Week after week, and month after month, the church's ad went unanswered: "Wanted: organist for a large church in San Antonio, Texas." Oh, a smattering of calls came in, but none qualified to play the majestic new pipe organ. Where have all the organists gone?
That's what music schools and other organ related groups have been asking since 1986. That was the year everyone first noticed the declining numbers of students majoring in organ.
Ads for organists often run repeatedly with no response. Working organists might go 50 weeks straight without a weekend off because suitable substitutes are difficult to find. Piano players are often drafted to do the job. Intimidated by the stops and the pedal boards, they do what they can just to get by, hoping a "real" organist will come along soon.
Reasons for Shortage
Several factors have emerged as contributing to the shortage problem.
Low pay and a narrow job market give pause to many potential music majors. The American Guild of Organists (AGO) salary guide recommends a beginning full-time salary of $29,000 for someone holding a service playing certificate. This isn't bad if a church wants a full-time musician and has the money to pay for one.
Usually, full-time positions include more responsibilities, clustered under the title "music director." But such positions are limited in number.
Eileen Guenther, National Councillor for Professional Concerns at the AGO, says a more common need is a small church wanting to pay $8,000 yearly for a 10-hour work week. Organists can earn extra money, of course, by teaching, and playing for weddings and funerals. But in a small church, such opportunities may be few in number. Thus, most organists need another source of income.
Some potential musicians cry, "It's too hard!" and learn to play simpler instruments. The pipe organ would challenge anyone. A medium sized instrument might be endowed with three keyboards, 130 stops (for altering the sound), and a pedal board of 34 wooden slats. "It's sort of like the cockpit of a big plane," explains ELCA member Ina Grapenthin, associate professor of music at Kutztown University, Kutztown, Pennsylvania.
Ellen Maxwell, substitute organist in Blacksburg, Virginia, has observed another indicator. "I see fewer kids taking piano lessons (usually the first step toward organ playing). School is more demanding and they have more extra curricular activities to choose from. I wonder, who will take our places?"
For those eager to learn, finding qualified teachers is difficult. Finding one in a small town can be impossible.
Do We Need Organs?
With all these concerns, one might also ask, "Do we need pipe organs?"
Some churches say no. They have never made room for this largest and loudest of instruments. Often times, recorded music or digital keyboards are the chosen substitutes. What difference could it make?
"Music is an aural acoustic experience," states Father Virgil Funk, president of the National Association of Pastoral Musicians. "When a live instrument and a live voice are performed, biologically, the ear receives that sound in a unique way. It's different than when its amplified or recorded."
Congregations used to hearing the piano week after week don't miss the sound of an organ. Yet comparing the difference in sound of the piano to the organ is like comparing the difference between a barber shop quartet and the Mormon Tabernacle choir. Music from a pipe organ engulfs the church like no other instrument can. As a foundational instrument, it enhances the choir and congregational hymns in a richer way.
New Recruiting Attempts
Various organizations have stepped up efforts to produce more organists.
One group having impact on the problem is the American Guild of Organists. Capturing the energy of the upcoming generation, the AGO challenges teenagers with some musical background, to experience with their feet and fingers the power and majesty of the pipe organ through the "Pipe Organ Encounters" program.
Besides offering individualized instruction, students get a chance to peer into the shadowy insides of the instrument to see how it works.
"The kids become enthralled by the whole thing," says James Thomashower, executive director of the AGO. "We have kids who have returned six or more times. I believe many have gone on to study at the college level."
Reaching even farther, the AGO seeks to bring the enthusiastic curiosity of little kids to the bench. The "Pipe Works" program targets children in grades K-6 with content similar to "Pipe Organ Encounters."
With a commercial interest, Church Organ Systems of Baldwin, Wisconsin, presents adult seminars that last from two hours to four days. These sessions are offered throughout the United States and Canada for a nominal fee of $25-$35.
One of Baldwin's most enthusiastic clinicians, Ina Grapenthin, travels nearly every week to present these interactive sessions. Her focus is on those wanting to play the organ, and those wanting to improve their skills.
Because the organist is often the music director with various responsibilities, Grapenthin also teaches interpersonal skills. She urges participants to work with their ministers in planning the church service, thus knowing before the service, the Scripture reference and the sermon topic. This helps organists pick out appropriate music, rather than playing "Blessed Assurance" one too many times.
While these seminars play a vital role, not everyone can attend. Is it possible to teach at a long distance? Intrigued by this concept, Ms. Grapenthin has recently published an innovative self-teaching method book for adults. She plans to pair this book with a set of videos, or some kind of computer technology.
Duane Kuhn, president of Church Organ Systems, says: "I think people who do commit to being church organists do so because of their dedication to the church and their love of music."
Grapenthin, who is also director of music at St. John Lutheran Church, Kutztown, Pennsylvania, agrees. "A church musician is a different kind of musician. You see yourself as kind of an agent of the gospel. You understand what you're selling as far as the gospel is concerned, and you do it through the medium of music."
Church leaders should not take this dedication for granted. "The last person uplifted in the ministry chain is the organist," reports Grapenthin.
Maureen Jais-Mick, former director of Professional Relations with the AGO, agrees. "In my 25 years in church music, I have observed congregations celebrate the children who enter the ministry. I rarely see a congregation that encourages its sons and daughters to pursue sacred music as a career."
Grapenthin urges pastors and church members to voice appreciation to their musicians regularly. With such encouragement, organists are more likely to invest more time in mastery of their musical skills. As a result, the whole church benefits musically.
The struggle to bring more organists to the bench is not over. But through education and encouragement, the numbers are starting to climb. Jais-Mick believes that churches willing to make a serious commitment to their music programs will find qualified organists.
As for the church in San Antonio, a highly qualified organist was hired after a four-month search: that is, 16 choir rehearsals, and 32 regular church services later.
Paula Syptak Price is a free-lance writer and choir member from Herndon, Virginia.
Little Money for an Organist? Try These Options
If your church budget is stretched too far to hire a full time organist, consider the following options:
1. Set up a trust fund or memorial fund to provide the salary.
2. Share an organist (and the salary) with another church. One church may have to change its meeting time, since the organist can't be in two places at once.
3. Check the public and private schools for music teachers who play the organ.
Filled with Wonder
"The playing of an organ fitted with pedals requires an extraordinary degree of coordination, and the sight of a gifted organist playing one of Bach's great preludes and fugues always fills me with wonder at not only the musicianship but also the sheer physical dexterity of the performer, using all four appendages in wondrous coordination." — Norman W. Shur, 2000 Most Challenging and Obscure Words (New York: Galahad Books, 1994), p. 489.