Despite changes in style, pipe organs endure

Jerry Aultman, the longtime organist and music professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological, said the pipe organ doesn't need to be relegated to funerals and weddings, and it fits nicely into modern worship when used in the right way.
BY DIRK LAMMERS Modified: December 28, 2012 at 4:06 pm •  Published: December 29, 2012
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“The difference is there,” Nordlie said. “Whether you take the time to listen carefully is entirely up to you.”

The large megabuilders 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.

Weaver said music aficionados still value the incredible amount of craftsmanship put into each organ. For proof, he points to the top-of-the line organs being built for municipal concert halls such as the Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas.

“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 a fewer number of musicians qualified to sit behind the consoles. The pipe organ is a complex instrument, and playing it well requires intensive training and practice.

Weaver said the number of organ students dropped tremendously a few years ago as musicians worried about whether their degrees would lead to jobs. He said he's starting to see a turnaround.

Aultman agreed. He said there are fewer universities offering organ degrees, but the ones that remain are 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.

Aultman urges organists who want to make a living to embrace contemporary styles. He suggests that organists trained to playing only off sheet music learn to play off chord charts like Nashville studio musicians.

“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.”