Tough Times for Traditional Church Music

Fewer organists available to fill open positions.

November 12, 2010, 11:08 AM

Nov. 13, 2010— -- No one has touched the organ at First United Methodist Church in Oakland, Neb., since last January.

That's when 80-year-old Pat Anderson played her last note as the small-town church's volunteer organist, a post she held for 18 years. "It was time for me to retire," she said. When she did, there was nobody to step in. Two young women have taken over the musical duties for the 190-member congregation, but they play a digital piano – not the organ.

"There are some people who wish we had the organ still, but they face the reality that it just isn't going to happen," said the Rev. Richard Karohl.

First United's struggle is indicative of a nationwide plight: There aren't enough organists to fill all of the open church positions. Many of the stay-at-home moms who once volunteered as organists are working now, and fewer young people are studying the organ. Those who are training to be professionals aren't interested in playing for small churches where the music program is limited to Sunday services and the pay is minimal – if there's pay at all.

"In these small communities, it's been the same person who's been the organist for many, many, many years and, when they retire, there's no one to take over," said Richard Morris, a 73-year-old retired organist who's now a substitute musician for several churches in Lincoln, Neb. "They just don't have the people who are being trained anymore, and they don't have the means" to bring someone in from outside the community.

But the problem isn't just one for small churches seeking volunteers.

At Redeemer Lutheran Church in St. Clair Shores, Mich., the Rev. Jack Cascione said he is booking substitutes by the month while he seeks a part-time organist for his congregation of 400.

In July, Cascione launched a search -- in newspaper ads, on and on the American Guild of Organists website -- for someone to act as a secretary and organist for $38,000 a year, including benefits. He got only four responses to the listings; he dismissed three of them because they came from Romania, Ireland and the Philippines and thus involved visa issues. The only American applicant didn't want to do office work.

Supply and Demand

"The problem is there are no organists around here," Cascione said, explaining the difficulty of his search. Of his last five organists, Cascione said, "I picked them all up out of college, and then they find a really great job elsewhere."

They leave for churches where music programs have top billing and their skills are fully used.

"There's a great supply [of organists] for the right kind of jobs," said James Thomashower, executive director of the 18,000-member American Guild of Organists. Compared to 30 years ago, there are fewer trained organists -- but they're chasing fewer attractive positions. It's a buyers' market for churches with ambitious music programs. "There are many, many highly qualified organists who would like to have a fine job on a fine instrument that pays a good wage," Thomashower said.

That wage, according to the Guild, should be between $63,000 and $83,000 a year, including benefits, for a full-time organist with a bachelor's degree in organ performance or sacred music.

The salary at All Saints Episcopal Church in Worcester, Mass., fits into that guideline.

The Rev. Kevin Bean said he has received more than 70 applications for the 1,000-member church's full-time music director opening. The position pays between $73,000 and $85,000 annually, he said, and the music program is the "crown jewel" of his church. He's looking for someone to not only play the organ but also to lead and grow the choirs, select the music, oversee the music budget and manage relations with the church's vast alumni network.

"I was pleasantly surprised" by the number of applicants, Bean said. "We have a pretty significant group to consider."

Because of the size of the music program and the scope of the job, All Saints has had a promising response. But many smaller churches search in vain for months. Some decide it's easier -- and cheaper -- to use canned music or a praise band of guitarists and keyboardists than it is to find an organist.

Some experts wonder if the trend toward nontraditional church music is deterring students from becoming professional organists.

Still, "A Lot of Young, Talented Students"

Over the past 28 years, the National Association of Schools of Music has seen the average number of students seeking a bachelor's degree in organ performance fall to 2.2 students per institution annually from 3.5 students. NASM accredits 633 institutions in the U.S., about 100 of which offer a bachelor's degree in organ performance.

"I don't think it's necessarily [because of] a lack of interest in the organ," said Christopher Marks, assistant professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's School of Music. "It's a lot of supply and demand. There's not as much opportunity" because fewer churches can afford to pay reasonable wages. In addition, he said, few can offer well-trained organists fulfilling employment. An estimated one in 100 organist positions is full time.

But Thomashower, the Guild director, and Marks say there's reason to be optimistic. Last summer, the Guild held eight Pipe Organ Encounters -- youth outreach programs intended to spark interest in the instrument – across the country. All were filled to capacity. "I have to emphasize, I go all over the country working with teenage organists," Marks said, "and there a lot of young, talented students." contributor Teresa Lostroh is a member of the ABC News on Campus program.

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