Four alternatives to killing your pipe organ

This morning in the Boston Globe was an opinion piece that got my blood boiling before I had even left the house. Jennifer Graham writes To revitalize the Church, let’s kill all the organs! While I appreciate her observation that the liturgical life of parishes is crucial to the revitalization of the Catholic Church, our points of agreement pretty much end there.

I encourage you to read the whole piece before reading on, but I’ll try to summarize: the organ is “scary”, no one has it on their iPod, she doesn’t like the music at her parish, and that’s why people don’t go to Mass.

“I cringe at the Responsorial Psalm, ancient and lovely words bleated in call-and-repeat fashion with all the auditory appeal of an electronic can opener in full swing.” I cringed myself at the thought of the cantor at her parish reading that. But I’ve been to parishes where the music disappointed me, too, so I’m not going to dismiss her criticism out of hand. Instead, I’ll offer my tips: Four things to do other than killing the organ

1. Encourage music education

I know lots of people who play the organ stunningly. They also play guitars, piano, they sing, whatever the situation calls for. Someone taught them along the way, and at least for those of my generation, some part of that education took place in schools, either public or private.

That’s also where people learn to listen. Even as a music major in college, it took me a long time to learn to listen to and appreciate music. By learning to listen well, we also learn about observation, description, and attention to detail. This is enriching in its own right.

2. Prioritize and support music in the parishes

Bach was, among other things, a genius. But perhaps equally important, he was a paid, full time church musician. Do you think he could have composed some of the most iconic music in history if he had been working four jobs to make ends meet? Knowing him, perhaps. But you get my point.

There is this myth out there that we music ministers should just donate our time because don’t we love Jesus and Church? But at the end of the day, you get what you pay for, and those of us who have invested in our education and training have trouble working at places that won’t invest in us.

Not every parish can fund a full-time music ministry program, but there are lots of ways to show that you have invested in the program. I have seen programs where the pastor criticizes everyone. I have seen programs run by tyrants. I have seen programs who play politics more than they play music. There’s lots of ways to do it wrong, but also lots of ways to do it right. Respect your musicians.

And if you’re sitting in the pews, that means sing with them. I guarantee the cantor the author of this op-ed derided for her Psalm stylings had her hand up hoping the assembly would sing along with her. If you don’t like it, drown it out.

3. Give people more

The author is right on the money that people want more. But she seems to think that it’s because of Bose speakers and YouTube. In a world of slick packaging and empty clarity, I think it is folly to think that they want more surface appeal. People want more. But they want more substance, not more style. Which leads me to my last point…

4. Let music come to life

“In an age in which we can experience the front row of a stirring live symphony while in the back seat of a 20-year-old pick-up, our tolerance for the banal, predictably, is waning.”

Does anyone who has been to symphony think that the experience can be recreated anywhere? To hear real sound coming from real instruments and real people, while surrounded by other real people, is an experience that cannot be duplicated.

I wrote this years ago about a trip to Symphony Hall to hear the Neruda Songs:

We are bodies, living in a world we can touch, feel, see, smell, hear. The sonic experience of orchestral forces in a live setting is incomparable, a fact of which I am reminded on every trip to the symphony. The magic of skill and intention forming sound waves that surround us is a perfect example of the blessings of our physical world. Add to that the power of a perfectly calibrated human voice – an example of every part of the human body working together perfectly, art truly incarnate – and you have a recipe for transformation…

A rich human voice, an orchestra, an emotive musical setting of sensual poetry created the perfect storm, tearing me away from the elite intellectualism honed over many years in the ivory tower. My brain was ripped out and I was only body, heart and blood and guts and skin.

This doesn’t happen every time you hear live music. But it can’t happen when you don’t. Live music can produce hits and misses, moments of catastrophe and moments of grace. But when it’s done right we come alive, together, surrounded by other people, truly in a moment that will never exist again.

So let’s not blame the organ, and let’s not burn it either. Let’s encourage real, gritty, honest music, and let ourselves be set aflame.

This entry was posted in Best of Music, liturgy, music, singing. Bookmark the permalink.

37 Responses to Four alternatives to killing your pipe organ

  1. Michael says:

    You rock!! You couldn’t have put that any better. 🙂

      • Rev. Ralph E says:

        Unfortunately today there is a generation which defends guitars only with the same vehemence that a previous generation defended the organ, and the perspective is just as narrow. Psalm 150 encourages us to worship with many different instruments. One of my choral conductors used to insist that all forms of music may be used to worship. The important thing is that it be performed well, to the best of our ability.

    • From AIO President, Matthew Bellocchio (response to the Graham Article in the Boston Globe.
      Dear Editor:

      As someone involved in both pipe organ building and church music for the past 40 years, I was disappointed to read Ms. Graham’s myopic screed about the organ in the Catholic Church [Save the church! (kill the org
      ans)]. There are many churches throughout the country with organs and organists which inspire young and old alike with good music superbly performed. Perhaps Ms. Graham and her children should visit one of these. If one of her children had an unpleasant experience at a local dentist, would she also propose that we do away with dentists, or would she find them a better practitioner? There are many talented young people who are studying the organ and yes, Ms. Graham, many churches are still installing pipe organs. I represent an organization of over 400 pipe organ builders, whose work is in high demand. One person’s art may be another person’s annoyance. But this is usually due to a lack of understanding and a biased sampling – both clearly evident in Ms. Graham’s opinion piece.

      Matthew M. Bellocchio, President
      American Institute of Organbuilders

      As Vice President of AIO, I too endorse this fine reply from Presdient Bellocchio. Its seems all too often what we hear from a digital source be it Ipod etc represents what people think is true music- in fact what we hear and see from a LIVE person using a LIVE instrumnet who has been trained and well prepared represents quality.

      Patrick J. Murphy
      Patrick J. Murphy & Associates Inc Organbuilderts

      • felicemifa says:

        Great responses! The more time I spend thinking about the article, the more I focus on that issue of the false reality of recorded music and the importance of live music.

  2. Michael Cedrone says:

    Thanks for this wonderful reflection.

  3. Mary Shaw says:

    Thank you for this, which I’ve shared on my FB page.

  4. Joe says:

    Beautiful, eloquent, witty, and well-said!

  5. Tracy Cowden says:

    Very thoughtful – thank you! I’d like to share this, as well…

  6. John says:

    I am one of those church musicians who invested a lot of years, a lot of sweat and a lot of tears both working to perfect my art and craft as well as bring greater beauty and substance to the congregations I’ve served. As often as I work to put substance into my musical plans, the tawdy and banal are forced into the program – how many times can I do “Be Not Afraid” at a funeral. What I have learned is that quality music can bring people into the church but only if it’s part of a unified program of quality liturgy and quality preaching. Style is usually less important that quality of performance. I haven’t had the chance to read the full article in the Globe (it’s not something I subscribe to) but blaming the organ is akin to blaming wooden bats for the Red Sox having a terrible season. I do thank you for your cogent and thoughtful blog article.

    • felicemifa says:

      I’m often reminded of the quote from Eliot “for us there is only the trying, the rest is not our business”. How hard that can be to believe, though when we work our whole lives to be excellent and then are asked to sing or play music that brings us down.

      • musical beef says:

        I’m an organist at a large metropolitan church. Much is demanded of me, but on the books I’m only a half-time employee and have no control over the music program, which is run by the director. It’s bad enough not to be invested in, but as you say, things are especially hard when we have lofty goals but are forced to spend all our time learning and playing poor music.

        It may seem like hyperbole, but I think Graham’s position really amounts to bigotry. She doesn’t care for organ music, so organs and organ music need to go. I don’t care for much pop/rock, but I don’t go about admonishing people who do to quit it.

        Thank you for this.

      • felicemifa says:

        You’re welcome. Keep doing your important work!

  7. Many gifted, excellent church musicians are leaving their vocation because of lack of support in their congregations. John’s comment is absolutely correct. People (and especially children) are drawn to quality music; but parishes must be willing to spend a little money to pay their musician well, and appreciate his/her skills. There is really good music out there, both old and new; with beautiful, reverent liturgy and quality preaching, parishes can be revitalized. Is it going to happen? Probably not, and that’s too bad.

    • felicemifa says:

      It’s always so tragic to hear of musicians who leave church work because they don’t feel valued or because they can’t afford the stay in it. You are right, there is a lot of good out there, and hopefully in the future there will be even more!

  8. Stephen Morris says:

    Next week I will take the 5th graders from our parish school through our pipe organ — they will get to hear and see and play it. This was at THEIR request and we are all excited about it. Each summer, the university where I teach holds an “organ camp” for middle and high school kids — as do a number of universities around the country.– and we usually fill to capacity. The organ has never been a real mainstream instrument, but if we become a society that kills off everything that is not mainstream we will deserve that pathetic existence we get. The author of the original diatribe cites the lack of organ music on i-tunes top singles — is THIS the standard by which we judge things? I guess we just need to close all the restaurants except McDonalds then, right? The original article was ignorance on parade — we can do better than this.

    • felicemifa says:

      Well done! Exposing kids to great music and instruments is of the utmost importance. There’s no guarantee that every kid will be enthralled, but for the few who are that will be the experience of a lifetime.

  9. Ev says:

    This is a wonderful article. I am a professional musician…opera singer, voice and piano teacher, and choir director…in a Greek Orthodox Church. I wonder what this Boston Globe columnist would say about Byzantine Chant in a 2-hour service? ha! In the Orthodox Church we do not modernize anything or ruin the Liturgy by any other means. We just teach the children about the Liturgy and the chant. And the kids love it! Plus I myself am a modest organist and am best friends with a major organist in the Boston area. This man has literally given his life to play organ magnificently, and finally in his life now has a church job where people adore what he does. That sometimes takes years in church work. I think people (like this columnist) who know nothing about fine Liturgy and music, and instruments, should just shut up! ha!

    • felicemifa says:

      I’m with you: just present the liturgy and the music and allow people to respond to it. Our efforts to make it “more attractive” can be detrimental and gilding the lily.

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  11. The problem with music in churches, especially the Roman Catholic church, is the poverty of the liturgical music with reference to the type of music that the writer of the article in the Boston Globe describes as the typical call and response Responsorial Psalm that she experiences in her parish church. The organ is alive and well in Boston and in many parts of the world. She should look at YouTube at the huge number of organ performances that are being heard and presented.

    • felicemifa says:

      It is amusing that she chose Boston- an organ heavy city- for her audience. This summer I went to an evening organ recital in ghastly heat, and the place was packed.

  12. David Smit says:

    Thank you very much for this excellent response! I am both an organ builder and an organist, and in our parish (a multicultural inner-city one) our parishioners refuse to have any other primary means of accompaniment. Yes, we do have band services, meditative services, the works, but our staple is, and will remain it would seem the pipe organ. I will not commence on my own opinions on the original “opinion” article. What is however rather telling is that Boston is a very organ-friendly city, and there are more builders in MA than most other states. As a matter of fact, I completed my apprenticeship in MA, travveling halfway across the planet to do so.

    South Africa

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  14. What was astonishing about the original piece was that the writer was from Columbia, SC and was familiar with what is one of the finest examples of GOOD music in the country today at St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Columbia, SC, directed by Mark Husey. I made mention of this venue to her on FB, as well as give her a YouTube link of an example of his playing “Crown Him with Many Crowns” where the people actually SANG! I cannot help but wonder if she ever heard anything they are doing or is simply so culturally bankrupt that she wouldn’t know what fine liturgical music was if it came up and bit her on the behind? Pathetic no matter how you slice it. Thank you for your response. This whole thing certainly “went viral” in terms of the impact it made on the organ community!

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  17. Larry says:

    Obviously the article author wasnt aware that a grammy was presented to an organist recently for his recording of a famous Catholic organists music. (Meesaien) The poor woman seemed so ignorant about church music. Or was she deliberately trying to stir up readership for her paper?
    Either way her article was pathetic. How sad for her and the Globe

  18. I’m an interdenominational freelance UK organist and love the breadth of scope that is covered by the churches where I play. These cover virtually the whole christian spectrum. One thing amazes me though: I don’t pretend to be much of a pianist, yet I get ‘booked’for a service, then 1 week or less before I receive a message telling me that all the music will be trite ‘verse and chorus’ pop style, often with most of it being done by a music group of instruments whom I’m not expected to accompany. The one or two songs for which I’m required are to be played on the piano. This happened just last Sunday.
    Why book and pay for a professional organist to attend when they could often source a pianist of at least the same standard as me from within their own ranks? It’s most unsatisying for me.

    • felicemifa says:

      Thanks for visiting, David. That is one that perplexes me too. I find that most people making hiring decisions simply don’t understand the specialization that goes on when we reach higher levels of training. When I was starting out I played guitar in order to satisfy the requirement of many churches that I be able to accompany myself. It became apparent that I was never going to be much of a player, so I decided to ditch it even if it limited by opportunities. I’m better off doing one thing well than trying to do many things and not having as much success.

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