Building Harpsichord a Labor of Love for Three Columbus Friends

Dave Searfoss, Hector Garcia and Michael Matteson discuss their harpsichord project.(Photo: Jennifer Hambrick. WOSU)
Dave Searfoss, Hector Garcia and Michael Matteson discuss their harpsichord project.(Photo: Jennifer Hambrick. WOSU)

For classical music lover Hector Garcia, musical instruments aren’t objects — they’re sensitive beings.

“I have two pianos next to each other, but they get lonely,” Garcia said.

So about five years ago Garcia, a corporate attorney, decided he wanted another instrument – you might say one with pluck – to keep his pianos company. He dreamed about adding a harpsichord – the older, plucked-string cousin of the piano with the characteristic crunchy, metallic sound – to his instrument collection.

But good harpsichords can be pricey. So Garcia did some research and discovered that he could build his own harpsichord with the help of a kit.

The only problem was, he couldn’t.

“I have never glued even broken pieces of anything together, so I don’t have any of the do-it-yourself skills,” Garcia said.

But Garcia’s friend, Dave Searfoss, a mechanical engineer, does.

“I have come to appreciate that Dave is a little bit like MacGuyver,” Garcia said. “If you need a tool to do something and he doesn’t have the tool, he probably will in five minutes make the tool, which is really cool.”

Garcia thought Dave might be able to help him build a harpsichord. He ran the idea by his wife, Miriam Matteson, while the three were at church one day.

“She joked, ‘No, Dave cannot make you a harpsichord,’” Garcia said as he laughed “and Dave heard that, and he’s like, ‘Yes I can.’”

“I said, ‘Well, if you get the kit, we’ll make it,’” Searfoss said.

Searfoss agreed to help build the instrument in his extensive workshop.

A deal was born.

Delays and Drill Bits
When two years ago Garcia found at an estate sale a harpsichord case that had been put together from a kit produced by Hubbard Harpsichords, he thought it would be easier and faster to finish that harpsichord than to build a kit from scratch.

He bought the instrument frame – built from a kit modeled on an instrument by the 18th-century French harpsichord maker Pascal Taskin – and ordered instructions from Hubbard Harpsichords for completing the instrument. With all of the instrument’s exterior put together, he thought he and Searfoss were on easy street.

Wrong.

“The one challenge that we had was it wasn’t like a kit you got from a box and it’s all there. It was in miscellaneous stages of assemble, so the biggest challenge was finding all the parts,” Searfoss said. “And the kit included parts that are sort of cut but not completed. In other words, they may be roughly cut, but you have to trim them to size and custom fit them into the (other) parts. So that was our biggest challenge. It still is a challenge. We keep finding parts missing, (instances) where we’ve got to make parts.”

Garcia and Searfoss spent the next two years gathering the additional materials they would need in order to finish building the instrument. They got an electronic copy of the harpsichord’s plan and enlarged it to the actual size of the harpsichord case. Based on that pattern, they purchased all of the hundreds of strings, tiny pins and other mechanical parts that go inside the instrument – learning along the way that most of these parts had to be custom made to fit the specifications of Garcia’s particular instrument.

Urban Art
As Garcia and Searfoss awaited the arrival of the harpsichord’s interior parts, the raw poplar wood of the harpsichord case was in need of sprucing up, so to speak. Garcia chatted with his brother-in-law and professional artist, Michael Matteson, about the harpsichord’s history, including the rich repertory of Baroque dance suites composed for the instrument, and asked Matteson to come up with a design concept.

“What kind of got my motor running was when Hector told me harpsichords play dance music,” Matteson said.

Matteson pulled out some of the gesture drawings, which were made on the spur of the moment to capture a sense of movement on paper. He had made the drawings years ago while sitting in on a dance class at Ohio State University and used them as the basis for a design that hints at sensuous human curves and dancing swoops and swirls.

“So I brought these drawings to life in color on this instrument that creates dance music,” Matteson said.

His design was also inspired by more contemporary influences.

“I wanted it to feel urban, in a sense, relatable to my generation,” Matteson said. The image itself is something you would see on graffiti on the side of the wall. It is something you could see on a T-shirt, on an ’80s pair of painted jeans. It just has kind of a presence and an edge that you wouldn’t – I wouldn’t – necessarily associate with classical music.”

Ending in Concert
Last October the harpsichord moved into Searfoss’ workshop, and Garcia and Searfoss were finally able to begin installing some of the instrument’s interior parts. So far, Garcia, Searfoss and Matteson are running pretty much on schedule toward their late February deadline.

Next on the agenda, Matteson must finish painting the harpsichord’s soundboard – the horizontal piece of wood inside the instrument that makes the harpsichord resonate – before any of the instrument’s strings can be laid over it. Then the strings must be connected to the instrument’s two manuals (keyboards), along with the all-important plectrum – the gizmo that plucks the strings.

When the instrument is finished, Garcia plans to inaugurate it in a concert at his home, with his friends and family – including his twin pianos – in the audience. And if Garcia’s journey building the harpsichord with his friend and brother-in-law is any indication, the new arrival will have a very special sound.

“I actually was thinking about all the love and dreams and craziness that are being poured into this instrument by so many people who are helping me build it,” Garcia said. “Once it plays, I cannot imagine a note sounding without all that love going along with it.”

Have you ever poured “love and dreams and craziness” into a music-related project? If so, leave a comment – we’d love to hear about it!

Comments
  • Eugene

    An unknowing tribute to Columbus’ own departed Ben Bechtel?

    • Hector

      Ben Bechtel was a pioneer.  I never met him, but the people I know who did speak of him as a kind soul and a knowledgeable luthier.  Ben is definitely an inspiration.

      …and many many thanks to Hendrik Broekman, the technical director and top builder at Hubbard Harpsichords, who is a phenomenal teacher and has been incredibly supportive.

  • HotFlash

    My dear Hector, certainly hope it turns out all right. As you are no doubt learning, the stringing and voicing are the most difficult parts. As I have said to some of our clients, anyone can put plp : )aint on canvas, but we are not all Michaelangelo.

    Let me know if we can help : )