Where Are All The Organists?

In that space between the physical world and the intangible mystery of beauty we only know for moments at a time, there is the hierarchy of needs.  Music is one of those needs, circuitously networked with our being.  It is part of our everyday lives, it is primal, energizing, it moves our body, mind, spirit and soul, it tells our story, and most importantly, there is a heart behind it and its creation.  It is one of the most powerful forces in the world which can inspire love, rage, revolutions and passion (suffering).  Out of what we live and believe, there is music.

Playing the organ as a profession is quickly disappearing and even organ programs at colleges are dwindling or closing.  Most organ clubs and guild memberships have an average age of about 60 so there is a strong possibility that in ten years, fifty percent of the organist population will be gone or retired. 

There are several reasons why young people don’t choose the organ as a musical instrument to study.  First, most people don’t own or have access to an organ.  Most churches have organs but they also have policies which deter people from obtaining access to them. 

A second reason is we don’t have any mainstream “rock star” organists out there playing the instrument and inspiring people to explore it.  There was a day when Virgil Fox took his touring organ to college campuses and wowed the students with laser lights, fog, his dizzying technique and unique interpretation.  Cameron Carpenter is our newest star of the organ world but he moved to Germany and tours in Europe and Asia where organ music is more appreciated.  I spoke with an organ builder a few weeks ago and he said that there are more pipe organs being built in China right now than anywhere else in the world. 

A third reason is the antithesis to the second reason.  There are so many bad organists out there who are either dull, uninspired, really pianists or have been trained to be boring and predictable.  Some friends attended an installation recital of a new four manual Allen a few months ago and while the organist was technically proficient, his interpretation, registration and repertoire were dry, predictable, uninspired and esoteric. 

A fourth reason is that organs have been replaced in many churches by pianos, keyboards and guitars so many kids today never get to hear an organ, let alone a good one nor someone good playing at one.  I was inspired to take up the organ because the Roman Catholic Church near my home thankfully closed.  There we only had an out of tune folk group with guitars which did nothing to inspire me.  My parents then took us to a Wesleyan Church where I first heard the organ and fell in love. 

A fifth reason is that churches tend to hire organ players rather than liturgists.  An organist who worships the organ and is hired to come in, do his job, then leave, will actually do little to inspire a congregation and promote growth.  An organist whose ministry is people and music is a vehicle to that ministry, will flourish and inspire the masses.  From there the potential for growth in a parish is unlimited.

Organist salaries are another reason people don’t take up the instrument and it is time for churches to recognize this.  Pastors can make anywhere from $40k to $90k depending on the size of the church.  Pastors can also be boring, uninspired and have little imagination or even the skills for promoting growth.  I worked 15 years in a Roman Catholic church and the priest took his homilies from several books of canned homilies.  Every three yeas I heard the same one.  In fact, because of that and I took notes each week, I was able to choose music that corresponded perfectly with his homilies.  He thought it was the Holy Spirit at work when in actuality it was his his uninspired predictability which made my planning capabilities genius in his eyes. 

A church recently advertised for an organist and they were paying $11k per year and for qualifications they listed that the applicant must have a Masters degree.  Do you know how much a Masters Degree costs?  This and many other churches are so out of touch with reality.  Their second flaw in logic was in thinking that someone who spent time in a classroom is qualified to pastorally minister or is even a good musician.  A good musician usually spent more time behind a keyboard than in a classroom.  A pastoral musician loves people more than music and churches don’t realize that that passion, or suffering, is reflected in their music.  Much as a saint was first a criminal or an opponent of war was a person who fought in one and saw how futile and destructive it was.

When people walk into a church on Sunday, they don’t hear the pastor.  They hear the organ.  In fact, the organ sets and maintains the mood and energy of the entire service.  When people leave a church service, they aren’t humming the homily.   The organist salary should be at least equal to that of the pastor.  Music has the power to move, inspire, motivate, energize and affect emotions.  A homily can, too, but how often has that happened in many churches? 

I know of a Presbyterian pastor who preached the most boring homilies and for the five years he had served that church, he lost members and rarely came out of his office to minister to the community.  The organist did more to attract people and promote growth in that parish in one year than the pastor did in five.  Which person do you think was more valuable to the church?   A good organist doesn’t play music, they inhabit it, live it, breath it, share it and they don’t seek praise or worship for themselves.  They seek to inspire praise and worship.  Some pastors do, too, but they often resort to gimmicks and other people – such as the organist, to do it for them.

Raising the salary isn’t the answer, however.  More money will only attract more bad organists looking to make more money.  If they abandon their current community for more money, they will eventually abandon you, for more money.  I recently encountered an organist who not only gave her church less than a weeks notice on Christmas Eve, but she lied to them telling them that she was quitting because the commute was too much for her.  She however took a higher paying job just as far away.  A church shouldn’t just blindly raise the salary looking for better musicians.  They need to raise their expectations along with the salary.  They need to assess what they want to achieve as a church and how music can help achieve those goals.  If it is to have quality music, then by all means, worship music.  If it is to promote growth, they need to ask how can music do that.  If their musical goal is to minister to the community, to heal and serve, if the church wants to be an organism – not an organization, a movement – not a monument, if it does not want to be part of the community – but the whole community, if the church wants to make society uncomfortable and like yeast, unsettle the mass around it, if the church wants to make the invisible kingdom visible – then, they need to hire the right person.  That right person isn’t necessarily influenced by money but, you don’t want them struggling to survive when it should be their job to struggle to help the church to survive.

Indeed, the organ is the King of Instruments.  Pipe organs, the great breathing giants of the keyboard world, swelling and singing and trumpeting and are capable of a vast array of dynamics, tone colors, articulations, sweeping crescendos, joy, praise, adoration, supplication and contrition.  It can be at once labyrinthine, elemental or sonic.  It can rumble and rattle the pews, walls and floor or, be still, quiet and sweet.  With all its stops pulled it can rival the overtones of a screaming guitar at a rock concert.  No other instrument is as versatile as the organ.  It is an instrument capable of augmenting, supporting and leading congregational singing or delicately following a soloist.  That is why it is well suited for church use, much more than a guitar or piano. 

Pipe organs are a part of the building.   They are physically and sinuously networked  from the basement to the rafters of the structure.  Pipe organs cause the building to stir and vibrate and it wrests sleeping motes from their settled places.  The organ breaths and exhales the same air as the people in the pews and can provide vibrations to the seat of an un-padded wooden pew.  Electronic organs are sufficient facsimiles thereof and capable of the same if installed properly.  When played to their fullest and daily, a pipe organ can also scare off bats, birds, mice, carpenter ants and homeless people residing within its chambers.

Why are many organists boring?  First, they are trained to sound alike.  Deviation from traditional playing, techniques and registration is frowned upon by those incapable of such exploration.  That is one of the reasons Virgil and Cameron are the superstars of the organ industry; they’re different.  They give the listener something new to hear especially on works from the traditional literature that the audience can recognize.  Many organists only play music that they personally like while the average listener may not be able to get into or appreciate that style or idiom. 

A lot of our Sunday organists can be quite boring to listen to and it is not their fault.  Either the music they are capable of playing is banal, they don’t have the courage or imagination to try something new and exciting, or, they don’t have the time to tackle works beyond their current capabilities because their week is spent trying to earn a living that the church isn’t giving them.  Many organists don’t have the imagination to test the organ or literature to its boundaries so, they settle for easy pieces which are generally insipid.  They also don’t have other good organists to listen to or interact with for inspiration.  The organ community can be quite prissy, backstabbing, arrogant, insecure, possessive and exclusive.  They fit right in to many of our churches.

It is my opinion that every organist at every skill level should be offering a recital at least once each month.  If they don’t have the time to work up a program each month, invite a neighboring organist to do half the recital or all of it.  There is also nothing wrong with repeating repertoire.  We love hearing our favorite songs on the radio and we don’t buy a CD to only listen to it once.  There is nothing wrong with repeating music that you like and the congregation likes.  There is also nothing wrong with changing how we play something.  We don’t have to play the same piece exactly the same every time.  From day to day we are not the same person. 

An organ recital has four types of audience members:  The person who loves the sound of the organ, organists and other musicians, people who love music and the man dragged there by his wife.

Of the organists, there are three types of them:  Organists who play for themselves,  those who play for other musicians, and those who play for the audience.  It is the last one who generally has the largest following yet, other organists don’t like them.

It is difficult to find a balance to please everyone but knowing our audience is very important.  I love the music of Shoenberg and I played one of his pieces – once.  At least ten people came up to me afterward and said that they hated that piece.  A few others commented that it was their least favorite piece in the program.  If I play a Bach piece which I enjoy, I may get polite applause.  If I play the William Tell Overture and they jump to their feet, which piece do you think I may repeat at the next recital?  Why wouldn’t I?

I once had an organist criticize my playing because I made every effort to use all four manuals of the organ.  She said I could have made a more efficient use of the instrument’s memory and pistons.  Instead of reaching way up to the Solo manual I could have coupled it down to the Choir or Great and avoided an uncomfortable stretch.   For you non-organists, the best analogy I can come up with is instead of going down to your basement to wash and dry your clothes, put your washer and dryer in your bedroom for more efficiency and you won’t have to climb the stairs. 

I project all my recitals on a large screen so the audience can see what I’m doing.  They like to see me reach for different keyboards and the more manual gymnastics I employ, the more intriguing and interesting it is to the non-musician.  Plus, it challenges me to be more creative.  I personally don’t play for other organists, I play for the man dragged there by his wife.  If I can please him, the rest will follow suit.

I recently participated in an American Guild of Organists trip to visit three large pipe organs where we got to crawl around inside each of the instruments and play them.  One organist took about 15 minutes to register a rather boring classical piece and then he played it – all of it.  When it was my turn, I threw on some predictable stops and played something just to get a feel for the action of the organ.  I could hear it when other organists played it so I didn’t really need to play it.  The least trained organist of us all played two verses of a hymn.  Every four bars he would add stops and at the end of the hymn, the organ was at its fullest and for the last chord he pulled out a bombastic pedal stop and the whole building shook.  We all applauded not because he was the best, but because he did the unexpected, and he didn’t play to impress us, or to challenge himself, or to show off his repertoire, he simply took the organ out for a spin to see what it could do.  Every piece an organist plays on Sunday should be just that, something to test the limits of the instrument, the music and themselves.  If we don’t, we risk the loss of our audience and congregations.   

That said, in many churches, a congregation will sing much better if the organist stays home.  Organists can be boring, devoid of excitement, rhythm, variety and horrible at leading sung prayer.  You get what you pay for.  A lot of what our organists actually stifle sung prayer.  Organists can play too loud, too soft, too mushy, too unpredictable  and one mistake can be very unforgiving. Some organists like to show off on the hymns with creative reharmonizations and extemporaneousness but those meanderings tend to stifle vocal participation from the non-musician in the pew who doesn’t know what is going on and needs the organ to be a foundation of support rather than it wandering off in a fugue of confusing harmony and counter-melody. 

The organ is losing favor in many churches because we hire “anyone” to play them.  A church should hire a liturgist who plays the organ before they hire a pianist who plays the organ.  Predominately piano player organists are people who want the extra income or they seek performance praise, and they often think that a keyboard is just a keyboard.  Anyone can paint, but will a museum display the work of uninspired painters in their galleries?  Why do our churches?

I love the organ but, I don’t worship it.  Music is not my ministry but a vehicle to ministry.  When my mother was dying and in a morphine induced comma, I sat by her bedside and softly sang “Amazing Grace” and other hymns. Would it have been great to have a four manual 64 rank Cassavant with a 32’ bombard at my disposal?  No.  That was not the time or place.  But, in everyday communal adoration, contrition, thanksgiving and supplication happening in our churches, the organ is a great tool surpassed by no other instrument.  Now if only our organists would play it with adoration, contrition, thanksgiving and supplication.  Adoration leaves no room for pride.

A church in search of an organist should ask themselves the following questions:  Do they want an organist or an artist.  Do they want a musician or a pastoral musician.  Do they want a musician or a liturgical musician.  Do they want someone to play their liturgy or play liturgy with excitement and joy.  Do they want to grow a music ministry or a church.  Do they want their church to be a monument in the community or a museum.  Are they willing to pay a salary to get someone of unmitigating dedication or someone looking for the next job willing to do only what is in their contract.  You get what you pay for and if your church isn’t growing, something is missing.

-Malcolm Kogut.

To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.-Richard Buckminster Fuller.


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