My last post generated a lot of discussion about the whole notion of poor pay being the reason for the organist shortage, especially considering the amount of preparation time required to play a church service. I suppose if you go back to my ten years of private organ lessons, four years of college with courses in organ performance, organ literature, organ history, conducting, church music, one year of graduate school doing more of the same, daily organ practice, and my forty-plus years on the organ bench being a professional organist — that’s a lot of prep!
One of my former students replied: To substitute, I have to practice approximately 25 hours to survive the service. This means I would get paid about $5 an hour, $2.78 after taxes. If I were doing it for the money, I’d be better off working at McDonald’s. At least they’d give me minimum wage and 10% discount for a Big Mac. [And she didn’t even mention the price of gas required to drive to the church! or the price of music! Most organists that I know, including myself, purchase ALL their own music which is not cheap these days.]
I guess it’s a wonder that there are any organists at all!
Ah! but there’s the second part of that quote that I need to address: Most organ jobs do not pay enough and do not provide enough personal satisfaction to make them worth taking.
I’ve frequently talked about the “magic” of playing the organ or the “wow factor.” It’s that tremendous sense of power, that enormous feeling of control a person gets when playing on full organ. With very little effort, even if you are a small person (or a small child), you can create a huge sound. I’ve often said that the success of the church service is dependent upon the organist — the organist can make or break the service and its flow from one element to the next. And with a wide range of a tonal palette that the organ stops offer, you won’t tire of hearing only one sound. Our friend and colleague, John McCreary, used to say that the reason he switched from the piano to the organ was that “the piano only had one stop!”
Ah! so there is some personal satisfaction to playing the organ after all, in spite of church politics and having to deal with difficult people. Of my own playing, I’m most satisfied when I’ve mastered a challenging fugue by Bach, or a harmonically and rhythmically complex piece by a contemporary composer, or been able to expressively play a quiet, lyric piece that “touches your heart.”
I’ll never forget that one Sunday when I was up in the organ loft at St. Sulpice, Marcel Dupré improvised a particularly touching and heart-rending piece during the Communion, and he started to weep! There was a buzz among the organ students that the great “maître” had improvised a piece of such beauty that even he was overcome with emotion.
So playing the organ can be satisfying after all, not only to the listeners but to the performer too. As for professional concerns and raising salary standards — everyone needs to keep working on it.