Churches struggling to find organists

Shortage changing the sound of American worship

When the longtime organist at St. John's Episcopal Church in Havre de Grace announced her retirement last fall, the leaders of the small 200-year-old congregation faced a bigger challenge than they knew.

Music — particularly the music of the organ — is central to the life of the church. Members say the instrument's rich sounds complement their liturgy, inspire congregational singing and even seem to invite the Holy Spirit into their presence.

But a six-month search has turned up just one potential applicant. Church leaders are trying every new strategy they can think of to get things moving.

"We're praying and trying to stay optimistic, but this we had no idea how challenging this would be," says parishioner Casi Tomarchio, a member of the search committee. "There aren't enough organists out there."

At a time when fewer Americans describe themselves as affiliated with any religious denomination, the ranks of those who play the instrument long considered a mainstay of Christian worship — the organ, and most specifically, the pipe organ — are thinning.

The shortage has hit less hard in major metropolitan areas, where historic cathedrals and churches with bigger budgets can invest the funds it takes to buy and maintain a serviceable organ and offer a musician full-time work.

But smaller congregations — including those in rural and suburban America — are feeling the pinch.

Most church organists stay in their positions for decades, but when they do retire, there frequently is no one to replace them. The shortage has been changing the sound of Christian worship in the United States.

"In the major religious institutions, sacred music is alive and well, and there are plenty of musicians who are eager for those positions," says John Walker, a member of the organ faculty at the Johns Hopkins Peabody Institute. "But as the organ community grows somewhat smaller through attrition, with people aging out of the profession and fewer young people coming in, we have — well, I hate to say a crisis, but we have a very challenging situation facing us."

Few speak with the authority of Walker, an internationally known church and concert organist who has performed in major cathedrals and on some of the finest instruments in the world. But even he might be understating the point.

A 2015 survey by the American Guild of Organists confirmed the picture is bleak and getting worse.

The organization found that about 60 percent of its 16,000 members were 58 years of age or older. Just 11 percent were younger than 37.

More than half — 58 percent — had played at the same religious institution for at least 31 years, while only 14 percent had done so for less than a decade.

Gordon Truitt is senior editor at the National Association of Pastoral Musicians, which "fosters the art of musical liturgy" in the American Catholic Church, according to its website.

"There's a serious shortage, and it's growing," Truitt said. "For smaller churches in particular, it's a huge concern."

It's also a concern in black churches.

J. Spencer Hammond is the former longtime organist and choir director at Douglas Memorial Community Church in Baltimore. The pipe organ long anchored hymn singing in African-American worship, he says. But fewer young people are learning it.

"It's happening across the board, in all churches," he says.

Church music consultants say the shortage has a range of causes, many of them rooted in changes in the broader culture over the past several decades.

Diminishing church attendance has made it harder for congregations to pay highly trained organists. A decline in clergy has forced many to ask organists to take on pastoral duties unrelated to music, such as teaching in religious schools.

Meanwhile, cheaper, more portable and more easily accessible instruments such as drums, guitar and piano have grown in popularity.

Church musicians say these and other cultural pressures have diminished the appeal of the organ, an instrument that has always required intense study.

The tradition is not extinct. Pipe organ fans who want to experience its power may visit any of the 15 or so area institutions that have a top-quality instrument, a full-time organist and acoustically complementary architecture, Walker says.

Those include two Catholic churches: the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, with its massive, Ohio-made Schantz organ, and the Basilica of the Assumption, with its Roosevelt organ that dates to the late 1800s.

A third is the 10-year-old Andover organ at Christ Lutheran Church in the Inner Harbor. Boasting two consoles and more than 4,300 pipes, it has been featured on the cover of The American Organist, the official journal of the organists guild.

As an instrument, the organ is known for generating an impressive range of sonorities, its pipes capable of mimicking everything from a flute to an English horn. Musicians say it's uniquely suited to support congregational singing because its use of air and vibration mimic the mechanics of the human voice.

Those qualities were audible at Christ Lutheran one recent Sunday as music director Daniel Aune played "God Loved the World" and "Lift High the Cross." The sounds began gently, then swelled in the columned sanctuary and swirled down among the pews.

Ann Hunter has sung in the church's choir since 1967.

"A piano doesn't fill a space the way an organ does, and this is a mighty organ," said Hunter, who sings alto. "I can't imagine doing a hymn processional down the aisle without an organ."

Aune, who is president of the organ guild's Baltimore chapter, says that power derives from the organ's very structure.

"With other instruments, [such as] a piano, the sounds can decay, but an organ is sustaining," he says. "Because it is a vocal instrument — it requires air and has its own lungs — it encourages singing. It can breathe with you and has a sense of vocality."

Walker enjoys pointing out that the organ also has a longer, more storied history than the piano, which wasn't invented until 1709.

The Greek inventor Ctesibius of Alexandria fashioned the first one about 250 years before the birth of Christ. The instrument, which used water pressure to force air through a set of pipes, became popular in ancient Greece and Rome before falling out of favor.

The instrument resurfaced in the eighth century when a Byzantine emperor gave a small pipe organ to King Pepin the Short of France.

"He had no idea what to do with it, so he gave it to a monastery," Walker says. "And that began the very friendly relationship between the organ and religion."

The organ flourished in Europe and eventually the Americas, where it became the instrument of choice in tens of thousands of Christian congregations — particularly within the so-called liturgical churches that favor formal worship structures and music, including Roman Catholic, Episcopal and Lutheran.

That included its adoption within the black church, including in the Methodist, Presbyterian and African Methodist Episcopal traditions, Hammond says. He grew up hearing "a fine organist" every Sunday in the Baptist church his family attended in Florida.

Scholars debate how and when the influence of the organ began to wane. Some trace the change to the Second Vatican Council, the meeting of Catholic leaders in the 1960s aimed at bringing the church into the modern world.

"One of the major things that happened was that you could use your own language, not just Latin, and that meant Catholics needed to start writing music in English," says Brian Hehn, director of the Center for Congregational Song at The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada.

Vatican II opened the floodgates for changes in music across Christianity in the 1970s and 1980s, Hehn says.

"Band-driven congregational song ... and the contemporary Christian music market took off," he says.

The last 30 years or so also brought the explosion in popularity of megachurches, many of which disposed with formal religious tradition, including everything from the display of crosses to the use of liturgical music.

That change has been especially noticeable in the African-American church, according to Patrick Alston, the organist and church music consultant at New Shiloh Baptist Church. He wrote a master's thesis on the subject at Peabody.

Until about 1980, Alston says, the organist in most black churches was a formidable musician expected to know a full catalog of hymns, lead the choir and educate the congregation. Now most such churches only want to hire young organists to play simple accompaniment.

"I'm very fearful for the future of the pipe organ in the black church," he says. "It can be saved, but it's going to take a concerted effort from the clergy to do it."

For many churches, costs are also prohibitive.

Almost any functional organ costs tens of thousands of dollars. Price tags of half a million dollars or more are not out of the ordinary.

Full-time organists may demand $60,000 to $100,000 per year plus benefits, depending on location and congregation. But it can cost more than $160,000 to earn a bachelor's degree in organ performance or sacred music at a top academic program.

The 33 percent or so of organists who pursue graduate degrees can lay out more than $300,000 to enter a field in which more than 90 percent of available jobs are part time, according to the guild.

The program at the Peabody Institute, considered one of America's finest, features three educators and about a dozen students.

All have part-time work in local churches, Walker says. Once they graduate, they'll be vying for the handful of full-time gigs in major cities.

Hammond, a fixture in local church music since 1959, is 86 and retired. But he says the supply of pipe organists is so small in both black and nonblack churches that he still works as a substitute many weekends.

Cynthia DeDakis, missioner for music ministries for the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, is currently trying to fill seven open positions.

She's encouraging smaller congregations to consider such options as reaching out to talented pianists and paying for their organ lessons.

"They're not going to get a world-renowned performer on a weekly basis," she says. "But I would not want them to lose hope that they can find a solid, competent organist."

Walker says the current downturn could very well be a temporary phase.

"We went through a period like this in the first half of the 19th century in France, where all of religion became very watered down and organs were used only to play popular tunes and military marches," he says. "Then there was a great restoration of organ music in the last half of that century.

"History is cyclical. I live in the confidence that will happen again."

That may not be soon enough for St. John's, where a longtime member recently donated a high-end organ — a Rodgers Artist Model 599, which comes with three stacked keyboards, 282 voices, 20 internal memory banks and a row of foot pedals — is still going unused.

Tomarchio says her committee is willing to try the unconventional to get someone to play it, including sharing an organist with another church or hiring one to prerecord music for playback on Sundays.

Parishioners are all just eager, she says, to hear the instrument they love once again.

"Organ music is at the heart of our worship," she says. "At this point we're more than willing to go outside the box."

Baltimore Sun reporter Tim Prudente contributed to this article.

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