(Originally published Oct. 11, 2007)

The organists are out there. I talked to them.

There are more than 75 organists, organ students and teachers in the York chapter of the American Organists Guild alone.

To the north, there are 133 in Harrisburg's chapter, 100 in Lancaster's and about 215 in Baltimore's.

But many houses of worship, especially smaller congregations, complain about a shortage of qualified organists. Some go months, even years, with their organ getting little or no play.

Some say the trouble is that York County has more churches than organists. But with the popularity of contemporary and blended-style worship, some church-goers never hear the grand echoing of the organ's pipe chamber.

The problem might not be a dearth of organists but the little money churches and synagogues are willing or able to pay them, organists say.

The number of full-time organist or music-director jobs at York County churches has declined in the last decade. Most organists have other full- or part-time jobs, teach piano lessons or perform regularly to supplement their income.

"There are churches unable to pay a decent salary, and so fewer students are willing to study it to be a church organist because they won't make any money," said Victor Fields, dean of the York chapter of the organists' guild.

Instead, students might opt for recording careers, concert performances or hold out for one of the highly competitive jobs playing for a metropolitan cathedral.


"What we are lacking is people who are seriously committed to the organ but are independently wealthy enough not to have to demand a fair wage for their time and energy invested in serving in the church-music field," said Shawn Gingrich, 38, the organist and choir director at First United Methodist Church in Hershey.

To deal with the so-called shortage, some houses of worship look for other solutions to their musician problem.

A pair of Presbyterian churches this summer hired a pianist together and are paying for her organ lessons.

Biba Benjamin directs the churches' choirs on Sunday mornings -- Kreutz Creek Presbyterian in Hellam Township and Columbia Presbyterian in Columbia -- with the churches adjusting their worship schedules to allow for her travel across the river.

In downtown York, organist Rodney Barnett of Red Lion plays for both Asbury United Methodist Church and Grace United Methodist Church each week, leaving Asbury's first service early to walk to Grace, then returning for Asbury's 11 a.m. worship.

Temple Beth Israel's organist travels from Baltimore to York Township on Fridays to play for Shabbat services accompanying the cantor.

The Rev. Stanley Reep, pastor of St. Paul's Lutheran in York, has climbed onto his church's organ bench himself on recent Sundays when a substitute organist wasn't available. Other times, the congregation sings unaccompanied, he said. St. Paul's has been without a permanent organist since June.

In Mount Wolf, Starview United Church of Christ has been seeking a director of music/organist for four months, the Rev. Laura Bair said.

The church has received several applicants, but a few couldn't play the organ. Some more qualified applicants asked for salaries the congregation couldn't afford, even though paying a fair wage is important to the church, Bair said.

One exceptional candidate had a master's degree in music and interest in leading all but one choir, Bair said. But she wanted a minimum $17,000 salary and the summers off. The church, which draws 75 to 100 to Sunday worship, was offering $10,000.

"It would be unrealistic to think we could pay their asking salary and still provide adequately for our local mission and global outreach ministries, as well as meet our day-to-day budgetary needs," Bair said.

A professional group, the American Guild of Organists publishes a salary guide for musicians at religious institutions, recommending a base salary of $49,410 to $65,980 for full-time organists with a master's degree in organ or sacred music; $43,430 to $57,180 for those with a bachelor's degree; and $34,400 to $46,120 for those with associate degrees or private study.

The guidelines note that salary will vary by region and experience level. They also break down the salary ranges by number of hours worked a week.

Substitute organists should receive a range of $100 to $225 for a single service (with no separate rehearsal), and substitute organist-choir directors $150 to $275 (also with no separate rehearsal).

Many churches don't follow the AGO guidelines, guild members say.

"Most people see church musicians working on Sunday mornings," said Fran Treisbach, who edits the Harrisburg guild's newsletter, the Bombarde.

"They do not see the planning, rehearsal and practice time involved to provide this music. They also do not see the years and money invested in training to become an accomplished musician. . . . A music degree often costs more than other degrees because of the cost of individual study."

James E. Thomashower, executive director of the 20,000-member AGO, said the organist shortage doesn't really exist.

Church leaders call it a shortage because "they're frustrated they can't seem to attract the organists they need," he said.

"But they may not realize they're not offering enough to make the job attractive."

Also, not every institution has a quality instrument that's been well-maintained -- a potential drawback when organists are looking for a desirable job.

Mary Loyer, former dean of the York chapter of the AGO, said schools and music teachers aren't nurturing as many young pianists -- many of whom went on to study organ in past generations of musicians.

Also, fewer students get exposed to classical music in school or to the sound of an organ in church or temple, Fields said.

Benjamin, a piano teacher in Lancaster County, oversees music lessons at a girls' boarding school in Lititz where she's had little luck promoting the organ.

"It's an old-fashioned sound," she said. "Young teenagers want nothing to do with that timbre. Everything today is about electronic sound."

Data gathered by the National Associations of Schools of Music show the number of degree-pursuing organ majors is in decline -- from 728 in the 1985-86 academic year to 498 in the 2005-06 year.

(The statistics reflect only 35 percent of the association's membership, and the survey participants vary year to year.)

To introduce more students to the organ, guild chapters sponsor Pedals, Pipes and Pizza events each year, where young people gather for an organ demonstration and free lunch.

The AGO also sponsors regional Pipe Organ Encounters for youth -- a weeklong, intensive summer camp for kids with basic keyboard proficiency. The program seeks to get young people interested in the organ through instruction in playing, history, design and construction. More than 250 young people participated in six Organ Encounters this summer, Thomashower said.

The York chapter and others offer scholarships each year to students with interest and potential ability. It also promotes organ music by bringing to town guest organists such as Peter Lea-Cox from Britain Oct. 19 at Trinity United Church of Christ.

The organ-building industry itself is healthy, doing about $100 million in annual sales -- up from $70 million in 2004. And of the 100 new pipe organs built each year in the U.S. and Canada, typically 85 percent are installed in churches, according to economist and organist Robert R. Ebert, an industry analyst.

"What's ironic is throughout the United States churches are buying pipe organs more than ever before, and expensive ones are going in concert halls," Fields said.

"America has seen at least five new concert organs in their concert halls. So the general public gets to hear organ music not in their church but in a concert setting."

771-2024; mburke@ydr.com


Bellows: an apparatus of wood and folded leather that collects wind and delivers it to the wind chest

Chamber: a room housing the pipes of an organ, opening into the main room

Console: the control center of the organ

Façade: the front of the organ chamber or case

Flue: an organ pipe that makes sound by setting a column of air vibrating

Mitered pipe: a pipe bent to fit into limited space

Pistons: buttons and toe studs that change stops and couplers and may be set by the organist

Reed: an organ pipe that makes sound by the vibration of a reed against a hollow tube called a "shallot"

Stop: the knob or tablet that pulls a rank of pipes into play

Swell: a division of the organ enclosed in a box with shutters

Tremolo: a device that shakes the wind, making the sound of the pipes waver

Windchest: a box on which the pipes stand, filled with air

Source: American Guild of Organists


York American Guild of Organists, www.yorkago.org

American Guild of Organists, www.agohq.org

American Institute of Organbuilders, www.pipeorgan.org

The Organ Historical Society, www.organsociety.org

Pipedreams, www.pipedreams.org