Piping up for Parkinson’s UK – Letchworth’s David Levett and his homemade street organ

Letchworth's David Levett with his handmade street organ. Picture: Nick Gill

Letchworth's David Levett with his handmade street organ. Picture: Nick Gill - Credit: Archant

A prominent Letchworth figure living with Parkinson’s disease has fought back by building his own street organ and playing it around town to raise money for charity.

Councillor David Levett, head of planning at North Herts District Council, built the 20-note hand-cranked organ over 200 hours in his shed, kitchen and dining room in Rushby Mead.

Last week was Parkinson’s Awareness Week, and the 59-year-old marked the event by taking his organ out into Letchworth’s town centre to play tunes like the William Tell Overture, wartime favourites and ABBA hits in aid of Parkinson’s UK.

David told the Comet he had wanted a fairground-style organ for years, but had never been able to justify the cost of buying one, and always dismissed the idea of building his own as too difficult.

He decided to go for it after Parkinson’s forced him to stop work last year.

He said: “I’m not the sort of person who gives in to things. I want to keep doing what I can for as long as I can. I originally trained as a design and technology teacher, and I always worked in electrics and technology – so this brought a lot of skills I had the basics of together with some new skills.

“Tuning instruments and all that was completely new to me, I like music but I’ve never played an instrument.”

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David decided to base his design on one by John Smith from Flitwick, and started work on January 3 – with the instrument fully working on February 15.

It was built from scratch from parts made by David himself, apart from two circuit boards. It is largely made from materials he had left over or sitting around the house.

These organs traditionally use punched cards or paper rolls to control the valves and play the music through the pipes, but David’s replaces the roll with an electronic MIDI system connected to an SD card that controls the valves.

The music still depends on the hand-cranked bellows and reservoir that generate the air.

“It’s MIDI files,” said David. “The songs are specially arranged. You can play anything in theory, so long as it’s no more than 20 notes with the same sort of sound.

“People’s reactions to it have been really good when I’ve played it in Letchworth – they’re fascinated by it.”

David is interested in building more such organs, and has in mind to add a second set of nine mid-range pipes and a snare drum.

David will be playing again this Saturday – keep an eye out for him in The Wynd and The Arcade from 11am onwards, or to find out more have a look at flickr.com/dlevett.

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