June 30, 1996

King of Instruments No Longer?

They have a hard time finding full-time employment and are usually forced to juggle part-time jobs instead. Their numbers have declined in recent years, and their pay is inadequate. Their recitals and recordings draw meager attention. Churches often don't know whether to rank them with the janitorial staff or the ministers. And they never, ever get to sleep in on Sunday mornings. But most organists seem to love their instrument, love their work and believe that their lot may finally be improving.

"We see the shortage of organists ending, with a new upsurge in students," said Margaret Kemper, the president of the American Guild of Organists. "Guild membership is up in the last few years. I think the future looks promising."

The annual convention of the guild, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, will attract nearly 3,000 organists -- almost double the usual number -- to New York from next Sunday through July 11, with hundreds of performances taking place on church organs all around Manhattan. The guild, which has 21,000 members, was founded in New York as an exclusive organization at a time when pipe organs were the norm in churches and listeners routinely flocked to organ concerts to hear arrangements of Beethoven symphonies otherwise unavailable before the radio age.

Theater organs went the way of movie palaces, and church organs came under fire in the late 1960's, when the mantra of "relevance" and the plunk of campfire music permeated sacred spaces. AIDS has thinned the ranks of musicians. (A disproportionately high number of organists are gay, for reasons no one seems able to determine.) Discouragement at the difficulty of earning a living and weariness over the hours are widespread. And with piano lessons, once a norm for American children, replaced by soccer and MTV, fewer candidates have emerged for the next generation of organists.

Simplistic "praise music," using popular idioms and electric instruments, has taken over from traditional church music in many denominations. And pipe organs, expensive to buy and maintain, have often been supplanted by relatively cheap electronic organs whose counterfeit sound only loosely resembles the glorious noise of air rushing through pipes. Musicians call them "appliances."

But organists are starting to push for a higher profile. The guild recently staged its first nationwide publicity stunt, the "world's largest organ recital," with 326 recitals played simultaneously in churches around the country, each opening with Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor. The results, in terms of both publicity and audiences, were gratifying, Ms. Kemper said.

Like most organists, Ms. Kemper, of Chicago, holds several jobs: teaching at Northwestern University and privately, and directing music programs at a church and a retirement home. The guild's greatest challenge, she argues, is to educate ministers and congregations in music and persuade them to treat their musicians as the professionals they are, particularly as the number of full-time church positions shrinks.

"We see jobs advertised as seven and a half hours a week," she said. "That covers choir practice and Sunday morning, but it doesn't take into account practice time and planning time. Organists are every bit as professional as orchestra players or high-school music teachers, but many churches have been slow to recognize that."

Ms. Kemper blamed seminaries for failing to stress the importance of church music. But changing public tastes are also a factor.

"It didn't feel like a worship service," Ms. Kemper said of a visit to Willow Creek Community Church, a "superchurch" near Chicago. "It was like a Broadway show, with professional dancers, a dance band, colored lights. The music was the lowest common denominator, what you hear when you go shopping, or in elevators."

Many organists single out the Roman Catholic Church for what they consider a post-Vatican II descent into third-rate music, usually accompanied by almost anything but a pipe organ.

"The Catholics threw out their musical heritage, and they've been rootless ever since," said James Moeser, the chancellor of the University of Nebraska and a former guild president. "They've experienced the same kind of reformation that Luther produced, but Luther knew better composers."

Children who don't grow up with organ music, it seems, are less likely to take up the instrument. In 1983, organ majors accounted for 1,000 of the 41,000 college-level music students nationally; in 1995, a mere 600 of 83,000.

Other factors are cited as well. Deborah Lynch, a church organist and teacher in Overland Park, Kan., recounts that growing up in Hillsdale, Mich., a small college town, she could walk to practice in an unlocked church after school.

"Today, with suburban sprawl, parents have to transport their kids to churches and then get them through security systems," she said. "My church let me ease into playing for services when I was 12, but big churches today are very product-oriented, and they really don't want to hear young people just starting out."

The shortage of competent organists is one reason Maureen Jais-Mick gave up her regular church job in the Washington area after 20 years. "I had a hard time finding a substitute," she said. The regular grind simply got to be too much.

"There are too many demands," she explained. "Most church organists have a regular job plus music. You've got a 40-hour week, rehearsals and meetings in the evenings, and services on the weekends. Every once in a while you feel like you'd like to have a life."

As director of the guild's professional relations committee, which deals with issues like contracts and benefits, Ms. Jais-Mick suggests that smaller churches having trouble getting musicians should be more flexible in their scheduling. "They should consider having services on Saturdays, or Sunday afternoons," she said. "It might make a good second job for someone who's already working on Sunday mornings."

Most church musicians, she insists, are severely underpaid. "Since World War II, there have been two tracks in church employment, ordained and unordained," she said. "One day the churches woke up to the fact that they would have trouble finding ministers if they didn't pay them better. Now it's obviously time for their lay employees to achieve the same level. It's a social justice issue in their own back yard."

Thomas Murray, a concert organist who teaches at Yale University, finds cause for hope. Enrollments are back up to comfortable levels in his department. Many students are foreign, from Eastern Europe or the Far East. Most concert halls in Japan and Korea are now built with pipe organs, and there's a growing audience there for the music.

"An organist needs versatility," Mr. Murray said. "To make a living, you have to hustle, you have to be open to new musical modes. To be too narrow is to stagnate."

Ms. Lynch, of Kansas, who has a 10-year-old son, admitted that being tied to work on weekends and holidays can become tedious. She often has a wedding rehearsal on Friday night, the ceremony itself on Saturday and, of course, services on Sunday morning.

"But the organ is endlessly fascinating," she said. "Playing it is a natural high, and when you get a full church, a wonderful choir and a great hymn, it's a fantastic experience. The power of the music will lift you away. If enough young musicians can get a taste of what it's like, the pipe organ will never die."

Sarah Bryan Miller is a freelance writer and singer in Chicago.

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