Tough Times for Traditional Church Music

Fewer organists available to fill open positions.

ByABC News
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.