Organ bench I

This Sunday morning, all across America, hundreds of thousands of professional musicians rolled out of bed, got dressed, and headed for church. I was one of them. I’ve played the organ and directed the choir in an Episcopal church for five years.

Christmas Eve will be my last service.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me back up and tell you a bit about my experience as a professional musician in a small town.
First of all, I never quite shook the sensation that I was playing a part in a Thornton Wilder play. Once, while I was practicing for a funeral, a woman I knew from high school walked in, her arms full of flowers.
“Look at us,” I said, laughing. “You’re the village florist! I’m the church organist! Weird!”

She blinked at me.

The organ I play is a 1960’s Allen electric, the instrumental equivalent of a 1979 Ford pick-up. Rusty, loud, and unpredictable, it would not pass inspection. Some pedals don’t work at all, and others sound two or three notes at a time, creating a shimmering, space-ship-landing-on-the-roof effect. Some keys, when pressed, remain silent. The clarinet voice sounds like a drunken goose. I’ve learned to cope.

I’ve learned a lot of other things, too. I’ve learned the value of ritual, the importance of spiritual leadership, and the power of music to create mood. I’ve learned that I hate funerals. I’ve learned to lip sync the Nicene Creed.

We’re in a moment that’s hard to fix in religious music. I’ve seen it firsthand as a church organist and reported on it as a radio journalist.

Most American churches now offer what are called “blended” services that include old- fashioned hymns as well as new, contemporary tunes or “praise songs.” In Rush, New York, the dynamic Campbell Brothers play steel guitars on a tradition rooted in the African-American Holiness-Pentecostal vein.

Traditional fare thrives in the big, stone churches lining Rochester’s East Avenue, such as the Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, where Jamie Bobb oversees an inspiring program. You’ll hear well-burnished worship music at Third Presbyterian, St. Paul’s, and in Asbury First United Methodist church, home to organist and minor deity Duane Prill.
At Christ Church on East Avenue, workers are putting the final touches on a splendid Baroque organ costing 1.5 million dollars. (See more about this instrument at http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/qt/wxxi/loca....)
Other changes are painful to witness. I personally know three organists out of work because of shifting cultural boundaries, a changing economy, and population loss. At my mother’s church, they’ve installed a rock band. In Buffalo, the oldest pipe organ in the city, built in 1853 for the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church, may be abandoned with the whole church building.

So, I have four Sundays to go, plus Christmas Eve.
I’m hoping to write more about my experiences as an organist, and I hope you’ll check back for future postings.

Until then, I leave you with the last stanza of a William Stafford poem I read the other night, “On Quitting a Little College.”

“The bitter habit of the forlorn cause/is my addiction. I miss it now, but face/ahead and go in my own way/toward my own place.”