Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Good Luck Finding an Organist

For fully one third of the history of Christendom, the pipe organ has led the praises of God's people as they assemble to sing hymns, chant the liturgy, and hear the choir.  In the last fifty years or so the pipe organ has been supplemented by electronic substitutes of varying quality but which still require the same basic skills of the organist.  Now, it seems, many organs have gone silent due to a lack of people skilled to play them.  Well, actually, it is a lack of skilled people who are willing to put in the hours for what has become a low paying and high maintenance job.

This subject is personal to me.  I served as organist in my home parish (14 rank Estey tracker), in college, substituted in several parishes, played every Sunday at one service on vicarage, and still fire up the pipe organ from time to time (mostly for my own enjoyment).  In addition, I have been instrumental in obtaining a new organ (pipe or pipe electronic) in every parish I have served -- from vicarage through this present congregation.  So when I read a report on the tough times faced by congregations in search of an organist, I read every word.

The ABC News story begins in Oakland, Nebraska, not far from my home town.  The organ at the First United Methodist Church in this largely Swedish community has not been played since their 80 year old organist "retired" almost one year ago.  The story moves to Redeemer Lutheran Church, St. Clair Shores, Michigan, and a seminary classmate reports that this 400 member church is scheduling substitutes because they cannot find a permanent replacement for their last organist.

In our own case, we went through a similar journey.  We had two organists when I arrived but both of them left (following their military spouses) leaving us without an organist for quite some time.  We eventually found a temporary part-time organist for one service and depended upon pianists for the rest of the services.  We advertised and advertised without success.  After purchasing a used grand piano from a piano performance student at the local college, we got our first "permanent" organist -- though he had never played the organ before but was a gifted and quick learner.  When college was coming to an end, we advertised up the hilt for our part-time position and had a few applicants.  Nearly all were really looking for a full-time position which we were not capable of (at the time).  The applicant whom we hired turned out to be the perfect match and his interest and enthusiasm have multiplied our music program and helped us acquire two pipe organs (one, 65 ranks for the sanctuary, and another 12 ranks for the chapel).  But I still fear for the long term future.

The cause of this organist crisis is not primarily due to the growing number of churches using a praise band, as some would like to say.  We have a large number of organists but only 1% of all the positions are full-time and the pay is abysmal.  Both part-time and full-time organists face a big job description and responsibility in the worship service for what ends up being minimum wage or less.  Too many congregations are trying to be cheap in an area where you get what you pay for and you go begging when that pay is sub-standard.  I, for one, believe that the most important budget line in the congregation's spending plan is the section that covers worship -- staff, benefits, music, maintenance, and supplies.  Worship is the heart from which all other aspects of the congregation's life and work flow.  If that heart is well cared for and strong, the rest of the congregation's life and work will probably be strong.  If that is weak, the whole rest of who the congregation is and what that congregation does will surely suffer.

This is not about organists.  This is about putting our money where our mouth is.  We say worship is the most important activity, the central focus of our Christian lives as individuals and our life together as the people of God.  Why is it that we are so unwilling to pay a living wage to those who are key leaders in the worship services -- specifically the organist, parish musician, choir director, or cantor?  I actually heard of one demented Pastor who, in his search to make the parish financially viable, decided to make the organist position an hourly position -- with the clock commencing at the time the organist began playing and ending with the final note of Sunday morning (or other service) was sounded.  It would be like paying this Pastor for the time in pulpit but refusing to consider sermon prep part of his official duties.  What is wrong with us sometimes?

It is certainly true that there are less pianists out there as a potential pool of organists.  It is certainly true that some congregations are giving up organ for "keyboard" and the praise band.  It is certainly true that many congregations are financially hard pressed on all fronts.  I am not denying this.  But if our priorities are centered upon the worship service, some of these factors might fade away in our struggle to find someone to lead God's people in praise from the organ bench.  Why not offer to pay for organ lessons for a piano student (youth, teenager, or adult)?  Why not check the salary and expectations and make sure you are not asking for the impossible when employing an organist?  Why not consider job sharing and adjusting the service times to allow those congregations with one Sunday service to share and therefore provide adequate compensation for some organist who would need only one part-time job to make it a go?

Lastly, and then I will get off my soapbox, the organ is uniquely qualified to lead congregational song.  We do not have well trained singers in the pew and so they need certain and solid melody to encourage their singing.  The piano, being an acoustic instrument, does not hold the sound and emphasize melody in the same way an organ does.  Praise bands are great if you want people to listen to music but they are generally ill equipped to lead hymns (and most of the time they simply serve as back up to the lead solo singers -- generally female -- who sing center stage where the focus is on them and less on the song).  The organ can be a solo instrument and some organists act as if it is all about them and their sound,  but they are few in comparison to the total number of organists.  Think about the role of music within the Lutheran Divine Service tradition, the high place of hymns and sung liturgy, and the theological underpinnings of music within the liturgy -- we can either gripe about it or do something about it to make sure that the people hear the sound that calls them to sing the praise of Him who called us from darkness into His marvelous light...  Try going a few weeks without any music at all and you may begin to realize what you are missing. . .


Anonymous said...

We are a Midwest congregation in
Illinois and pay our organist $50
per service which comes to $100 per
Sunday. This is probably too low
and doesn't reflect her true worth.

Rev. Allen Bergstrazer said...

There are several directions to go to answer this question; first since the 1940's we've been a nation that has steadily moved away from producing its own music to being consumers of music. Prior to WWII and the prevalence of affordable records and radio, if you wanted music in your home you had to make it yourself. This meant that the average person was accustomed to hearing themselves sing and be accompanied by a musical instrument. In the 1950's the split began between claassical music, church music and popular music became a matter of cultural identity. Or the 'you have your music and I have mine' dichotomy became a right. In 60 or so years we've gone from playing a musical instrument and singing along as a necessity to a sign of a well rounded education, to a luxury to something that only nerds do. Most music in some way is derivative of its predecessor, but lack of musical instruction and the ability for anyone to 'create' through computer software, it has become so derivative as to make most 'new' popular music to be a banal shadow, vaguely familiar to something we've heard before too many times.

Contemporay music is insisted upon in a worship setting because that is what we Baby Boomers (and our offspring) have been doing since we reached over the front seat and changed the channel in the car on our family trip to Yosemite. Music is seen as an expression of individuality and we will insist on having our music our way or we'll walk away. Boomers especially want to continue to be what we were in our 20's and having our music is one way we do so, it gives us a false sense of relevance. And rather than a walk out the church yields. I also think one of the reasons why contemporary worship tends to appeal to people isn't the music itself but because it appeals to us as consumers of music rather than makers of music. We prefer to listen rather than sing. There is a difference between clapping your hands, swaying to the music and repeating a refrain ad nauseum and singing a hymn in unision with 100 plus other people, as the hymn was written. Often contemporary worship is sold as encouraging 'participation.' That is not far from the truth, not because the historic liturgy bars participation, but because many contemporary americans (of every age) look at a hymn in a hymnal the way a holstien looks at a new gate; i.e., little or no idea what to do with it.

And so the organ as an instrument is as foreign to most suburban middle class Americans as it can be. The only time many young people hear Bach's Prelude and Fugue in D is at a Halloween haunted house, and when they hear it as pre-service music in church it makes them giggle. Mention the word 'organ' and it conjures up the sound of the ubiquitous Hammond B-3 with a tremulant set on 'coma,' not Paul Manz' glorious improvisations on "St. Anne."

If the music of the church is to continue beyond a class at a university, or a recording in our iPod we're going to have to educate, educate, educate our congregations. We cannot take anythig for granted, we cannot assume that our members know what it all means, that they get it simply because it's all that they've ever known. We need to have good reasons for what we do, and we have to teach and inculcate the beauty and the joy of liturgical worship and the music of the church. That means we should also be open to improvements, and have a high standard for worship, it should be the very best we can do, not pandering to the lowest common demominator.
There now, I've vented long enough.

Rev. Allen Bergstrazer said...

There are many directions one can go to address this problem. First, prior to the 1940’s and the prevalence of radio and recorded music if you wanted music of any kind in your home you had to make it yourself; which meant hearing the sound of our own voices singing along. After WWII and on into the 1950’s the split between popular music, classical music and church music grew and became a part of our culture. Eventually the ‘you have your music and I have mine’ dichotomy became a right. In 60 years or so we’ve gone from making your own music out of necessity to being able to play the piano as a sign of a well rounded education, to music lessons as a luxury to music instruction of any kind being a tedious chore relegated to nerds.

We Baby boomers in particular have been insisting on our music since we reached over the front seat and changed the channel on the family trip to Yosemite. We (and our offspring) still insist on our music, because it is a sign of our individuality and personality and we will inflict this on the church or we’ll walk. Our music is the way we cling to the past and pretend that we’re just as young as we’ve always been. Yet I think the fact that we are predominantly consumers of music rather than producers of music is what makes contemporary worship appealing. It suits the listener more than the participator. There is a difference between clapping your hands, swaying and singing a praise refrain ad nauseaum and singing a hymn in unison with 100 plus other people. Contemporary music is often sold because it encourages ‘participation’ and that I think is not too far from the truth. It is not that liturgical worship bars participation, but that when modern Americans see a hymn in a hymnal and grapple with the meter of the text, the notation of the tune its rather like observing a Holstein encountering a new gate. They just aren’t sure what to do with it all.

Needless to say the organ as an instrument is completely foreign. I would venture to guess that the only time most young people hear Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in D is at a haunted house on Halloween. And when they hear that same music in church on Sunday it makes them giggle. Mention ‘organ music’ and it conjures up the sound of the ubiquitous Hammond B3 with its tremulant set on ‘coma’ not the glorious sounds of Paul Manz’ improvisations on “St. Anne.”

If the liturgy and music of the church is to exist in the future outside of a university music department and a few selections on our iPod we will have to educate, educate, educate. We cannot take anything for granted. We will have to have good reasons for what we do and be able to articulate them. We will have to inculcate the theology as well as the beauty and joy of the hymnody and liturgy of the church. We’ll have to be open to improvements, but also be firmly set on excellence and not settle for pandering to the lowest common denominator.

It is not just musicians to play our organs that we’re running short of. Contemporary worship is prevalent enough in the Synod that we have candidates at the Seminary who have not grown up with a hymnal in their hands, or used the historic liturgy on a regular basis. I’m not sure what these fellows will do when they discover that not everyone gets to go to 1000 member churches with video screens and praise bands. Most candidates get placed in congregations with around 100 members, comprised of blue collar workers, farmers and ranchers; and whose worship is found in the hymnal, and the accompaniment is a hand-me-down organ in ill repair.

There now, I’ve vented for the day.

Pastor Peters said...

Hope you feel better, Allen... I do when I let go... Blessings to you...

Rev. Kevin Jennings said...

Why, of all the crazy...

Actually, Pastor Peters, you describe what I believe to be a critical issue and, Pastor Bergstrazer, you offer what I believe to be an incredibly viable solution.

The parish I now serve has been blessed with an incredibly gifted organist. The congregation I served previously had an organist whose dedication to the task more than covered what may have been lacking in ability. In both cases, these organists recognized that their tasks figured incredibly the formation of faith. If we believe what we say as Lutherans, the hymnal is a critical text in learning the faith, more than simply knowing what our favorite hymns are. I would dare anyone to find modern praise songs that stack up in their theological content (if they have any) against the hymns of the Reformation.

Pastor Bergstrazer's suggestion of cultivating young people within the congregation to become organists certainly has merit. In our small context, we have had at least one young person who has voiced an interest in this line of service. I credit the organist at my home congregation with beginning and cultivating my own interest in sacred music for the organ, and with a desire to build the entry level skills I have.

The only issue with such a plan is that it takes an incredible amount of time (years) and the support of parents.

By the way, a Lutheran educator recently died in our area. I commented to our secretary that this was a near and dear event to me. I didn't personally know the individual, but I do sense that fewer Lutheran school teachers are being produced by our Concordia system, though I don't know it as fact, and that means fewer synodically trained organists.

Anonymous said...

We got an awesome new organist fresh out of school. Yes, I am bragging.


OldSouth said...

At least, in one parish in the United States, the senior pastor gets it!

You are a blessed exception to the rule. May I make a few gentle suggestions?

1. Keep conveying what you know to your fellow clergymen, and to the seminaries, if they will deign to listen to you. The fact that you are well-informed, and are running a successful parish, make actually be two strikes against you in academia.

2. Your organist is undoubtedly a member of AGO. They have a program in place, 'Pipe Organ Encounters' that puts interested young people with some keyboard skills in the company of accomplished organists for a week in the summer. It works very well.

3. From the pulpit, encourage families to direct their children toward music studies, and away from soccer and football. There are a hundred good reasons for this, but one of the best ones is that little Nathan or Samantha won't be needing knee replacements at age 40 if they become organists.

4. As you know, the organ is not an easy instrument to learn to play well. That's OK, because we should bring our best gifts to worship. But it does take time, energy, and effort to grow a good organist. Encourage families to do it anyway.

5. A church concert series, done the right way, can really help you out.

There's much more to say, but don't wish to bore you. If I can find your email, I'll be in touch.

Best wishes, and a thousand thanks for this post.

Rev. Allen Bergstrazer said...

I'm feeling much better now, thanks. The matter is not always money in a parish, I've had numerous organists who refused to be paid, in this case one must make sure that your volunteers have the best possible instrument and that it is in good condition, as well as encouragment,(do what you can to make their efforts a joy) support and the occasional workshop if they're so inclined. I also visited my in-laws recently renovated Catholic church, everything was repaired, restored, refinished except for the Pipe organ, that was left to rot away by choice while a keyboard is used instead. The money was there for repair and restoration, but it wasn't seen as a priority.
Organ encounters are an excellent idea if you have AGO in your area, an organ crawl can get your members to realize you have a wonderful resource in your church as well.

Anonymous said...

I think the church (LCMS) should have a special college devoted to training/educating single women as accomplished organists, fully trained in leading hymnody and liturgy.
This college should be located on the same campus of the seminary. All seminarians must be single and can only date females from their "sister" college. In order for a seminarian to graduate, he must be engaged to a graduate from organist college. This, I believe, would solve the problem. It falls nicely with most congregations: two for the price of one! Our churches are cheap - they buy or tollerate junky inexpensive appliances - if they do have a pipe organ, they don't want to pay to have it properly maintained. They don't want to pay a decent wage for a good organist so they settle for a volunteer who once took piano lessons and can "tickle the ivories." And then there's the pastors who allow their organists to play services unprepared . . . . with glaring mistakes. (What's even worse are pastors who have been given highly trained/skilled "ministers of music"/"Kantor" organists and they demote them to "the parish musician" and are instructed to play contemporary church music.) It's the former that has brought about contempory music in the church - - bad organist? Go Guitar or Karaoke. The latter has caused many great organists to hang up their hats. My graduating class at River Forest had 38 organists. There were 37 better than I and yet, today, only 3 have full time church music jobs in our church . . . I'm one of the three.

At music conferences, fellow organists complain about their pastors - I would guess that at Pastor conferences, pastors complain about their organists. Seems like my original plan at the beginning of this "comment" is the answer . . . but I'm also afraid it would lead to higher divorce rate in the clergy!

Anonymous said...

Wow, what a great conversation. There is so much to be said. I'm really happy my friend forwarded this to me, but I feel guilty spending the time reading it and commenting on it. I am fortunate to have a full time organist position (Kantor). I have a great Pastor, a wonderful choir, and the support of most of the congregation. I am truly blessed. But I play at a second church on Sunday afternoons, I have 10 piano students, and I take what ever side jobs (weddings, funerals, concerts) I can find just to make ends meet. I live outside of one of the richest areas in the nation. My church is inside that area and my congregation has more millionaires than you can shake a stick at. But even though I'm "full time" my wife and I can barely make ends meet. We are'nt going into debt, thank God (literally), but the cars are 10yrs old (231K miles in one case), the appliances are failing one by one, you get the picture. And the church budget passed because they reduced spending in every category. My salary will be the same as last year, but over the next 3 years I will take on more and more responsibility for my health care. I'm getting tired, and I'm no where near retirement.

If you want organists, they have to have organs to play on, and they have to be able to prepare. I don't play as well as I know I'm able because I don't have the time or energy to practice they way I should. Wouldn't it be great if an organist could spend his work week preparing for worship, instead of wondering how he was going to get everything done that he's committed himself to do because I needs the cash?

And, this is about more than just the organist! When we go away (we will, it's happening now), I suspect that our Lutheran heritage of worship and congregational singing will go away too. What goes next?

Anonymous said...

I was so happy to see this site. I have been an organist all of my life. Yes, the pay is horrible. Now in my fifties I have finally found a church that pays an adequate salary. I get almost $70.00 per service which is not up to standards set professionally but better than I had been getting all my life. We also have to pay for our music out of our salary. People do not realize this. I was happy to see the point he made about the Praise band doing more entertaining than leading the singing. I feel the same way. The organ leads the congregation. The praise band can not lead in the same way that the organ leads.

We have one Lutheran church in Appleton that does not pay their organists at all. The pastor feels it should be a service to the congregation. LOL They also can never get organists to play there.People forget how much we have had to pay for lessons over the years, books, etc. I will serve coffee in my free time. I did not havebut not play to take lessons to serve coffee.

This takes education. The problem is that there are so few organists. People do not understand the issues, the time it takes to get to the point where one can lead, and the cost involved.

Hilarie said...

I appreciate your blog and understand how little priority is given to the position of organist. I have been providing my current congregation with music for close to 15 yrs now. We are a small congregation and have limited resources. I have limited "talent" but am able to get us through many services most days without too many errors. :-) All that being said I view my "talent" ( limited as it is) as a gift from God and can not bring myself to accept payment for giving back what God has given to me.
Some people do use this talent as a source of income so they most certainly should be compensated for it. Unfortunately, there are few congregations that have need of an organist for more than the hour or two on Sunday morning. So a large salary is not considered when putting together a budget

Personally I didn't not take my instruction with intent to earn a living with it so this probably why I have a slightly different view of it.

Just some of my ramblings

kih39358 said...

I played for Baptist churches for 40 years, 33 of them without a salary. When I started doing weekend night shifts 9 years ago, I kept on coming even after 26 hours of no sleep. While most of the congregation appreciated it, one church leader had no appreciation and in fact tore my head off when I had neglected to do something that week. She timed the blast for maximum effect.
The church ended later that year (no surprise) and I was ready to give up church organ playing and most of all, stop coming to church after my night shifts!
In a couple of months, an ad appeared in the paper for an organist and choir leader for an Anglican church. I called them up and offered to perhaps play on just my off weekends. They were so anxious that they raised their pay offer twice to an amount I couldn't refuse, for every Sunday, about $500 a month, which makes a huge difference to my retirement (from work) plans.
Now I have a lovely pipe organ to play, and a quality choir to lead, and money! And to think I was prepared to keep playing an electronic organ every Sunday for nothing, in the Baptist church with that dragon lady in it! Praise.