Keyboard instrument making
|Historic area of significance|
|Area currently practised||UK|
|Origin in the UK|
|Current no. of professionals (main income)||5 (harpsichords)|
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
|Current no. of trainees||1|
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
- There has been a large pool of skill and experience built up in the UK in this field, particularly over the last thirty to forty years. There is currently no next generation, so most of this experience stands to be lost. In time this is likely to have a serious impact on players, orchestras, colleges etc.
- Of the few remaining early keyboard instrument makers, many are becoming increasingly reluctant to take on repair work, especially of lower grade and older instruments – of which there are many. This is in part due to the slowing down of the craftsmen concerned due to the age or health.
- There is a healthy demand for good quality secondhand instruments but the demand for new instruments remains strong for the relatively small number of people now producing them
- Hirers, tuners and conservators are also ageing. The situation has deteriorated just in the last few years with several experienced practitioners leaving the field on grounds of ill health or age. London and the South East still have reasonable coverage but it is very difficult indeed to find a trained and suitably experienced early keyboard tuner or technician in the north of England. This can at times be very stressful work demanding experience and excellent personal organisation.
- Of the established builders referenced above, none are known to have a clear succession plan in place. Many have tried to take on help and/or to train younger people in some way at some time in the past. There are many difficulties to this – legislation and regulation, cost to a one-person business of supervising a trainee, and particularly a lack of candidates with suitable commitment.
- The whole training environment is difficult for small enterprises and especially for individual craftsmen. Proper long term training (3 to 5 years is probably required to gain basic competence as a maker) is financially pretty unsustainable and government schemes like the Modern Apprenticeships etc are just not geared up to this kind of training.
- People who want to ‘have a go’, or even a ten-session college course intended to produce lots of new ‘technicians’, would be likely to be counter-productive. An influx of under-skilled newcomers would not benefit customers in the long run. What is needed is a long-term development of a relatively small number of thoroughly trained and experienced younger people.
- It’s worth considering that a maker probably reduces his own work rate by at least 50 per cent and adds considerable additional costs in the early days in order to supervise a trainee who possibly might contribute 10 per cent to overall output? And the there are substantial costs potentially around preparing a workshop to be safe (tot he satisfaction of insurers) for the formal employment of a trainee. The balance might improve after say a year when the maker might be producing at around 90 per cent capacity and the trainee adding around 20 or 30 per cent. And the balance would continue to improve. But if the trainee, for whatever reason, leaves after six months, or even two years, then all that investment of time, energy and cost comes to nought.
- Sourcing materials is becoming more of a problem but is not yet acute. The biggest issues with materials are probably increasing costs, partly due to worldwide economic forces but in particular to the effects of Brexit. Probably of greater concern is that most makers in the UK and beyond rely on a very small pool of specialist suppliers for music wire, metal fittings and other specialised parts. Most of these suppliers are sole traders of mature years.
- British Harpsichord Society – the website provides a list of UK harpsichord makers, as well as a list of suppliers of harpsichords in kit form, accounts of building harpsichords from scratch, availability of technical drawings of historic instruments and sources of various materials and accessories.
- British Clavichord Society – Activities wound up 3 + years ago due to ageing membership. The BCS archive is held privately but it is hoped that this will be incorporated into a proposed early keyboard instrument National Archive.
Craftspeople currently known
Colin Booth – now retired
Robert Deegan – retired but still active
- John Morley – Harpsichord maker at Morley Pianos
- Peter Barnes
- Peter Smalley
- Michael Johnson
The Dolmetsch workshop closed in 2010 and the Dolmetsch family now only service recorders. Otherwise it directs enquirers to other businesses for new keyboard instruments, including those run by craftsman who formerly worked at or for Dolmetsch
Daniel Flew is a part-time trainee.
Harpsichord maker Malcolm Rose sadly passed away in December 2022. He will be greatly missed from the the early music scene. His daughter Leonie is stepping up and continuing the family string making business.
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