I remember watching a movie many years ago called "Other People's Money" starring Danny DiVito. In this movie he played a business man who was looking to buy out a small New England company, shut it down, and sell off the pieces. The company was New England Wire and Cable, they were still making a small profit, but had been experiencing a slow down for the previous few years, and things were tight. The owners of this family run business were sure things would pick up again when the economy improved. DiVito's character pointed out to them the hard fact that the slow down in their business had nothing to do with the quality of their product, the efficiency of their manufacturing, or the state of the economy, the problem was changes in technology a.k.a. fiber optics. People simply didn't need as much wire and cable anymore. DiVito used the analogy of somebody who made buggy whips during the advent of the motor car. They may have made the best buggy whips in the world, but once most people started driving cars, they weren't going to want buggy whips.

Movie Poster, Google Images 

I have been contemplating the future of organ building in North America.

In the pipe organ building world I can think of 3 things putting pressure on the industry: financial constraint caused by declining church attendance, changing aesthetics, and improvements in technology.

The primary purchasers of pipe organs have always been main line churches, Anglican/Episcopalian, Catholic, United, Presbyterian, etc. These are the people who have had the money and the space to support a pipe organ. People who meet in house churches, school gyms etc, don't have the resources or space, and people from non-European backgrounds often have other musical traditions. Attendance at main line churches is declining. For most of North America, weekly attendance at a Sunday morning service is no longer a social expectation, and in some places going to church every Sunday is seen as a little odd.

St George's Anglican in Ajax, exterior

Although Gallup's numbers state that 40% of the US population attend weekly service, and that that number has remain consistent for the past 70 years, even they say they don't believe that number. There are 2 issues at play here, first is what is called the Halo Effect, people over report things they consider favorable. The second is how people interpret the questions, a person considers themselves a member of a church that has weekly services, they therefore attend a weekly service, even though they themselves are only there 4-5 times a year. Other studies show numbers very different from Gallup.

David Olsen, at the time working for Evangelical Covenant Church, starting collecting data on actual physical counts of people in churches back in the 1980's, eventually tracking 200,000 individual Orthodox Christian churches (Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical). His numbers showed that the percentage of attendance in 2004 was 17.7%. Other studies back this up. The number of people attending church regularly is decreasing. From 2000 to 2004, the Catholic church experienced an 11% decrease in attendance and the main line Protestant churches a 10% decrease.

C750 St George's Ajax console

With fewer people attending church, less money comes in. Some things still have to be paid, heating/air conditioning, pastor's salary, maintenance of the building, etc., this can stretch the budget thin. Things like getting your organ tuned or serviced can start getting dropped in favour of other things. When the organ gets to the point where it needs to be rebuilt the cost becomes prohibitive.  

In Canada, half the churches in the country have fewer than 75 people on an average Sunday; a church of this size can not afford to completely rebuild their pipe organ. When it falls into disrepair, they will look for other alternatives. Many denominations are closing/combining churches, when a congregation gets too small, in hopes of getting a single, larger, viable congregation; from personal observations however, when you combine 2 churches of 50 people together, you don't get a church of 100 people, you get a church with 75.

 Unknown church, photo from Google Images

Back in 1998 we provided a new control system for Metropolitan United Church in Toronto, when their organ (the largest pipe organ in Canada) was rebuilt. When this church and organ were first built the number of people attending this church was in the thousands, over several services during the week. Now attendance is measured in the hundreds, and the church occasionally holds benefit concerts to help pay for maintaining the instrument.

Metropolitan United, 1896

The population is getting older, there is no question about this, according to Pew Research, every day from now until about 2030, 10 000 baby boomers will retire. In 20 years this generation will be starting to die off. In 20 years my generation (I'm 46) will be  retiring and our kids will be the ones running the church (if the church can keep them). We have a different culture from our parents, different likes and dislikes, different expectations, and different points of view, and we will shape our services to our tastes. 

Many people in the younger generations do not view the pipe organ as having the same sense of importance as some of the older generations.  I'm going to shock a few people right now, but I like guitars, keyboard, and drums, I like praise and worship music, in my youth I was even known to dance in the aisle with a flag. 

I remember several years ago talking to an older gentleman and mentioning that the Anglican Church I was attending at the time did not have an organ, we had a good quality keyboard that produced 'organ' sounds, when desired, and guitars. To him this was an oxymoron, an Anglican Church HAD to have an organ.

My daughter age 4, dancing to music in church


Changing likes and interests also affect the availability of musicians who can competently play the organ. Several years ago the American Guild of Organists estimated that there was only 1 qualified organist for every 200 paid positions. Those kids who are lucky enough to get private music lessons are usually taking piano, guitar, or violin etc, not organ, while schools teach band instruments. If a church can't find somebody to play their organ, it's not going to be played, or it will be played by somebody who is a pianist, who doesn't have the training to be able to get the organ to sounds to its fullest capacity.

The church I attend today (Wesleyan) does have an organ, but it's never used. For most Sundays we have a grand piano, a couple of keyboards, guitar, bass, and drums. We have worship leaders and a choir.  Once a month, other musicians at our church provide the music, and we have a band with trumpets, violin, flutes, etc. I think I've heard one person comment that they would like it if the organ was used once in a while.

Time and again I have heard pipe people deriding the quality of sound available from an electronic organ, and back in the early 90's I would have agreed that the sound wasn't as good, however technology changes. Due to limits in computing power, electronic organs would either artificially synthesize a tone, or the first few seconds of a few pipes would be recorded then manipulated to get all the notes with longer playback times. This sound would then be sent out of 2 channels. They had no hope of competing against the multiple individual pipes of an organ. This is changing. Systems like Hauptwerk record multiple samples of every pipe, several seconds long. Multi-channelling is then used so the sound can come out of 20 or more speakers, giving the sounds greater opportunity to interact acoustically in real time and space.

A Huaptwerk Console installed in a church

Top organists are starting to accept electronic instruments, and as congregations start seeing more musicians like Cameron Carpenter using digital organs, they are going to become more accepting of them. Yes, a trained voicer can probably still tell the difference between a pipe organ and a top quality electronic organ, but we aren't building organs for pipe organ professionals, we are building organs for school teachers, health care professionals, and office workers.

For the foreseeable future, there will always be a role for the pipe organ in our society. To assume that role will be the same as it was 40-50 years ago is naive. While doing research for this article I ran across a few people who talked about how essential the pipe organ was, or how it must be supported and encourage, or else some 'bad thing' would happen. We must eat, we must sleep, most other things in life are a choice, whether you personally like the choice or not. The pipe organ is a choice, and I suspect more and more people are going to start choosing no. The pipe organ will always be around, but so are the horse, cart, and buggy whip, as elements of nostalgia, not elements of regular life.

Horse and Buggy from Google Images




Carroll, Lucy. "Where Have All the Organists Gone?" in Adoremus Bulletin, http://www.adoremus.org/0903Organists.html, 2003-09-06

Carson, Rev Al. "What is the average size church people attend in Canada?", https://stcuthbert.ca/blog/what-is-the-average-size-church-people-attend-in-canada/, 2013-08-30

Pew Research, Baby Boomers Retire, http://www.pewresearch.org/daily-number/baby-boomers-retire/, 2010-12-20

Shattuck, Kelly. "7 Startling Facts: An Up Close Look at Church Attendance in America". http://www.churchleaders.com/pastors/pastor-articles/139575-7-startling-facts-an-up-close-look-at-church-attendance-in-america.html, 2015?

Terauds, John. "Tomorrow: There is a price to pay for housing Canada's largest pipe organ". http://www.musicaltoronto.org/2014/01/31/tomorrow-theres-a-price-to-pay-for-housing-canadas-largest-pipe-organ/, 2014-01-31


 Stay tuned, next blog posting, Re-Imagining the Pipe Organ for the Future





I read your blog "Where are pipe organs going". I had one thought to add regarding the contemporary services that seem to be putting the organ on the back burner.  Many people tend to "trash talk" contemporary music in church and how it is inappropriate etc. (Those kids and their music! LOL) But the fact of the matter is that if they are against modernizing music and keeping up the times, why are they not insisting on pure unison chant instead?   (in Latin of course, after all it IS the language of the church) They could really push their luck and update to something new with that cutting edge organum harmony?  In short, they need to realize that for the church to remain viable the music must change so that it relates to its members. Music should give praise to God while at the same time have an effect on the worshipper whether it be reflective, inspiring or uplifting. Music that is a chore to sing might not yield any of those results.  Your daughter enjoying the orchestra is not totally unheard of. My children enjoy an extremely vast variety of music, but most of it tends to be contemporary.  (My youngest likes the scream-o stuff, but loves Mozart's Requiem!)


Food for thought.





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