The Decline of the Organ
The following material was presented in the doctoral colloquium at Southwestern Baptist Seminary on October 20, 2012. For more information about doctoral studies in Church Music at SWBTS, click here.
What are some of the reasons for the decline in organ usage in many churches today?
I. Shortage of qualified organists
A. Limited access to the instrument; fewer and fewer organs available, since so many have been discarded.
B. Lack of exposure to the instrument; not many children are being exposed to the instrument, plus the fact that it is often difficult to obtain permission to practice on a suitable organ. Smaller and more portable instruments are desired.
C. Lack of teachers that are qualified and/or willing to teach the organ to students who have the prerequisite piano skills.
D. Students who study music are influenced by popular culture, media, etc., in which the organ is totally foreign; it’s not “cool” to learn the organ.
E. The amount of time and dedication it requires to master the organ.
F. The pedals are intimidating!
II. The instruments themselves
A. Initial purchase too expensive for many churches; expense cannot be justified in light of other financial pressures.
B. Even if there is an organ in working order, it might be of poor quality.
C. Neglected maintenance and expensive repairs.
III. Negative effect of poorly-trained organists who choose inappropriate repertoire, play it badly, with poor choice of registration.
IV. Influence of popular culture on churches.
A. The shortage of organists, plus years of decline in the usage or organs in the life of the church, have led churches to turn to other instruments.
1. Organ vs. Guitar controversy: the guitar is seen as being more intimate and likely to draw people to a loving and approachable God, than the organ, whose “loftiness” and “grandeur” contradict this approach.
2. Belief among many that organs have been supplanted by other electronic digital instruments, i.e. the synthesizer, that “sound the same” as an organ; this is total fallacy, revealing a lack of understanding of the organ’s capabilities.
3. Belief that the organ is a “thing of the past” and not relevant for today’s worship styles.
4. Belief that the organ does not blend with other instruments, tending to overpower them; this is due to poor choice of registration by organists.
5. Theological issue: tendency to emphasize the intimacy of God through relationship with Christ more than the grandeur and “other-ness” of God; simply a one-sided approach to the attributes of God.
V. Organ is seen as being associated only with funerals or weddings
A. Insipid sounding registrations with “wobbly” tremolo (i.e. the typical old worn-out Hammond organ sound) or the opposite, which is deafeningly loud and shrill.
B. This perception is caused largely by the general lack of familiarity of most people of what a good organ sounds like and how it can be used effectively in worship.
VI. Focus of music ministries in churches solely on contemporary musical styles and concessions to contemporary culture; in efforts to reach unbelievers, churches shun that which they believe people might not be familiar with, i.e. the organ.
What, if anything, can be done to reverse these trends?
I. We should be willing to admit that not every congregation will embrace the organ, and there are some that simply will never have the means to have an organ. Our focus should be on restoring the organ to churches where it once was a part of their musical worship practices.
II. Raise the general awareness and knowledge among church people about the organ; pipe organs, due to their size and complexity, are fascinating in many respects.
III. Attempt to erase in the minds of people many of the popular misconceptions about the instrument.
A. It can sound happy and joyful, not always mournful and sad; it can be an instrument capable of suggesting intimacy as well as grandeur.
B. It can be used effectively in contemporary musical styles. It need not be an either/or option.
IV. Emphasize the great effectiveness of MIDI technology in connection with traditional organ sounds, i.e. the “orchestral” capabilities of the instrument.
V. Pipe organ “traditionalists” should celebrate rather than be threatened by the marvelous advances being made in digital sampling. Emphasize the authenticity and usefulness of “pipeless” digital organs.
VI. Educate our congregations and worship leaders about the true nature of worship itself. God is interested in our hearts much more than the “art” which we offer to Him in worship. Many younger people today are expressing an interest in returning to their “roots,” which might be grounded in traditionalism.
VII. Provide interesting, informative and entertaining venues that feature the organ, e.g. the “Pipe Organ Encounters” sponsored by the AGO.
Dr. Jerry Aultman serves on the faculty of the School of Church Music at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and is organist at the First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas. He is a Fellow in the American Guild of Organists.