Why do you only play on instruments voiced with quill?

Why do I only play on instruments voiced in quill? Well, firstly that is not entirely true. I often have to play on instruments which aren‘t mine, especially when traveling. In those cases I have to play on whatsoever plucking material is in the instrument already, normally delrin or celcon. My own instruments are always voiced in quill, yes, because there I can make such choices. Asking why I prefer quill can only mean one thing, you have never played an instrument voiced really well in quill. But to answer the question I suppose one should start with the basic fact that we try to represent properly the way in which music was presented in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. To do this we try to acquire instruments which are representative of those traditions, down to the smallest details often. It seems antithetic to me to go to such great lengths to create harpsichords which any historical builder would have been proud to call his own work, yet to voice them with modern plastics. I suppose a good analogy would be to buy a beautifully made Denner oboe copy and then play with plastic reeds. It would make sense, I suppose, if plastic reeds responded in the same way as cane reeds do.

So is quill really different from plastic? 

I can only really speak for crow quill, as that is essentially all I use. But, again, trying out an instrument voiced well in crow would answer that question quickly. It‘s very different indeed! Quill is an extremely springy substance and responds very differently under the stress of plucking strings than plastic plectra do. The surface of the quill grabs the string in a more positive way and the springiness agitates the string into oscillation in a more positive fashion. The touch, therefore, is much more direct and yet yielding, giving you so much more control over the attack of the pluck and therefore much greater expressive possibilities. 

But what about the tone?

Well, the tone of a harpsichord depends not only on what material is used to voice it, but also how that voicing is carried out. Unlike delrin you can‘t really ‘‘over-voice“ with quill. If you leave plastic plectra too thick, it produces a harsh and unpleasant tone. With quill, on the other hand, this problem doesn’t arise. I suppose it‘s due to the springiness of quill. With quill you can voice just about as strongly as you like without spoiling the tone. This is maybe one of the reasons that most harpsichords voiced with plastic are under-voiced and too soft to the ear and the finger. The only limiting factor in the strength of the tone or touch with quill is how strong your fingers are and how quiet is the ensemble you are playing with!

So you‘re saying that you like strongly voiced harpsichords?

Absolutely! Most players who try my instruments are shocked at how decisively they‘re voiced and tell me that they would never want to have to play a concert on them. Well, they don‘t have to, I do. I just tell them–a little tongue in cheek–that they shouldn’t voice down their harpsichords to match their weak fingers but rather should improve their technique!

Isn‘t plastic more reliable though?

Reliable? Well, that depends on what you mean by that. Plastic plectra certainly last longer than quill plectra do. However, when a delrin plectrum breaks then it breaks; often the plucking tip just snaps off. When that happens, especially in a concert, you are left with one note which just won‘t sound. When quill fails, which it does every now and then, it doesn‘t break off so the string it‘s supposed to pluck still gets plucked, just not as strongly as before–but at least you don‘t loose that note altogether, which is a big issue when you are in the middle of a piece in a concert! I practice a great many hours every day and only perhaps once every three or four weeks do I need to replace a quill, mostly only when my instrument has just been re-voiced. I imagine that it‘s due to irregularities or small fissures in the quill which don‘t manage under the stress of so much playing. After a month or two though most of the ‘‘lemons“ have been weeded out and things seem to go pretty smoothly from then on. But don‘t forget that delrin doesn‘t work consistently either! Delrin hardens and curls with age; meaning that after a number of months the regulation needs to be re-done. Every year or so that has to be repeated. With delrin this happens quite gradually so most players don‘t even notice at first. 

And what about maintenance, do you have to pamper the quill a lot?

I don‘t do anything more than my quill‘s former host, the crow. I oil each and every feather. I use extra virgin olive oil, much as they did in the 18th century, as described by Adlung, who called it ‘‘Baumöl“, the old German word for olive oil. I just stand the feathers in oil for three months or so and then let them stand for a month or two on kitchen towel to drain the excess oil off, before using them. 

This may sound like a strange question, but what about the poor crows whose feathers you are using?

The crows? They don‘t seem to mind at all. The feathers I use are only the ones the crows no longer want. Crows moult every Autumn and leave their feathers all over the place! I have a couple of huskies who need to walk about three hours every day so I get lots of chances to happen upon just such moulted feathers. Sometimes, a local fox I guess, obliges me by catching a crow to eat and I just take advantage of what he leaves behind!

A fox, in central Berlin?

Of course! We have a large number of foxes running around the city centre which is good thing considering the plague of rabbits we have too. 

And which of the feathers do you use?

I only use the flight feathers. They come in basically three distinct sizes, the primary feathers are the longest, followed by the secondary feathers and then the tertiary ones. Normally, I try to use only the primary ones, but that isn‘t always possible, especially towards the end of the summer and before the crows moult a new batch of primary feathers for me. The secondary feathers work very well too but are best avoided in the bass. They also don‘t produce as many quills. I don‘t normally use the tertiary feathers on 8‘ stops though.

How many notes can you voice with one feather?

That depends on how careful and frugal you are. I normally use six feathers for each register. People say you shouldn‘t use the empty barrel of the feather as it is too soft. I have no problems with it. The important thing about crow quill is not how thick the keratin is but how strong the arch of the quill‘s cross section is. That‘s where its strength lies I believe. 

So it‘s all about the arch then?

I think so. Just take a walk around Rome, the Romans obviously knew the ‘‘power of the arch“.  I have used other kinds of quill in years past, like Canada goose. But although the useable keratin layer of the goose may be thicker than that of the crow the upper surface for most of the useful part of the feather is flat. That means that when it starts to be put under tension it simply bends. That kind of quill is fine if you are re-voicing an instrument which was previously voiced with delrin and has flat mortices in the tongues. Putting crow into those kinds of jacks can be tricky. It’s not always easy to get a round peg into a square hole, if you see what I mean.

Round pegs into square holes? I like the analogy! But how do you go about voicing with quill?

Well, that‘s a complex and very long topic in and of itself. Briefly, you simply sharpen the feather‘s tip as if you were making a pen, cutting away the underside. You narrow it only enough to be able to pass it through the mortice in the jack‘s tongue from behind and cut it off at the back with nail scissors. I leave about one millimetre at the back and then gently nudge that portion further into the tongue with the handle of my scalpel to make it nice and tight in its mortice. My approach to fine voicing is very different from voicing in plastic. I never thin the under-surface of the quill. My thoughts are that the inside surface is sort-of sealed and should stay that way if possible and not roughed up nor should the inner portion of the keratin be exposed to the elements. I start with quills which are basically rectangular and not pointed, the opposite as people do with plastic. Using my scalpel I only shape the quill on the sides to voice it. This entails narrowing the tip of the quill mostly, at least a little. Sometimes, if the quill is very hard, I scrape some of the curvature away from the underside, especially right near the tongue. It‘s hard to explain without actually demonstrating. I find this gives me the most reliable results.

Do you prefer long or short quills?

I try to keep all my quill on the shorter side. I make sure my registers are set so the front of the jacks are as close to 3.6 mm as possible from the strings they are to play. I think that was pretty much the average distance on Ruckers instruments. If you have long quill it‘s not only hard to get them strong enough–especially in the bass–but also maybe you would get too much snapping back from the quills once they‘ve plucked the strings. 

Do you get the same kind of consistent touch from one note to the next using quill? After all, unlike delrin, each quill plectrum is unique, isn‘t it?

No, I have never managed yet to get every single note to feel our sound exactly the same as the next, only very similar. That said, I never wanted them to be uniform either. Quill is organic, each feather is different from the next, if only slightly so. As I mentioned before, I normally use six feathers per register. I rotate the feathers so that each feather gives me one quill each for the first six notes of an octave before being used again for the second half of the octave. In this way you slowly travel up the feather as you travel up the instrument when you are voicing. Of course, this means also that the first six notes in the bass, for example, all have quills from the same parts of six different feathers. I never wanted all the notes to feel the same. If I did I might just go out and buy a digital harpsichord. I like the varied personality of each note so long as each and every note works well within the compass as a whole. 

Is voicing in quill quicker than with plastic?

I can‘t really say. I haven‘t voiced in plastic for so many years now I couldn‘t fairly judge anymore. My instinct is to say that it is quicker once the quill have been put in. This is because crow quill needs almost no actual voicing, it‘s almost always almost just right almost all the time. Of course, you have to prepare the quill first, which takes time.

Really? What kind of preparing do you have to do?

Nothing world shattering actually. Firstly, you have to strip the feathers of all the barbs–or veins as some people call them–the soft stringy things on the sides of the feather. That only takes a second or two with a sharp knife. I stand the stripped feathers in oil for about three months, just as Adlung suggested. He called it ‘‘tempering“. 

Would you ever consider going back to playing on plastic plectra?

Well, as I mentioned before, I still have to play on plastic every now and then, but I would never choose it over quill.

Even though plastic is so much more reliable?

I don‘t really see it as more ‘‘reliable“, but even if it were I think that its disadvantages far outweigh its advantages. Simply put, it just doesn‘t sound as good, and it just doen‘t feel as good. 

So delrin and celcon are bad?

No, I don‘t think they are bad per se. They produce a very uniform effect and are reasonably low maintenance. Were it not for these plastics the harpsichord might not have caught on so well which might have been a bad thing or a good thing. I have to admit that I am forever beguiled that harpsichordists often can‘t or won‘t voice their own instruments. Some even have problems tuning them. As harsh as it may sound, I feel that if you aren‘t able to maintain a harpsichord in good working condition, and that means voicing and keeping it regulated in quill, then you are not only missing out on a large aspect of what the ancients lived with on a daily basis but also that maybe you just aren‘t a harpsichordist in the way I understand the term. I have the same feeling about ancient fingerings. Why would you think it possible to produce an historically appropriate performance when you play a modern harpsichord voiced in plastic using 20th century piano fingerings and, therefore, phrasings?

Well, fingerings are another matter altogether. But coming back to quill, why do you use only crow quills?

For three reasons. 1. I can‘t get my hands on raven feathers, which is what they preferred back then. 2. I use the second best which was their second best also, namely crow and, 3. it‘s readily available to me in Berlin, just lying around all over the place on the ground in the parks and meadows here, begging for the taking. 

So if quill is so wonderful why don‘t all harpsichordists use it?

I think that all too many harpsichord players today have inherited a mind set in which the harpsichord is still thought to be an instrument incapable of expression and touch. A lot of harpsichord builders seem to see it the same way. Hence, a great deal of harpsichords really aren‘t expressive at all. If your only experience of an instrument is that of typing away on a wooden machine why would you know to want more? Only once harpsichordists start to really demand good and musical instruments will the builders rise to the challenge. 

Doesn‘t that depress you just a little bit?

In a way it does, but on the other hand it gives me, as a performer, a distinct advantage.


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