Identity crisis

Johannus organ at St. Cecilia Catholic Church in Wisconsin Dells, WI

No pipes in the Johannus organ at St. Cecilia Catholic Church in Wisconsin Dells, WI

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 . . .

Clarence Dickinson, 1873-1969

Clarence Dickinson, 1873-1969

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?


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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7 Responses to Identity crisis

  1. Curt Zimmerman says:

    I know you don’t live in the past; these are just my thoughts.

    Once I became a priest, some of my priorities changed a bit – I had to look at a bigger picture. I had played only pipe instruments and the “electronic” instruments were far less quality of both sound and construction. Things are continuing to change. Digital instruments (some of them) have come a long way. And organists like Roger Nyquest, who was our consultant when I was at St Patrick’s, Incline Village, NV, at Lake Tahoe, said that “An excellent digital is preferable to a bad pipe instrument.” And in the Tahoe environment at 6500 feet, we ended up going with Allen – it was affordable, it was an instrument the congregation would maintain, and a pipe instrument would have been a problem at that altitude and winter temps. So I don’t have any problem with the TAO cover. It’s a statement of where we, as organists, are at this moment in history. I wonder what Bach would have said if electricity had been able to be distributed and electric blowers replaced bellows pumpers. And combination action replaced stop pullers. And now we have almost limitless levels of combination action so that someone no longer needs to come and reset pistons during intermissions. And there are some things I’ve valued as a priest that have changed, as well.

    And when I came to Bainbridge Island, we ended up with a great new pipe instrument by Richard Bond, a Univ of Redlands classmate of mine.

  2. john bicknell says:

    very well said! jb

  3. Andrew Hicks says:

    Congratulations on the Clarence Dickinson Society! I second your recommendation that organists should consider this, or other ways of supporting the instrument and its role in society.

    I know of places where electronic instruments give the congregations a chance to have organ music, and a pipe organ (even a small one) would be out of the question; I played an Allen in one such place for a number of years. We can’t afford to fight “pipe vs. electronic” battles.

    All good wishes,
    Andrew Hicks (life member, AGO)

  4. From James Thomashower, Executive Director of the American Guild of Organists:

    Matthew Burt has advised me that Facebook has lit up with complaints following the publication of the May issue of TAO with a Johannus organ on the cover. Please be advised that this cover was in the works for many months. Todd apprised me of it early in the spring, and at Todd’s suggestion I called APOBA president Ric Parsons several weeks ago to alert him to it. Ric and I had a cordial conversation about it, and he was not troubled by it. As you may recall, TAO is the official journal of both the AGO and APOBA.

    It may be helpful to review the process by which the covers are assigned. Once every two years, Maury Castro, our advertising manager, invites all APOBA members to advertise on a TAO cover of their choice for the next two-year period—first come, first served. The cover advertisement includes several pages of editorial matter inside the magazine as well. The covers sell for approximately $4,000 each, so they provide an important revenue stream to the Guild.

    After all APOBA members who wish to buy a cover have made their selections, Maury invites all other organ builders to buy any remaining covers. We do not discriminate. Builders of pipe organs, hybrid instruments, and digital instruments are all welcome to advertise on any remaining covers. Again, it’s first come, first served. If, after this second round, we still have not sold out all the covers, we go back to the APOBA builders and invite them to take a second cover in the 24-month period—or purchase one for the first time.

    Incidentally, the Johannus cover, Todd tells me, was purchased by a local U.S. Johannus distributor, not by the folks at the Johannus headquarters in Europe.

    At a time when the FTC is scrutinizing our every action, I think we are on solid ground by allowing all organ builders and distributors access to a TAO cover in the spirit of encouraging free and open competition for that advertising space.

    Now please enjoy the rest of your weekend.

    Best regards,


    James E. Thomashower
    Executive Director
    American Guild of Organists
    475 Riverside Dr., Ste. 1260
    New York, NY 10115
    Tel. 212-870-2310

    • Organist1994 says:

      As a former AGO member with a Master of Church Music degree in organ, reading the feedback on the TAO cover exemplifies one the may reasons I let my AGO membership lapse a long time ago and have never joined my local chapter. The last time I attended a chapter meeting everyone was so snobbish and unwelcoming to me that I never went back. I have also dealt with many AGO members around my city in different circumstances, and I would never want to be part of any group that they were members of. Musicians have got to stop this “we are better than others” attitude and cliques that form in many communities.

      I agree with Curt Zimmerman’s comments. While all organists would love to play a pipe organ (and I was fortunate enough to do so from 1985 – 2003), if we had a benefactor who wanted to give $100k to buy a new organ and I had to choose between a small pipe organ (with its included maintenance costs) or a large electronic organ that rarely needs servicing, I would choose the electronic without the blink on an eye.

      Long ago when I graduated from Seminary, our class was so large across the Seminary that we could not hold our graduate in our normal location on campus without only giving each graduate two tickets. The choice was made to hold it at the city’s Center for the Arts (large city) where we had 10 tickets. I will always remember a fellow student coming up to me and saying “I can’t believe you don’t want to have the pipe organ at graduate (this school had a mighty Aeolian Skinner that I miss to this day.) I told him having my family and friends were more important to me than an organ.

      I currently play a 12 year old Allen organ. Now I will admit that the registration list leaves me scratching my head, it still has a marvelous sound in our sanctuary that has almost all hard surfaces. Organists and all musicians need to stop this sticking of noses up in the air at electronic organs. In this day and economy, they do not always make sense. I will also lay blame for the shortage of organists (which has been predicted since my college days 30 years ago) at the church’s feet. Many churches want to pay me my organist’s college pay for the same job 30 years later. If you had choir director to it, the pay increase is often nominal. Churches have to look at the proverbial three fingers pointing back at them when they point their finger at the world crying out we can’t find an organist/church musician. Most of the fault rests with them.

  5. sb says:

    Digital synthesizers are not organs.

    • Gary Kahn says:

      Correct. But all organs do not have pipes. I play accordion, a Hammond B3, twelve string and six string guitars, bass, a drum machine and six synths. For me it’s not about the instrument… it’s all about the music that it generates. Music has no political preference and that’s what I like about it. And I do respect all organists and musicians for that matter regardless of what they play. Thank you nfor letting me share my 2 cents.

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