of everything that is done to the instruments he tends, especially the Tabernacle organ. These records go back to 1984 and are currently being entered into a detailed computer table for future reference. Poll had developed this record system for the dozens of pianos he tends before he began using it for the Tabernacle organ. He chuckles as he relates how he had been working on a project on the organ when he remembered his piano system and realized that it could be modified to work as a way to keep records of what was done to the organ. He dropped his organ project to immediately begin working on the system, and he never went back to finish the project.

Another time when inspiration helped with work on the Tabernacle organ was during installation of a new electronic control system in 1985. The new system came in a layout that made maintenance extremely difficult. The organ builder contracted to work with Poll on the job was able to create a completely new layout for the necessary equipment, and the system was installed without interrupting any of the ongoing activities in the Tabernacle—including the twice daily summer organ concerts.

As Poll moves through the belly of the organ, he points out pipes and tells when they were added. Except for the visible pipes and casework, the present organ was basically new in 1948, but among its 11,623 pipes are 122 from the original organ and 95 others from pre-1948 rebuilds. The pipes come in an astounding array of sizes and shapes, from tiny pipes the width and length of a drinking straw to fat pipes over 30 feet tall. Some have coiled ends to prevent their tops from jutting through the ceiling; others bulge or flare at the mouth. Finished wood, zinc, and a combination of lead and tin are a few of the materials used to make the pipes. Only the largest 10 of the visible gold pipes are “speaking” pipes, while the remaining 41 are simply dummies that mask the body of the organ.

Poll knows the organ as though it were an old friend. He shakes his head with exasperated affection at the instrument’s quirks, such as the way some pipes will never tune properly if tuned together. He knows, perhaps better than anyone, what a magnificent instrument the Tabernacle organ is—and why. Because of Robert Poll and Lamont Anderson’s care, each of the instruments around Temple Square is an exceptional instrument.