Pipe organs soar, but number of players dips - Omaha.com
Published Saturday, February 23, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 5:22 pm
Pipe organs soar, but number of players dips

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Few musicians can boast that their instrument rises seven stories high and lives inside a million-dollar building that a team of architects, designers, acousticians and artists created just for its music.

For centuries, pipe organs, dubbed the king of instruments, have been seen as the closest instrument to God, second only to the human voice.

Perhaps it's because a pipe organ breathes like a human being, groans with rumbling growls, twitters with soaring soprano chirps. Through a musician's fingers and toes the instrument can express emotions from bombastic anger to ethereal musings in four-part harmony and beyond.

But for all its grandeur, the number of college students choosing to study the organ is shrinking. The University of Kansas, with its multimillion-dollar Hellmuth Wolff pipe organ and Bales Recital Hall, has helped make KU one of the largest organ programs in the nation.

With two dozen students.

“We don't have a shortage here,” said James Higdon, who has taught college organists for three decades. “Students are practicing 24/7 on this organ in this grand hall at all hours of day and night. Few schools have a million-dollar facility like this.”

But across the nation, college students training on the demanding instrument are an endangered species. Since the 1980s, religious leaders have been bemoaning the deepening dearth of people who can sit at the keyboards and play the music for worship.

The American Guild of Organists has noticed the shortage, too. According to the National Association of Schools of Music, in 1998-99 there were 303 undergraduate majors. In the last school year, it was 182. Even at the conservatory of the University of Missouri-Kansas City, the once-thriving organ program is no more, with just one, maybe two, students studying privately.

In Nebraska, college programs report a steady rate of students studying pipe organ though fewer than decades ago.

At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, for example, seven students currently are in the pipe organ program. That may sound like a small class, but the number is about average for UNL in recent years, said Christopher Marks, an associate professor of organ.

In addition, Nebraska organists say, the state has plenty of people to play its pipe organs.

That's good, because Nebraska is an important place for the instrument, according to experts. Dozens of them scattered across the state, which has multiple chapters of the American Guild of Organists, a group that invites performers from all over the country for regular concerts.

In addition, the Bedient Pipe Organ Co., founded by Gene Bedient, in Lincoln, Neb., has installed and built organs since 1970.

And although other cities have pipe organs in performing arts centers and theaters, most of Nebraska's organs are in churches.

Omaha's St. Cecilia Cathedral has five on its campus near 40th and Burt Streets, although not all are pipe organs.

“They all serve a different purpose, but we're committed to teaching the organ because the organ has been such an important instrument in the church's life because of its connection to singing,” said Marie Rubis Bauer, the director of music at St. Cecilia and the cathedral organist.

St. Cecilia Cathedral, at top, has five organs on its campus near 40th and Burt Streets, and its director of music, organist Marie Rubis Bauer, above, says the cathedral is committed to teaching the organ because of its important link to church life.

No one knows for sure why there are fewer organists across the country. But one factor is that it's difficult for many churches to pay a living wage, said Barbara Adler, an organist at St. Mary's Episcopal Church. She knows too well that students, who have spent thousands of dollars and thousands of hours practicing, may only make $100 a performance.

“Well, it's just not an attractive profession,” said Adler, who has 50-plus years' experience and has struggled.

The church organists used to be the stay-at-home wives who had piano chops, learning the organ to give back to their church, she said. But more women today work outside the home during the week and can't meet the demands of being a church organist on weekends, too.

“Organists work every weekend, all holidays, usually a Wednesday night rehearsal for the choir, and if there's a death or wedding to do, they work that, too,” Adler said. Many organists not only play but often conduct the choir with one hand and then manage a music library.

Whether churches can't afford an organist, or because they can't find one, more and more churches are seeking alternatives think organist computer apps. Still other churches have abandoned the organ altogether and use canned music.

Some have praise bands, though that's not a trend Higdon favors.

“I call them pick-up garage bands, people who know six chords. That follow-the-bouncing-ball stuff will get old,” he said. “It's just boring. It won't last.”

Rubis Bauer, too, thinks the organ is suited to use in churches.

“It's a natural way to lead a large group of people without amplification,” she said, and they enhance the worship experience, an important thing in the midwest.

“Organs, when they are put into churches, are part of that sign of people bringing something very special. Music is just an important part of the worship of the people who settled this area,” she said.

Higdon also spoke of organs in a historical context.

“These struggles with church organists have always happened,” he said. “Even Johann Sebastian Bach had his pressures. He was told his organ playing was too fancy, that he played too many notes, that it was too complicated.”

Once the economy revives, Higdon is confident that the instrument that has been around since the pharaohs will still be revered.

“Look, churches have invested millions of dollars in organs. They won't allow them to just go away.”

World-Herald staff writer Kevin Coffey contributed to this report.

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