Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

Escapades in Early Music, Writing, and Editing

Instrument Biography: The Free-Reed Organ (Harmonium)

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In the interest of space, the reed organs known as the harmonica and the accordion have been broken out of this biography. For more on organs in general, check out my blog post on Pipe Organs.

Reed organs were the main type of organ in households and smaller churches before there were electronic organs. Their volume and tonal range was quite limited and had only one or two manual keyboards and, rarely, a pedal keyboard. The bellows were operated by the feet, which would make a pedal keyboard quite a feat (har har) of coordination.

There are three types of reed organs covered in this article: pump organs (like a small pipe organ with sewing-machine-style foot pedals), melodeons (like a virginal or a table-top keyboard with the bellows hidden in a small chest-like box on the table), and harmoniums (a portable box containing a bellows with the keyboard attached to the front that the player sits on the floor to play).

Several million pump organs were made between the 1850s and the 1920s. Often ornately carved, they were a sign of affluence in private homes. The melodeon predates the pump organ, and the harmonium, like the accordion, is limited to folk or ethnic music.

Squeezeboxes, such as the accordion, concertina, bandoneon, are also free reed instruments, but they that are played by squeezing the bellows as part of the gesture of making notes sound. Unlike other instruments where the bellows are separated mechanically from the keyboard, the keyboards and chord buttons are attached to the bellows itself and the movement of the arms to pump the bellows must be coordinated with the playing of the hands across the keys. You’ll find out more about them in my Instrument Biography: The Accordion.

The harmonica is also a reed organ, and in this instrument, human lungs are used as the bellows, and the reeds work in two directions (sucking and blowing). You can read all about them in Instrument Biography: The Harmonica.

Reed Organ History

It’s thought that the Chinese free-reed instruments traveled through Russia, and then came to the rest of Europe in the late 18th century. Asian free-reed instruments include the Chinese sheng, lusheng, hulusi, yu, bawu, and hulusheng, plus the Japanese sho, the Thai khene, and the Korean saenghwang. All of these are probably the ancestors of the western reed organ. The panpipes and the bagpipes are other ancestors. It’s a big family.

In the early 19th century, European instrument makers played with the idea of freeing the reeds from the pipes, and created a mouth organ (a flat box with grooves for the reeds—now a harmonica), an accordion (using the whole instrument as a bellows with reeds in the two headboards). These styles played both by blowing and sucking.

Pump Organ

Styled after the regal organ (biography to come) with free reeds, the pump organ was created to be more expressive during the end of the Baroque era and the beginning of the Romantic, when dynamics (loudness) became essential to the success of musical instruments. Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein (1723-1795), a professor of physiology at Copenhagen, is thought to have invented the first such instrument in Europe. It was further perfected by Parisian G.J. Grenie (sorry, I couldn’t find dates for him) in 1810, and both called It an orgue expressif.

Despite impressive dimensions, early pump organs weren’t particularly nice, musically. The pipes were out of tune and too loud, there wasn’t a proper keyboard, and the player had to pull and push sliders one at a time in order to make a sound. A melody could be played only very slowly, and more than two parts was impossibly complex. So instrument makers kept working on their design.

Alexandre Debain (1809-1877) improved on the instrument and called it a harmonium when he patented it in 1840. (Resources waffle between calling a piano-like pump organ a harmonium and calling a simple accordion-like box with a keyboard a harmonium. For the sake of simplicity in this article, I will call only the accordion-like instrument a harmonium.) Debain’s model was good enough to be considered a suitable substitute for an orchestra in domestic music and light music arrangements until the first half of the 20th century. It was also popular for church music and silent movies.

After emigrating to the US, a mechanic who’d worked in Debain’s factory created a suction bellows to replace one that forced air outward through the reeds. By 1860, suction bellows organs had become the main mode of construction in the US. This instrument is quieter and has a more pipe organ-like tone than the other kinds of reed organs.

Theodore-Achille Muller made a model that could be folded up into a box. The original instrument was patented in 1842 and had a three-octave keyboard, one set of reeds (later versions have four sets) of varying thicknesses and lengths, and a single blowing pedal-driven bellows. More advanced models had five-octave keyboards, stops and couplers for fancy things like octaves and vibrato. Each key on the keyboard controlled a valve that regulated the amount of wind produced by the compression bellows. Another advance was a shifting keyboard, which permitted transposition at any interval, while playing the music as notated. I’d like one of those!

In 1854, Victor Mustel (1850-1890) added a divided expression stop that was worked by knee levers. As you’ll learn in the Structure section, this stop allows louder and softer sounds to come from the instrument when the stop is pulled.

In the late 19th century, the reed organ was popular in Europe and the US for classical music, regarded as a serious instrument for serious composers (see below for a list). It was often used to accompany voices. In the US, the repertoire tended to target amateur musicians, often used in folk music of the Appalachians, for instance.

By their heyday, pump organs came in many different styles, from compact single-keyboard instruments with a single set of reeds and one or two foot treadles to pump the bellows, to two-keyboard instruments with several sets of reeds of differing colors and pitches, powered by a separate blowing lever or electric motor, like those on a pipe organ. The most common type of pump organ has two-to-five sets of reeds, one keyboard, and accessories (couplers) to achieve octaves and tremulant (vibrato). These instruments competed with the piano for parlor space in the 19th century, and were common in small churches.

Pump organs were at their most popular in small churches and chapels where a pipe organ was inappropriate due to size or expense. Pump organs weigh less than pianos of a similar size and are physically hardier. This made them popular in oversees outposts because they shipped and transported easily across unpredictable terrain. Reeds hold their pitch even in humid or hot weather, unlike stringed instruments, such as pianos. They became so popular as colonial instruments, in fact, that manufacturers began to impregnate the wood casings with a chemicals that helped prevent woodworm damage.

At its peak of popularity, variety in structure and ornamentation was extensive. There were plain cases with only four stops (or none) and ornate cases with a dozen stops and other mechanisms, such as couplers. The expensive ones were built to resemble pipe organs, with ranks of fake pipes attached to the top. A few were built with two manual keyboards, and some were built with pedal keyboards, which meant that an assistant had to pump the bellows until later versions ran on electricity.

Large versions were meant for home use, which allowed pipe organists to practice on an instrument roughly the same size as the organ they performed on. Missionaries, chaplains in the armed forces, and evangelists found the smaller ones more convenient because they folded to the size of a large suitcase. Some of these had a short keyboard and only a few stops, by they were sufficient for accompanying small congregations.

Pump organs became quite complex and it was common for manufacturers to develop their own versions and patent them, especially the bellows mechanisms. As the number of manufacturers grew, so did the complexity of the instrument, with levers, cranks, rods, and shafts. This made them more vulnerable to failure and also contributed to the popularity of the electric organ.

The invention of the electric organ in the 1930s provided the funeral dirge for the pump organ. The Hammond organ could imitate the tonal quality and range of a pipe organ with the same small dimensions. Maintenance was less and there were more stops and other features possible.

The last mass-producer of pump organs was Estey, in the US (Vermont), who stopped manufacturing pump organs in the 1950s. Instruments and replacement parts became increasingly hard to come by, and many were updated with electric blowers. Electronic instruments completely took over the domestic market and modern instruments have an electric wind supply, leaving the feet free to play pedal keyboards.

Despite such general ignominy in the west, pump organs have remained popular in South Asia.

Melodeon

The melodeon is a reed instrument with an air reservoir and a foot-operated bellows, popular in the US in the mid-19th century. It looks like a very skinny upright piano or an impractical writing desk. Its whistle-like reeds are often hidden behind an attractively carved cover, and it comes with a keyboard and one or two sets of interchangeable reeds. Like the pump organ, wind is moved past the reeds by way of treadles through a bellows and several coupling contraptions.

The reeds are tuned as they are in the pump organ, with a flap of metal or wood, shaved to produce a specific note, and vibrated by means of the air passing by. The difference between a pump organ and a melodeon is one of portability and ornamentation.

There’s another instrument called the melodeon that’s like an accordion, but without a keyboard. It’s played with push buttons determining the notes. The right hand plays the high notes and the left hand plays the low notes, and both operate the bellows by pushing and pulling, just like an accordion. This instrument is also occasionally called the lap organ.

Writing this piece, where harmoniums are pump organs and melodeons are pump organs and both are accordions, I am reminded of royalty in England, where everyone seems to be a Henry or an Edward, or maybe, for a little variety, an Alfred, Mary, or Jane. If you invent something or found a dynasty, please do your biographers a favor and give your progeny a unique name, okay?

Harmonium

The harmonium came to India in the mid-19th century via missionaries from Europe and England and it quickly became popular. (India is the one place where it has stayed popular, too.) It became a staple of North Indian classical music concerts and is commonly found in Indian homes. Although originally derived from a French version, Indian musicians developed it further, including drone stops and a scale-changing mechanism, to better serve the Indian sensibilities.

In Calcutta (also called Kolkata, the capital city of the Indian state of West Bengal) the harmony flute was developed into a hand-held harmonium, which has become an integral part of Indian music to this day. Internationally renowned India poet Dwijendranath Tagore (1840-1926) is said to have used one in 1860 in his private theater, but it’s possible that this was a pedal-pumped version, or some form of reed organ. Regardless, the harmonium’s popularity rose as a result, and the hand-held version evolved.

The American harmonium was invented in Paris (how ironic) in 1835 and was further developed by Estey of Vermont (in the US) and by Mason and Hamlin of Massachusetts (US again) in 1861.

The harmonium was widely used in Parsi and Marathi stage music in India in the late 19th century. By the early 20th century, nationalist movements pushed the harmonium out. It couldn’t produce slides between notes (called meend) and it couldn’t be tuned during performance, both of which made it seem less useful than indigenous instruments. It was banned from All India Radio between 1940 and 1971 and the ban still stands for harmonium solos.

Despite these limitations, the harmonium is used in Indian classical music of the early 20th century—it is easy to learn, it supports group singing and large voice classes, ragas (chants) can be learned on it, and it’s loud enough to provide a drone in a concert hall. Nowadays, it’s the instrument of choice for accompanying North Indian classical vocalists.

Since the 1920s, small harmoniums have been made in India and Pakistan. They’re widely used to accompany devotional music in India and wherever else Indians have settled, and sadly, have contributed to the diminishing popularity of indigenous Indian instruments.

All Indian instruments are played while sitting on the floor or stage, so the harmonium was placed on the floor or held on the lap. It was usual for Indian homes not to have tables or chairs, so the switch to a home version was quite natural. The player could use his feet to pump the bellows, leaving both hands free to play the keyboard for chordal music (from the West). But Indian music isn’t chordal, so only one hand was necessary to play the keyboard and the other could be used to pump the bellows most of the time.

Hindus and Sikhs often use a harmonium to accompany devotional songs (bhajan or kirtan), and most Hindu or Sikh temples have at least one harmonium, world-wide. The harmonium is often accompanied by the tabla (two small hand drums, side-by-side, much like a detached bongo) and a dholak (a two-headed barrel-shaped hand drum).

Because the harmonium can’t be tuned and is certainly not flexible in tuning while being played, it’s controversial in Qawwali music (Sufi worship music), although it’s often the only instrument providing the music.

Harmoniums were particularly popular during a folk music renaissance in the late 1970s in the European north, particularly in Finland. Folk bands often consisted of a violin, double bass, and harmonium.

There is a 22-microtone harmonium developed by Vidyadhar Oke (dates unknown, but he’s still alive) that can play all the notes required in Indian classical music rather than the more limited 12 tones of the western scale. The fundamental tone and the fifth are fixed, but the other 10 notes of the western scale have two microtones each, one above and one below the pitch. The microtone is produced by pulling out a knob beneath the key.

Another fellow called Bhishmadev Vedi (sorry, again I couldn’t find dates, but I did find a contemporary mention in 1915) changed the instrument by augmenting it with a harp-like string box attached to the top. His disciple, Monohar Chimote (1929-   ), called the instrument a samvadini.

A near relative of the harmonium is a shruti (or sruti) box. This is a simple form of harmonium, where only a single note is meant to be played at a time. A stop allows airflow past the chosen reed, and the bellows are worked with one hand. The shruti box looks something like an office file with accordion pleats, and sounds like a reedy bagpipe drone. It’s used to accompany singing or flute playing, but is too quiet to participate in orchestral compositions. I have one, and I adore it for singing chant against, or teaching a voice student about tuning. It has 12 notes, but the scale is pentatonic (five notes to the scale rather than eight), so some notes are repeated in the octave.

Reed Organ Structure

“Reed organ” is the generic term for a keyboard instrument whose sound is produced by freely vibrating reed tongues, usually without individual resonators, and activated by air pressure or suction.

First, a definition. A reed is considered “free” if it is allowed to vibrate without restraint. So an oboe or a shawm is technically a free reed instrument. One end is attached, and the other vibrates, as a function of air pressure, within the player’s mouth. An instrument like a recorder or a pipe organ is not a free reed. The air passing through the tube of the instrument bounces of the walls and is squeezed through a specific stiff opening in order to produce the note. You could think of it as the difference between blowing across a blade of grass (free reed) and blowing across an open bottle (fixed reed).

Reeds can be made of wood, metal, paper, or cloth. Anything that retains its shape and can be affixed snuggly at one end will do, really. In the case of pump organs and harmoniums, they’re usually metal or wood.

The reed is screwed down tightly at one end and is shaped to fit closely into an aperture in a rigid piece of metal, which lies between a lower wind-chest and an upper wind-chest. Air fills the lower wind-chest and spreads around the reed into the upper wind-chest. The upper wind-chest’s opening is covered by a felted block of wood. When the appropriate key is depressed, the block is raised and the air that surrounds the reed escapes from the upper chest.

When the block is raised, the pressure surrounding the reed changes. There is greater pressure below the reed than above (because of the open block), and the reed is forced upward, with the air rushing past it from the lower chest. Before the pressure in the two chests can equalize, the reed returns to its original position so that the flow of air is stopped. Now the pressure in the lower chest increases until it forces the reed to move out of the way again. This happens very quickly, in the form of a vibration.

The free reed of the pump organ is riveted into a metal frame. The range of vibrations from the reed is affected by damping (being mechanically touched), allowing the sound produced from the various reeds to be somewhat homogenous. Air must be pumped at a minimum speed to get any sound, and pumping too hard silences the reeds. Between the two extremes, it’s possible to get degrees of loudness. For this, there’s a stop, often operated by the player’s knee, that can increase or decrease the volume by changing the speed of the airflow.

The free reed mechanism is identical for both western and Indian harmoniums as well as the reed organ.

A reed organ is similar to an accordion or a concertina in that the reeds vibrate with either suction (a vacuum) or pressure. An accordion accomplishes this through the player’s hands, pulling and pushing on the bellows. A reed organ is usually on the floor (rather than held in the arms), and the bellows might be hidden by a wooden casing.

The bellows are operated by means of a treadle, like an old-fashioned sewing machine. (Maybe that’s where they got the idea for the sewing machine?) Harmoniums are hand pumped. In fancy pump organs, an assistant might be required to maintain the flow of air.

Debain (remember him from the History section?) developed a reservoir so that the action on the treadle was reflected through the feeder bellows directly onto the wind channels, creating crescendo and diminuendo (gradual loudness and softness). At about the same time (the 1840s), L.P.A. Marin de Provine (sorry, I couldn’t find dates) invented the prolongement to sustain notes after the key was released, and percussion, in which small piano hammers struck the reeds as if they were strings, giving a quicker and more precise response than wind.

Pitch depends on air pressure. In bass notes, the fundamental frequency (in hertz) decreases with medium pressure and increases by several hertz at high pressure (the note raises or lowers with more or less wind). High pressure can bend the reed beyond its frame, which limits its use.

The overtones of the reeds are harmonic rather than inharmonic (they’re limited to certain specific notes from the overtone scale), which matters if you’re looking for a rich and full sound. Overtones contribute hugely to whether an instrument sounds in tune, especially when played loudly.

Air pressure affects both pitch and volume. How fast or slow the bellows move determines how loud the notes are. In order to control the difference between pitch and volume, pressure bellows were invented to stabilize the amount of air available to the reeds. Instruments with pressure bellows are harder to build and are often more expensive, so North American and British reed organs and melodeons often use suction bellows and operate by creating (using) a vacuum.

The American reed organ is a foot bellows or electric reed keyboard similar to the harmonium but works on negative pressure (it sucks air through the reeds rather than pushing it through).

German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz (1821-1894) wrote “On the Sensations of Tone” in 1875, which used a harmonium to test a variety of tuning systems. He said that the instrument sustained tones evenly with a piercing character, and that it combined tones in a unique and distinctive way. He considered the vibrators (reeds) to be tunable to a particularly fine degree.

Using two manual keyboards and two stop sets tuned differently, Helmholtz was able to compare Pythagorean tuning (a complex system where all intervals are based on a ratio—it has to do with dividing string lengths, and is WAY too complicated to go into here) to Just tuning (another ratio-based interval system) and Equal tuning (this system is based on equal distances between notes) and observe the “out-of-tune” degrees inherent in each temperament. Helmholtz subdivided the octave into 28 tones so that he could modulate among 12 minor and 17 major keys in Just intonation without creating unpleasant dissonances. Quite difficult to play, this was not a popular arrangement.

Other modified instruments were used for experimental and educational purposes, most notably the generalized keyboard designed by Englishman Robert Holford Macdowell Bosanquet (1841-1912). He built it in 1873 for use with a 53-tone scale (a “normal” chromatic scale has 12 notes). This harmonium had 84 keys, to make fingering convenient.

Lord John William Strutt, Third Baron Rayleigh (1842-1919), an English physicist famous for explaining why the sky is blue, used the harmonium to measure sound frequencies because of its clear overtone patterns that could be counted easily. He approximated Equal temperament intervals and examined their overtone beats. He had to concede, though, that the air pressure had to maintained exactly, or the tone fluctuated.

Orchestral instruments are tuned to 440 Hz, harmoniums are frequently tuned to 438 Hz, accordions are tuned to 442 Hz, and Baroque groups tune to 415 Hz. This is why you don’t see a lot of harmoniums (or accordions) playing with orchestras.

The Name

Common names for reed organs are harmonium, melodeon, lap organ, pump organs, vocalion, seraphine, orgue expressif, cabinet organ, or American organ (used in Europe to distinguish a suction instrument from a pressure instrument). Also aeolina, aeolodicon, euphonion, melodiflute, melophone, organochordium, and physharmonika.

Other reed organs include accordions, concertinas, and harmonicas.

The poikilorgue was Cavaille-Coll’s version of the pump organ, with a range of an octave and a half.

To make things more confusing, in North America and the UK, a reed organ with a pressure bellows is called a harmonium and a suction reed organ is called a melodeon. In Europe, any reed organ is called a harmonium, even if it has a suction bellows.

Asian free-reed instruments include the Chinese sheng, lusheng, hulusi, yu, bawu, and hulusheng, plus the Japanese sho, the Thai khene, and the Korean saenghwang.

In India, the melodeon is what westerners would refer to as a concertina (see the article on accordions for more on these), and a harmonium is the portable chest variety of reed organ described above. Indian Sikhs call the harmonium a vaja or a baja. Some also call it a peti (which means “box”).

The name “harmonium” has been used in England and Europe to refer to reed organs in general. Larger instruments in Germany were sometimes called Kunstharmonium (art harmonium).

Reed Organ Composers

Repertoire for reed organs includes many pieces written for church organ despite their small range and minimal stops. For instance, Johann Sebastian Bach’s (1685-1750) Fantasia in C major (BWV 570) can be played on a four-octave reed organ. Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868) wrote Petite Messe Solennelle for piano and harmonium.

Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) wrote Symphony No. 7 for chamber orchestra, and it was prepared for performance by Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) and his Viennese friends on two violins, viola, cello, bass, clarinet, horn, piano (four hands) and harmonium. They never did perform it, and it wasn’t performed publically for another 60 years.

Franz Liszt (1811-1886) wrote Symphonie zu Dantes Divina Commedia, and Movement II: Purgatorio has a reed organ in it. Cesar Franck (1822-1890) wrote a collection called L’Organiste for harmonium, some with piano accompaniment. Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) wrote Five Bagatelles for two violins, cello, and harmonium (Op. 47). Alban Berg (1885-1935) wrote Altenberg Lieder. Frederic Clay (1838-1889) wrote Ages Ago, with libretto by W.S. Gilbert (1836-1911) of Gilbert and Sullivan fame.

Claude Debussy (1862-1914) wrote Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune, from a chamber ensemble arrangement by Arnold Schoenberg. Gustav Mahler(1860-1911) wrote Symphony No. 8. Richard Strauss (1864-1949) wrote Ariadne aug Naxos, which is an opera that uses a harmonium with many stops, as specified in the score. Edward Elgar (1857-1954) wrote Sospiri, an Adagio for String Orchestra, scored for harp or piano and harmonium or organ, and Vesper Preludes. Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) wrote Hin und zurück, which is an operatic sketch that uses a harmonium on the stage.

The Kronos Quartet produced an album called Early Music, with several pieces that feature a harmonium.

Sigfrid Karg-Elert (1877-1933) was a harmonium virtuoso who also wrote pieces for the instrument.

Reed Organ Players

As the sources used reed organ and harmonium as synonyms, it was hard to distinguish harmonium from reed organ from melodeon, so here’s a nice list of modern folks who’ve used one or the other of them.

Timo Alakotila plays Nordic folk music, as does Milla Viljamaa and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan play Qawwali music (Sufi worship music) in Pakistan. And Sigfrid Karg-Elert was a German harmonium virtuoso.

Tori Amos played a harmonium during her Boys for Pele tour (1996). The Beatles used a harmonium in quite a few recordings, including Doctor Robert, the Inner Light, We Can Work it Out, Cry Baby, Rocky Raccoon, and the final chord in A Day in the Life. Pink Floyd used the harmonium on their The Final Cut album. Radiohead used an antique harmonium on their Motion Picture Soundtrack album on Kid A. They toured with a harmonium throughout 2001 until it broke at a show in Oxford England. Tom Waits plays a harmonium on his albums Swordfish Trombones and Rain Dogs. It also appears on Night on Earth, the soundtrack of an eponymous film. Neil Young plays Like a Hurricane on a harmonium.

Sources:

“Musical Instruments; Their History in Western Culture from the Stone Age to the Present Day,” by Karl Geiringer, translated by Bernard Miall. George Allen & Unwin, Ltd., London, 1949.

“A Dictionary of Early Music; From the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche. Oxford University Press, New York, 1981.

“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979.

“A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010.

“Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1992.

“Early Medieval Music up to 1300,” edited by Dom Anselm Hughes. Oxford University Press, London, 1954.

“Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music,” compiled by Don Michael Randel. Bellknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1978.

“The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,” edited by Stanley Sadie. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1994.

“The Encyclopedia of Music,” by Max Wade-Matthews & Wendy Thompson. Lorenz Books, Leicesteshire, 2012.

“The History of Musical Instruments,” by Curt Sachs. Dover Publications, Inc., Mineola, 2006.

“Musical Instruments of the World,” by the Diagram Group. Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., New York, 1997.

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4 Responses

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  1. Fantastic (and well-researched) post! Harmoniums are still played a little by older folk in Trinidad, where my parents are from. My grandfather on my mother’s side had one that he played.

    vishalicious

    February 19, 2014 at 8:33 pm

    • I have a reed organ with a transposer keyboard. It has 5 slots to move it. Where can I get more information? It was purchased from a country church that was closing down. Thanks for any help.

      Danella Beerda

      July 25, 2014 at 2:08 pm

      • I wish I knew more! I suggest that you contact your local organist’s organization. You’ll find people who are obsessed with this lovely instrument in all the right ways. There’s a great group, the American Guild of Organists (http://www.agohq.org/) that would be a great place to start.

        Melanie Spiller

        July 28, 2014 at 1:19 pm

      • Thanks Melanie. I’ll try the Guild.

        BeeMor#129

        July 28, 2014 at 3:21 pm


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