York, PA - "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" just wasn't working. Whistlemaster Don Ryan said that particular number likely won't make it into the annual selection of Christmas songs he plays on the factory whistle at the New York Wire Company in York.
But other songs came out fine. And the concert that takes place 12:15 a.m. every Dec. 25 is going to happen once again, Ryan said.
His rehearsal Wednesday afternoon also doubled as a test for new technology making the concert possible.
The concerts on the factory whistle, once used to signal the start of different shifts, have been going on since 1925. Ryan has been playing them since 1955.
In 2005, the boiler that powered the steam whistle broke. Since then, New York Wire Company and area sponsors had been bringing in a portable boiler.
But New York Wire Company General Manager John Caley, who was at Wednesday's rehearsal, said that was proving expensive, especially in light of the fact that the company doesn't use the whistle for anything except the Christmas concert anymore.
This year, a rented truck outside was pumping compressed air into the whistle to power it.
As in past years, Ryan stood in a small hallway that's usually kept locked, moving a metal bar back and forth and thus adjusting the depth of the sliding valve that produces the different notes.
Assisting him was his son, Scott Ryan, who pointed to the notes on sheet music hanging from a clipboard in front of his father. Also along was one of Don Ryan's trumpet students, 16-year-old Dan Snare of York, whose main job was pulling on a cord that activated the whistle.
Gone was the huge plume of steam that used to appear over the building's roof, as well as the smaller cloud that would engulf Don Ryan as he played.
Caley, stepping in from outside, said the tone was just as loud as it had been in past years. He thought it sounded "cleaner," too, although he admitted it's hard to get a basis of comparison when you hear it only once a year.
Don Ryan found he had trouble getting the whistle to sound some of the high notes. So he likely won't play songs that make heavy use of them this year.
That doesn't mean they'll never be played again.
Mastering the steam whistle comes with a couple of inherent limitations, Ryan said. It wasn't designed to play music, which means it's not a matter of hitting a certain key and getting a certain tone.
Also, he usually gets to play only twice a year -- during the rehearsal and the concert itself -- so he can't take a week or two to fine-tune the sound.
But Ryan's learned to be patient over the decades. He said it took him years to get the sound right for the old steam whistle. The compressed air now powering it is just one more adjustment. The important thing is the concert will take place.
"We'll be able to pull it off this year," Don Ryan said.
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