In our post about the car search, I mentioned that Nancy recently bought a nearly 100-year-old xylophone. It was her first e-bay purchase, so an adventure in more ways than one. She is now the proud owner of a Deagan 844 “Drummer’s Special,” manufactured sometime between 1917 and 1929—three octaves (C5 to C8), Honduran rosewood bars, plated resonators. (Deagan introduced the 844 in 1915, with pitch A=435. They switched to A=440 in 1917. Nancy’s instrument is stamped A-440, so is a 1917 or later model.)
The xylo needs some work. The felts on which the bars rest have lost most of their cushioning ability, there is a century’s worth of dirt, rust and grime to be cleaned up, and the rear frame rail that supports the incidental bars arrived broken. But, the important parts—the bars and resonators—are in good shape. All the musicians who have heard it praise its acoustics. (The photo shows the instrument without its resonators, temporarily mounted on a Z-stand. The colored stickies are place markers for a complicated passage from Shostakovich’s “Polka of the Golden Age” that she is working on for the next concert.)
We have decided to build an entirely new frame. Applying a temporary fix to the broken rail revealed more weak areas in the original frame. Nancy’s goal is to have a high-quality instrument to support her band and orchestral activities, not a meticulously restored antique. And, while Deagan built the “Drummer’s Special” series with portability in mind, we are hoping to improve on that aspect. We are playing with several design concepts, but are not far enough along to publish anything yet. Stay tuned.
While you wait, check out SuperMediocre, a blog/website that follows a father and his middle school son as they construct, from scratch, a concert-grade xylo for the son. That quest involves digging into the math and physics of tuning wooden bars, a number of empirical experiments to verify/refine what was learned, and the actual shaping and tuning of 44 Honduran rosewood bars. Lots of hard work. Lots of father/son interaction. Lots of the joy of learning and doing. To get the full story, you need to start at the beginning, which in blog format means going to the bottom of the stack and reading up towards the top. It’s worth the effort.