Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Imminent Demise of Organ-Playing!

Thanks to David Sinden for the link to this interesting article on the crisis in organ-playing and the changing trends of church music. I'm always amused by how much these issues seem to surprise newspaper reporters, even though church music has been "in crisis" for the past half-century: copy on these matters always seems to run as follows:
For years, the asthmatic groan of pipe organs has been the norm in churches throughout the Western hemisphere. Worshipers have clung tenaciously to their favourite hymns, like "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" and "Onward, Christian Soldiers". But in St. Bill's Presbyterian Church, Kapuskasing, members of the congregation are treated to a new and different sound: the sound of guitars and drums accompanying catchy, upbeat choruses. These changes may irritate more conservative members of their congregation, who generally are attracted to the tradition of traditional church music, but Pastor Adrian Smarmingham thinks otherwise. "All music is equal before God," said Smarmingham, "so questions of tradition, or purported musical quality, should be irrelevant." People may agree or disagree with St. Bill's new innovation, but one thing is for certain: this development will change the course of church music for years to come.
Riiiight. Any church musician knows this is old, old news.

The article attributes this change in part to a shortage of qualified organists, a trend which it explains as follows:
There's a shortage of trained organists because ...
Younger people are not pursuing it as a career because ...
They don't hear it played as much as their elders did because ...
There's a shortage of trained organists.
Return to Step 1 and repeat until the second coming.
This is true on one level, but on another, very misleading. Here's why:

Organists with a high level of training (say, a master's in performance or equivalent) are in competition for the most prestigious, well-paid and demanding jobs in the country. Paul Jacobs is not going to quit his job at Juilliard and become organist for the local Anglican church with an uninspiring two-manual organ (you know this organ: it's the one with three stops in the pedal division, soggy action and an antiquated console) and a volunteer choir (average age: 57). Even if the church somehow was able to offer a full-time salary, they don't want the position. This is the same in all areas of musical performance: the newest young violin sensation isn't going to join the Secondary Philharmonic (you know this orchestra: it's the one that gives four concerts a year, divided between Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, and badly done arrangements for pops concerts) if there are openings in the New York Philharmonic. Highly trained musicians want challenging work. Regardless of the musical climate, the best-quality church musicians will always be working at cathedrals or large, affluent parishes. That's life. And this means that to hear really good organ playing, the kind that would inspire a young person to take up the instrument, you have to either go to one of those churches or attend recitals. And the quality of music at these institutions - the ones which represent the pinnacle of the profession - is as high as it ever was. There are no shortage of qualified organists at this level. It's the rest of the profession we're worried about.

Fifty years ago, the average parish church would have an organist with a moderate amount of training - often they'd be converted pianists or people who took a few organ lessons years ago. Thing is, though, that to learn the organ at all takes substantial effort - you need a fair amount of piano technique, and even if you never use the pedals you'll need some help, or a lot of experimentation, to figure out the mechanics of the instrument. Compare this effort to the amount of effort it takes to find someone who can play the guitar or drum kit, and one can see why contemporary music is so appealing to smaller churches. The people are easy to find, and they come cheap: "worship teams" at such churches are often made up entirely of pools of volunteers who rotate. This is insidious; the church saves a lot of money, gets to feel self-righteously democratic about it (our musicians work for free because they're real Christians!) and thinks they're attracting young people. This, I think, is the real motivation behind the move to contemporary worship music.

The result? People who, a generation ago, would have only ever heard mediocre or poor organ playing, now hear no organ playing. This is partly sad: people don't hear the organ anymore! It's also partly encouraging: people don't hear bad playing, and therefore at least won't dislike the instrument! The adjectives people usually use to refer to the organ in bad newspaper articles ("solemn!" "stately!" "sombre!") are all true enough, but frequently carry a pejorative slant which makes it clear the author's mental benchmark is of very bad, lifeless playing. Unrelentingly loud, constantly legato with no change in registrations and with as many octave doublings as possible, down to the 16' register: this is what most people think of when they hear the instrument. (This is also the sound of "Pipe Organ" on most electric pianos, which may or may not be relevant.)

The way to change public perceptions, I think, is to arrange for the organ to be heard in flattering circumstances, with interesting performances of worthwhile repertoire. First engage with the broader classical music community, which is largely indifferent to organ playing, and the rest will follow. The "worship wars" will fight themselves if people's benchmark for organ playing is brought up to date.

1 comment:

Sinden said...

Great reflections. Thank you. I especially like your take on the "insidious" praise band.