Why there are no more organists

The low numbers of students learning to play the organ has been a hot topic of discussion on the pipe organ LISTSERV to which I subscribe. Although I am more of a “lurker” rather than a contributor, I thought I’d weigh in on the discussion. It all started when the following statement was made:

People go on and on about the need to reestablish organ departments in colleges and bemoan that it is becoming harder and harder to find organists. “No one’s taking piano lessons anymore, they are all playing keyboards…” “All the music is turning to praise bands.” But the true reason is simple. Most organ jobs do not pay enough and do not provide enough personal satisfaction to make them worth taking.

One person immediately answered that getting money was not the only source for happiness; another quoted a Baptist minister as saying “No musician should be paid.” Another said he was in an evangelical church where there were keyboardists, drummers, and guitarists, plus a person who played the pipe organ and no one except the music director was paid. He couldn’t see how the poor pay is the reason students have stopped learning to play the organ.

One of my youngest organ students.

One of my youngest organ students.

Here in our little corner of the world, as you know, I’m trying to buck the trend. It all started in the year 2000 when I was exposed to the teaching materials of Wayne Leupold, who said that the organ could be a first rather than a second instrument on which to learn music — there was not a requirement to learn the piano first. He said that we should get children on the organ when they were fascinated by all the keys, buttons, pistons, gadgets, etc. and not tell them to wait until they could play 2- and 3-part inventions of Bach. After all, Bach did not play the piano first! It was then that I started teaching children as young as four years old to learn to play the organ.

Now my students are getting older and more skilled in playing the organ. What I’m telling them is this: “Someday playing the organ may be your bread and butter. There are always going to be churches who need organists to play services, weddings and funerals. It may not be too much money — but for a kid, it beats working at McDonald’s.”

Two of my young students recently played the organ for their first church services — one started with me as a first-grader (and is now in 7th grade); the other started in 6th grade (and is now in 10th grade). They both were thrilled to get their first paychecks ($125-$150). Former student Joey Fala will be subbing for me this Sunday, and he has picked up a number of substitute organ jobs while at college in New York.

That’s not to say that one can live on substitute organ pay — because you can’t. As some of you know,  I’ve had to cobble together four jobs (organist at LCH; chapel organist at Iolani; parish administrator at St. Elizabeth’s; and private organ teacher).

But to that person who said “no musician should be paid,” I have to counter with: “So that means you don’t pay your janitor? your bookkeeper? your gardener? your secretary? your minister?”

I’ll never forget when I heard someone say at an Association of Lutheran Church Musicians conference that the pay for a church musician and pastors should be equal. If you pay your minister $80,000 you should pay your church musician $80,000. So that would take the pay factor out of the equation — but would it ever happen?

In another post, I’ll describe how many hours it takes to prepare to play a church service. When people say, “wow, $125-150 for an hour of work” they don’t realize there are many more hidden hours of practice and preparation for that one hour service on Sunday morning.

Young Organists Concert, 2011

Young Organists Concert, 2011

About Katherine Crosier

In addition to playing the organ I am interested in documenting life's special moments through journaling, scrapbooking, photography and slideshow production. My family just groans.
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