Over the weekend, there was an article published by the Kansas City Star which has been widely shared among organists: “Pipe organs soar, but number of players dips.” According to the article, the number of college organ students is shrinking, despite the number of new instrument installations. It cites the multi-million dollar University of Kansas organ by Helmuth Wolff at a program which has “only”two dozen students. More typical is the organ program at the University of Nebraska which has seven students. The American Guild of Organists, a professional organization, says that there are only about 182 college organ students nationally, compared to 303 in 1998-1999. In short, the author proclaimed students studying the organ in college “an endangered species.”
My dear friend and my predecessor at the University of Hawaii, Barbara Adler, was interviewed for the article. She said that one reason for the organist shortage is the low wage paid by churches, despite organists spending “thousands of dollars and thousands of hours practicing.” Plus there is the hard fact that organists work every weekend, and every holiday, and most people have to have a “real job” in addition to the church position. That makes for a seven-day work week — something with which I’m most familiar!
More troubling was a column I read this past weekend from the January issue of The Diapason, a monthly journal for organists, harpsichordists, carillonneurs and church musicians. The column by organbuilder John Bishop (who by the way is one of my regular Words With Friends opponents!) told of his frequent experience of having to take out the pipe organs in churches which have closed. Many of these closed churches have now been turned into “Loft Apartments.” One realtor, Elizabeth Bolton of Coldwell Banker, has even created a webpage called Condos in Renovated Churches with this description: Churches and synagogues converted to condos often result in dramatic spaces with soaring ceilings, beautiful oversized windows and preserved architectural details. Loft buyers will appreciate the wide open spaces in these reused buildings.
Bishop writes that he has seen “the top five feet of a large gothic stained-glass window rising from a dining room floor—The Ascension of Christ from the navel up . . . and a fourth floor bathtub placed in what was the top eight feet of an apse.” He asks you to imagine trying to buy a Christmas tree for a room with 60 foot ceilings — but what a grand place it would be to try out a radio-controlled flying helicopter!
Later in the article he shows a cartoon titled”New Coat of Paint at the Sistine Condos” with the caption “Two men paint the ceiling of an apartment with rollers. Instead of plain color, however, designs reminiscent of those in the Sistine chapel emerge.” [You can find the cartoon on The Cartoon Bank by clicking this link.] “Above all, this cartoon speaks of irrelevancy. To many modern Americans, the church is irrelevant. To many modern churchgoers, the pipe organ is irrelevant. Is the instrument truly a symbol of yesterday, or is it a modern, vital, thrilling, inspiring part of our heritage, just as appropriate in the 21st century as it was in the 16th?”
I, for one, am going to do my darndest to keep the organ alive.