Organists these days are undergoing an identity crisis. If the slashing of church music budgets wasn’t enough to cause consternation among the ranks, the worldwide shortage of organists, the fact that fewer and fewer people study the organ, and the American Guild of Organists’ membership is dropping, it’s the old adage that whenever two or three organists are gathered together, they’ll have a disagreement. In other words, ask two organists for their opinion, and you’ll get three or more answers.
The latest row is over the cover of the May 2017 issue of The American Organist magazine, in which there is a photograph of a digital, not a pipe organ. It’s the first time in history that an electronic organ console has been put on the cover of the monthly magazine which is sent to the members of the American Guild of Organists, an international organization which used to number over 20,000 but has dropped to about 16,000 members.
Remember my recent post when I wrote this: I was telling the other people … that organists are truly a rare breed of musician. In the State of Hawaii, with 1.4 million people, there are only about 12 people who live here who have a degree in organ performance. Let that sink in for a moment. If you do the math, we 12 organists represent only .00000857142857 of the whole population!
Check out the article, “Pipe organ’s rich complexity, relative obscurity make organists a rare breed.”
Gregg Bailey asked the question, “Does an all-digital REALLY qualify for the cover feature of the official magazine of the AGO??? Regardless of people’s opinions of digital vs pipe, I thought we could always count on TAO to feature an artisan-level pipe instrument. I just wondered if anyone else out there was surprised by this?”
Someone else said that organbuilders pay to advertise, and that cover spot is just a glorified ad; it was bought and paid for, and the editors accepted their money. Someone else wrote that while the front cover is nothing but an ad, our organization is called the American Guild of Organists, not the American Guild of Organs. Others complained that the magazine contains little more than just a lot of ads by organists advertising their concerts and organbuilders selling their instruments. There are few scholarly articles.
You see, for many serious organists, the pipe organ is the instrument we all aspire to play. I’ve been so fortunate to be able to play the Beckerath organ at the Lutheran Church of Honolulu, and the Aeolian-Skinner organs at St. Andrew’s Cathedral, Central Union and Kawaiaha’o Church. And rather than buy an electronic organ for my home, I really love the little pipe organ in my condo.
I’ve told organ committees that pipe organs are for the long haul, while electronics must be replaced more frequently. Think of a 20-year-old computer or a TV —it probably doesn’t exist or maybe it doesn’t work anymore. Electronic organs are derisively called “radios” or “toasters” — nothing more than “appliances.”
People complain that the AGO is an elitist organization, and that people who play digital instruments are considered inferior musicians. For the record, I have also played digital instruments at Iolani School and Punahou School, yet I don’t consider myself any less of a musician.
I liked what Leonard Ciampa wrote:
Without commenting on this specific question, I will point out that it is related to a much larger problem. The music industry is not doing well, and I can tell you the exact reason why. Compare it to the food industry. Today, you can walk into a supermarket – not even a specialty store, a supermarket – and buy organic olive oil, organic whole bean coffee, and a whole list of other items that no supermarket shopper in the 70s would’ve ever dreamed of. The taste of the general public has improved. And the reason is that no one would ever imagine that eating a paper menu is as good as eating food. Food never stopped being about taste. Music stopped being about sound, and that is where the problem lies. How many people on the street have ever heard an acoustic instrument, live, unamplified? A young person today could go his or her entire life hearing sounds only from a device. How, then, could we possibly hope to turn people onto music? As we have seen, it is hard enough to turn organists onto pipes!
To be sure, all of this is challenging for us organists and yet . . .
Just this week, I became a member of the Clarence Dickinson Society. This means that I have included not only the local chapter, but also the national organization of the American Guild of Organists in my estate planning. By including the AGO in my estate plans, I hereby display a public commitment to the mission of the Guild that will transcend my earthly life.
From the AGO’s website: A founder of the AGO and the School of Sacred Music at Union Theological Seminary, Clarence Dickinson (1873-1969) was known as the Dean of American Church Musicians. Dr. Dickinson—organist and choirmaster, composer, virtuoso, performer, author, lecturer, and teacher—worked in all his capacities to broaden appreciation of organ music and reach new audiences.
I humbly ask my fellow organists to consider becoming a member of the Clarence Dickinson Society. Our bequests will forever be a living testimony to our belief in the work of the American Guild of Organists. Here’s a printable application form.
Won’t you join us?