The issue of an ever-decreasing supply of trained, skilled organists is a serious one indeed. It even caught the attention of a leading national publication, "USA Today." It is worthy fodder for discussion! Thanks to Sharron Lyon, Lifeway Christian Resources, for bringing this article to our attention.

--RIchard Huggins, Moderator, "AccompaList"
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"Who will play God's music?"

By Cathy Lynn Grossman, USA TODAY
Sept. 5, 2000
©COPYRIGHT 2000 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.
Thanks to USA Today for granting permission to reprint this article.


The organ, the king of instruments, no longer rules in countless Christian sanctuaries.

"Churches are losing their music," says music professor Karen Black of Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa.

Benches stand empty in country churches and city cathedrals, across denominations, across the country.

Michael Silhavy, director of music for the Archdiocese of Minneapolis-St. Paul, has scant time to talk about the shortage of organists in 222 Catholic parishes. He has to fill in playing at funerals.

"It can take months to fill a position, and a church may not get many choices," says Bob Anderson, who runs the placement service for the American Guild of Organists (AGO) chapter in the Twin Cities.

Anderson sees 24 vacancies, a record high, right now, including churches with magnificent instruments such as Central Lutheran Church, Hamlin United Methodist Church and St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral.

People able ? and willing ? to play sacred music are hard to find, hard to keep and, some say, hard to please.

A counterpoint of conflicts underlies the problem.

The organists complain of measly pay and, worse, musically ignorant clergy.

"One organist in the country might make $100,000 at a 'big steeple' church, and the rest are lucky to earn $30,000. The old refrain is 'We can't pay you much, but we get lots of weddings,' which means you have no weekends, no life, working 36 hours straight," says Jared Jacobsen, who plays the world's largest outdoor organ in services and concerts at the Chautauqua Institution in western New York every summer.

Most of the jobs are part time. "There's not a lot of incentive for a $100-a-week job playing Thursday night rehearsals and once or twice on Sundays in carpeted churches with terrible acoustics," says Robert Plimpton, civic organist for the city of San Diego, who also plays for Faith Presbyterian Church.

"Trained church musicians are all fired up to give glory to God through our art, and it's not what the clergy want," says Randall Egan, a retired organist in Minneapolis. "They're jealous because music expresses what words cannot. They don't recognize our vocation."

Silhavy frets: "I've seen organists replaced by recordings for the congregation to sing with. It's karaoke worship. What's next? Charlton Heston reading the Scripture?"

Clergy and church administrators respond that organists resist contemporary worship styles .

"They are artists, and we respect this, but the music has to be part of a larger vision," says Joe Bjordal, director of communications for St. Mark's in Minneapolis.

The cathedral has been hunting for the right permanent replacement since its organist and choirmaster of 27 years retired and new clergy took over the cathedral two years ago. An interim organist plays most services, but St. Mark's has experimented with a Spanish guitarist during Communion and a jazz pianist on Pentecost Sunday.

"The new dean thought that, to put more people in the pews, there needed to be changes to allow a greater diversity of musical styles, including some contemporary. We just had our first jazz service in 142 years. We are trying to push the envelope," Bjordal says.

Fred Swann, organist for First Congregational Church in Los Angeles, has heard that song before.

"Whenever there's any kind of problem at church, it's usually the music that gets blamed," Swann says.

"This has gone on forever. Even Bach had to take constant criticism from his congregation: too long, too florid, too this, too the other. I would tell a young person considering this profession now, 'Don't give up your day job yet,'" says Swann, who played for decades at some of the nation's most famous churches, including Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif., and Riverside Church in Manhattan.

"The points of tension are common in any church, large or small. Who chooses the music? Who plans the program?" says Wartburg College's Black, who gets constant calls from Iowa towns looking for help. She runs workshops for organists around the state to educate them not only on the sacred music repertory, but also on the fine points of "working with the theology and culture of the church community. Organists have to be sensitive to the congregations as well as to the music."

After the organist for Lutheran Church of Abiding Presence in Burke, Va., left for a larger post at another church, the congregation searched for months without applicants, music director Bob Lansell says.

"And I wasn't surprised. I wouldn't expect a top-flight professional organist to come to this job. It's not an organ a great musician would hunger to play. It's a small electronic organ donated from someone's home about 30 years ago. The job is only part time and doesn't pay that much. We finally found someone through pure luck. A man walked in, just walked in, who was new to the area. His forte is the piano, but he can do the job for us.

"And he intends to keep his day job."

One answer to the empty organ benches lies with people who never intend to be full-time players.

College students are beginning to choose double majors, taking up the organ while studying math, science or languages, says Doug Cleveland, a music professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. They see the music as a pleasurable way to support themselves through college and guarantee part-time work anywhere.

Laura Parkhurst of Wayzata, Minn., says her hometown congregation was so eager to grow its own organists that she got two years of free lessons at the United Church of Christ. Now a sophomore at Northwestern , she's charting a career in arts administration and marketing, but the organ is the sound of faith to her.

Not so for many other young people.

A whole generation has grown up hearing no organ music -- or bad organ music, "that dead, mooing sound," says Kim Kasling, organist for the Cathedral Basilica of St. Mary's in Minneapolis and professor of music and liturgical studies at St. John's University.

"Before the '60s, any church you entered, from the most liturgical to the most evangelical, had a fairly traditional approach to music: an organ, a chorus and soloists. Once the counterculture swept through, churches experienced a drop-off in membership. The protest movement came along with guitars and folk singers. The clergy turned to forms of blended worship with praise bands and music that is outright anti-traditional," Kasling says.

The National Association of Schools of Music showed stagnating numbers of students majoring in organ performance in undergraduate programs, and a drop from 194 doctoral students in 1993-94 to 158 four years later, according to the American Guild of Organists.

Still, Kasling hears some up notes.

A few seminaries are enlarging and enhancing music training. At St. Paul's seminary, courses teach music-based liturgies, and organ majors at St. John's are prepared to be directors of liturgy and choirs and to manage contemporary music groups as well as organ-backed choirs, Kasling says.

Many evangelical churches that go for "praise bands, movie screens and digital everything," he says, have found a way to include the grand old instrument.

When Wooddale Baptist Church in Eden Prairie, Minn., installed its new pipe organ in 1990, it put in both a traditional mechanical ("tracker") five-keyboard console and a digital four-keyboard console that can play the same 7,500 pipes from anywhere on the front platform. Still, it's only played during two of the five weekend services.

Organists have made it their mission to reach a new generation of players, says James Thomashower, executive director of the AGO.

The guild has created a nationwide network of week-long summer workshops called Pipe Organ Encounters, offering scholarships to promising youths to study sacred music with master teachers .

Josh Stafford, 11, of Jamestown, N.Y., took up the organ at a workshop last year and within a month was playing the full Episcopal service at St. Luke's.

This summer has been the most successful yet: Seven Encounters from coast to coast have enrolled 25 to 40 students each. But success also is measured by the great number of earlier Encounters graduates who have stayed in the field to become teachers, recitalists ? and church musicians.

Says Kasling, "Nothing substitutes for that grand sound that shakes the flagstones, a tidal wave that surrounds and uplifts you."