SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – The pipe organ has ruled the Christian worship sanctuary for centuries, and the majestic instrument continues to reign supreme in many Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant parishes.
But, it’s a tougher sell for congregations moving toward contemporary worship.
The growth in services led by praise bands and a nationwide shortage of qualified organists has led many congregations to leave pipe organs out of their new construction plans.
Jerry Aultman thinks that’s a mistake.
The pipe organ doesn’t need to be relegated to funerals and weddings, and it nicely fits into modern worship when used in the right way, said the music professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological.
“We shouldn’t abandon the organ in contemporary music styles,” said Aultman, who also plays each Sunday at First Baptist Church in Dallas. “The organ is a wonderful instrument to blend in with any kind of instrumental ensemble. It can fill in a lot of holes in the sound.”
The pipe organ, which dates to the third century B.C., “has always been the choice for churches who want one musician to fill the room with sound,” said John Nordlie, a South Dakota organ builder.
The instrument has been considered expensive throughout its history; current prices range from $100,000 to well into the millions. But pipe organs hold their value and can last for generations if they’re well-designed and well-maintained, he said.
Nordlie built his first instrument in 1977 for a church in Appleton, Minn., and has built almost 50 organs in his Sioux Falls shop. Each part is handcrafted, from the wood and metal pipes that turn airflow into notes to the ornate cabinetry that houses the massive structures.
Although electronic and digital instruments try to emulate the sound of wind being pushed through pipes, “They will never match the sound of the pipe organ,” Nordlie said.
“The difference is there,” he said. “Whether you take the time to listen carefully is entirely up to you.”
The large builders of organs of the 1960s largely have disappeared, but numerous smaller companies are building as many instruments as they can turn out, said James Weaver, executive director of the Organ Historical Society.
Music aficionados still value the incredible amount of craftsmanship put into each organ, Weaver said. The proof is seen in the top-of-the line organs being built for municipal concert halls such as the Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas, the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia and Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.
“The idea of a handmade instrument is something which is just still quite a wonderful thing in our society, and it’s something that we really care about,” Weaver said.
Another factor contributing to the organ’s decline is the declining number of musicians qualified to sit at its console. The pipe organ is a complex instrument, and playing it well requires intensive training and practice.
The number of organ students dropped tremendously a few years ago as musicians worried about whether their degrees would lead to jobs, Weaver said. But he’s starting to see a turn-around.
“Now there are more positions available I think,” he said.
Aultman agreed. He said there are fewer universities offering organ degrees, but the programs that still do have grown stronger.
“There are still students that are majoring in organ, and there are still churches that will hire them and pay them a living wage,” he said. “And I think that’s just going to get better.”
Aultman urged organists who want to make a living to embrace contemporary styles. He suggested that organists trained to play only from sheet music learn to play from chord charts as Nashville studio musicians do.
“My advice to organists is, ‘Don’t be a snob,’” he said. “You’re not going to probably find a position where you can play all Bach preludes and fugues for the bulk of your work.”