How the church organ survives and thrives

So while I was away, this article popped up and was forwarded to me by a former coworker, discussing the state of the church organ, especially in America. I generally don’t like doing posts where you quote something then comment on it, but that’s the best way to handle this. So here we go.

The growth in praise-band led services, combined with a nationwide shortage of qualified organists, is prompting many congregations to leave pipe organs out of their new construction plans.

Oh, praise bands. A lot of megachurches use them and simply eschew the organ. And I don’t doubt that a lot of people like them. But let’s just add the parody now:

This is the issue I have with using praise bands at church services (and I believe it’s generally a bad idea for Mass). A lot of it is too hard to sing and not particularly deep. The production values are relatively high, and the earnestness is there, but the actual soul is missing.

The pipes, the pipes are calling.

See, for me, an organ makes it clear that you’re in a worship space (or, uh, “church”) where you are reminded that there’s something bigger than yourself out there. It lends itself to a sacred atmosphere oriented toward God. No matter how well a praise band is structured or how nicely done its songs are, it just feels more like a party or a rock concert than actual worship.

The pipe organ, which dates back to the third century B.C., “has always been the choice for churches who want one musician to fill the room with sound,” South Dakota organ builder John Nordlie said.

Although electronic and digital instruments can try to emulate the sound of wind being pushed through pipes, “they will never match the sound of the pipe organ,” Nordlie said.

Weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeell, maybe. I dunno. I play a Rodgers digital at my other parish, and it’s very well made and fools a lot of people into thinking the pipes are somewhere. On the other hand, I’ve played an older digital organ at another parish, and it’s awful. It doesn’t replicate the church organ sound at all, and it sounds more like the keyboard from “Bozo’s Circus,” with a clearly synthesized sound that kind of floats. I think digital organ creation has gotten to the point where if you’re on a budget and can’t afford pipes, if you pick right, you’ll get something that isn’t easy to distinguish from the real thing, save for the absence of that “whoosh.”

On a side note: it’s weird to be playing an instrument like that Rodgers that has to be booted up, because it’s basically a computer.

Another factor contributing to the organ’s decline is a fewer number of musicians qualified to sit behind the consoles. The pipe organ is a complex instrument, and playing it well requires intensive training and practice.

But playing what congregations need (as opposed to organ performance) doesn’t take as much as you think. Can you play piano? Yes? Then you can play organ. You’ll need to train yourself to be able to play the foot pedals at the same time as you play the keyboards (the feel of the manual keyboards are a little different from the piano, too), and you’ll need to acquaint yourself with the sound of an organ so that you can figure out how to determine what settings of the organ are best for a particular hymn or piece. You can also add a few simple preludes, interludes, and postludes, and as you get comfortable, you can ratchet up the difficulty. (And there’s all sorts of stuff on the Internet that can offer you some tips, tricks, and simple pieces for getting started.) But yes, I think most keyboardists could teach themselves the basics of organisting, and most smaller churches would be glad to have someone who gives their effort toward this.

Aultman urges organists who want to make a living to embrace contemporary styles. He suggests that organists trained to playing only off of sheet music to learn play off chord charts like Nashville studio musicians.
“My advice to organists is, ‘Don’t be a snob,'” he said. “You’re not going to probably find a position where you can play all Bach preludes and fugues for the bulk of your work.”

One time, a fellow church organist, who actually got his degree in organisting and is now music director at a church nearby, posted to Facebook something along the lines of whether anyone noticed that he played a Mendelssohn sonata today. No, dude. Play the music because it sounds good. You’re not doing this so that other people praise you. (If they do, yay. But that’s not why you’re here.)

Anyway, let’s look at an underlying key of this article: why does the organ survive, even as tastes change and trends change? Its versatility is the key. It can be used to play almost anything, with a little ingenuity:

I can’t speak for other faiths, of course, but in the Catholic Church, there’s plenty of good contemporary stuff that is either written for organ or can be adapted to organ.

It’s also efficient — that much sound, only one person. Take that, 12-person praise band!

And it’s effective. A good organist (who remembers to play the melody so that the congregation can sing) makes things much easier for a congregation who wants to sing. Guitarists can’t do that.

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