I just heard a promo for this week’s “From the Top” radio program on public radio, a showcase for young classical musicians. This week’s broadcast will feature a young organist from Texas, and Christopher O’Riley, host, said, “What motivates a young person to take up this majestic instrument?”
For the past twenty years, there’s been talk about an organist shortage. Twenty years ago, there was an article in the Times of London saying that only one in five organists in Britain was under the age of forty. Twenty years ago, I don’t think there was a single organist in Hawaii under the age of thirty. Churches were throwing out their organs and replacing them with guitars and praise bands. Organists were going the way of the dinosaur, and trying to get a substitute organist was a near impossibility.
In the year 2000, I went to a workshop in Seattle by Wayne Leupold, who was promoting a new method of teaching the organ as a first instrument, rather than a second instrument. The conventional wisdom had been that in order to play the organ, one had to not only play the piano first, but had to master it. You had to be able to play 2- and 3-part inventions of Bach before starting the organ. Leopold’s premise, though, was that the organ can be taught first, especially to children who are fascinated not only by all the different sounds, but also the gadgets and buttons. After all, even Bach never played the piano first!
And the rest is history. I started teaching children as young as four how to play the organ, in fact, I think I can count at least half a dozen kids whom I started at age five or younger. Everyone asks, “But how do they reach the pedals?” We have gadgets called Ped-Extends which mount on top of the existing organ pedals for use with children. Certainly, though, young children can be taught how to play legato, and to learn about the different organ sounds.
The method was the first step in turning the organist shortage around. In addition I like to think that the sound of a real pipe organ, though, sells itself. Its sound is authentic, not synthetic. It’s air moving through pipes. For me, as well as for many other organists, it was that “WOW” feeling you get when you play a chord on full organ for the first time. It’s the tremendous sense of POWER which absolutely envelopes you when you play on a magnificent organ such as ours at the Lutheran Church of Honolulu. It’s magic!
Our next Young Organists Concert will be Saturday, February 12th at 7 pm. You are all cordially invited to hear fourteen youngsters from age 6 to 16 who will thrill you with the sound of the King of Instruments. A freewill offering will benefit the scholarship programs of the American Guild of Organists.