Churches struggle to find organists

Saturday, August 14, 2004

Deborah Bagby began her career as a church organist at age 16 out of necessity -- her father, the pastor, needed someone to accompany his congregation as members made joyful noises unto the Lord during Sunday services.

Thirty-five years later, Bagby is a professional church organist and minister of music at Church of the Holy Communion in Washington, D.C., which had been looking for an organist for more than six months when it found Bagby. The church she left is still searching for her replacement six months later, reflecting a shortage nationwide of qualified church organists.

"Churches used to be able to get someone to come and play out of the kindness of their hearts," said Bagby, 53. "But now it's more likely that a church will have to pay a salary. Being a church organist requires a lot of work and a lot of practice."

The problem is worsening as many older organists are reaching retirement age, young musicians are shunning the occupation because of low pay, and few youths are taking up the instrument.

Most of the newly built churches in Southeast Missouri do not have an elaborate organ and congregations with pipe organs find it difficult to locate someone who can play their instrument.

Dr. Gary Miller teaches music at Southeast Missouri State University and has consulted with several churches that have refurbished pipe organs.

Miller said that finding people who enjoy the music played on an organ is much easier than finding a person who plays the instrument.

The shortage has sent many churches overseas, particularly to Britain, to hire organists. Some organizations, such as the American Guild of Organists, have initiated programs to lure children to the instrument in hopes of expanding the future pool of church organists.

Complicated problemThe problem is multifaceted. Organists must be highly trained -- many hold graduate degrees -- and spend hours each week practicing difficult musical works.

"It's very complicated music -- 16th-, 17th- and 18th-century compositions," Bagby said. "Also, the organist often is the choir director, and that means additional work.

"And not many people want to give up their Sunday every week, 52 times a year," she added. "If you go on vacation, you have to try to find someone who can substitute for you, and that's not easy to do."

As primary and secondary schools have slashed funding for music, fewer children are being exposed to programs that teach classical and sacred music. And shorter attention spans among children have led music programs to focus on shorter, less complicated pieces, said Margot Fassler, director of the Institute of Sacred Music at Yale University.

Concerns over the separation of church and state have left some colleges and universities uneasy about offering religious music programs.

Statistics from the National Association of Schools of Music show that the number of college students pursuing degrees in organ music dipped from 728 to 527 between 1985 and 2000, according to the American Guild of Organists.

Northwestern University, whose music department was founded by a church organist in the 1920s, ended its church music program in January. The New England Conservatory of Music in Boston has put its well-known organ program on indefinite hold, college spokeswoman Marilyn Siderwicz said.

Changes in musical tastes have also contributed to the shortage, officials said. Many churches have modernized their services to include music based on rhythm and blues, rock and other forms driven by electronic keyboard, drums and guitar instead of traditional Bach compositions.

"Many organs are going unused. It's a great tragedy to think of these magnificent organs being sold off because of a lack of interest," said Fassler.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: