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