Just Give us a Big Pedal!

I was having lunch with the sales representative of an established, highly-respected organ company. He had participated in more than a thousand organ projects during his career and I was curious to know how many had involved an organ consultant. "Fewer than two percent" was the surprising answer. And yet, perhaps not so surprising given the number of disappointing instruments in so many American churches.

Are organ consultants really necessary? What do they bring to the process of purchasing an organ?

The money invested by the typical church on an organ may represent its largest expense other than that required for the physical plant itself. Organs are the largest and most complicated of all musical instruments and are required to perform a variety of tasks from choir and congregational accompaniment to the performance of various styles of repertoire. Their placement in the worship space and the acoustical environment in which they speak contribute to their ultimate success as a musical instrument. Yet, other than the organist of the church, few in the typical congregation may have any knowledge of the organ, space issues or acoustics. Even so, church committees made up largely of laypeople will be charged with the responsibility of investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in an instrument which may last as long as the church building itself.

Lacking a consultant, who will objectively represent the church's interests in the complicated matter of purchasing an organ? Even a knowledgeable organist may find it awkward should no one outside the church be retained to provide advice. Indeed, many parish musicians have found it beneficial to suggest the employment of an organ consultant. Like it or not, church boards often respond more positively to an outside opinion even though their own musician may have impeccable credentials. There are cases, too, where the tastes of the incumbent organist have led a church to purchase an instrument ill-suited to its own liturgy. In this situation the instrument will long outlast the tenure of the organist and generations of successive musicians must deal with someone else's eccentricities.

From an organ company's perspective, too, a knowledgeable consultant can be very helpful. Most companies have experienced church committee confusion and the lack of anyone being in charge. A common complaint is that a decision was made to award a contract to one company and the others were never notified. Then there are those peculiar tastes again. "Our organist likes a lot of bass," the builders are told. "Just give us a big pedal." A good organ consultant can impose a system for dealing with organbuilders which benefits both them and the church. Indeed, a qualified organ consultant will understand both the needs of the church as well as those of the organbuilder. This is one reason why the Associated Pipe Organ Builders of America suggest that "A well-qualified consultant can be helpful, educating the committee and broadening their information."

What are the details of organ design and construction and other issues with which an organ consultant should be familiar? Here is a partial list:

We're building a new sanctuary. Where should the organ be placed?

We're modifying the present sanctuary. What can we do to protect the organ during construction? Will the changes we're making affect the organ's sound and, if so, what are the issues pertaining to that?

Why do we need a new organ? The one we have sounds fine to me.

Aren't electronic organs cheaper and don't they sound just as good as a pipe organ?

What type of pipe organ do we need? Mechanical or electric action? Flexible winding? Mechanical or electric stop action?

How large should the organ be? How many manuals should it have? Why?

What type of stoplist should the organ have? How is a stoplist to be determined?

Where should the organ be placed? Where will the choir sit? Where will the console be located?

What are the limitations (if any) of the differing types of actions?

What are the differences between slider and pneumatic windchests? Does one last longer than the other and what are the anticipated maintenance schedules and costs?

What about "direct electric" actions? Which companies use them and why? Does this type of action affect pipe speech and how?

Should the reeds be French, German, English, Spanish or hybrids? Why?

Do all organ companies manufacture their own pipes? If they don't, is that a problem?

Who is making the keyboards? the stop controls? the pedalboard? What are the ramifications of this work being sub-contracted?

Should the console be moveable? Should it have drawknobs or stoptabs? If it has drawknobs how should they be configured?

Is the console and/or casework being built of solid wood, plywood with veneers, or some combination? Is this desireable or not?

Is a combination action needed? Whose will be used? What are its features? Which companies produce which kind and how long do they typically last? Can we obtain service when we need it?

Which company's solid-state switching systems are being used and what are their characteristics? How do they differ from one another in terms of longevity? How easy (or difficult) is it to get service when required?

Should components of the present organ be retained and reused? Is it cost-effective and/or desireable to do this?

Should any digital stops be used? Should there be any 32' stops and if so, should they be real or digital? Who supplies digital stops and what do they sound like? What types of guarantees are provided? Which companies refuse to use digital stops and why?

Should the organ be equipped with MIDI? What is it and how much will it cost?

Will pipe facades or casework be required? When should drawings be obtained? What are the important things to know about case design? How much will it cost?

What about the acoustic? What effect will the present acoustic have on the organ design? Do we need an acoustician? Which acoustical consultants work well with churches and organ companies and understand the requirements of a worship setting?

What are the differences between slider and pneumatic windchests? Does one last longer than the other and what are the anticipated maintenance schedules and costs?

What about the placement of the organ vis a vis the church's mechanical systems? Will the location of air-conditioning ducts have an impact on tuning stability? Should air be circulated into the organ? Given the variables of the mechanical systems, will the organ be capable of staying in reasonable tune?

Should regional builders be considered? What are the advantages and/or disadvantages of purchasing an organ from a regional builder?

Does the organbuilder make a performance bond available? How much does it cost? Is it necessary to have one?

What type of payment and/or delivery schedule is proposed? Does the organ company in question typically meet its delivery schedule? What happens if it doesn't?

These questions may be asked as well as many others. In some cases there may be an existing instrument and consideration may be given to rebuilding it. There may be issues regarding the historicity of the instrument in question. Some churches may wish to consider the purchase of an already existing instrument. These projects come with their own unique sets of questions.

A good organ consultant can indeed educate laypeople about the organ and the aforementioned issues and can impose a process within which builders can be fairly treated and promptly informed about the committee's work. The consultant must be aware of his own biases and know when and if to share them. There must be sensitivity to the various people involved in the project from the incumbent organist to the personalities on the committee and the organbuilders. There must be awareness of issues which may exist within the committee, skill in speaking to groups because it is common for the consultant to address congregational meetings where pointed questions may be asked. And certainly there must be efforts to keep abreast of the latest developments in organ building and the work being done by today's builders. The consultant should also be able to provide resources to the church to assist in the fund-raising required to pay for the organ.

How does a church obtain a good consultant? Speak with other churches which have recently purchased organs. Ask for references from churches who have had experience with consultants. Some denominational organizations may have a list of names. Ask member firms of APOBA for suggestions. Schedule interviews and question potential consultants about their knowledge and experience. Ask for overviews of the consulting process and how they see the consultant's role. Ask potential consultants for a list of projects and references. Some hurches may prefer a consultant with a particular sensitivity to their specific denomination. Would the local organ professor, the local full-time church musician or the recitalist with the national reputation be a good consultant? Read the first portion of this paragraph again. Expertise, experience and references from churches and organbuilders are the best ways to evaluate an organ consultant.

How much do consultants charge and who pays the fee? At present there is no professional association of organ consultants, no certification process, and differing fees. Some consultants charge a percentage of the contracted cost of the organ, others avoid this method because it can appear to reward the consultant for obtaining a more costly instrument. These individuals may quote one price for the complete consultancy. Fees may range from $1,000 and up to several percent of the contract price. Regardless of the quotation, a contract should be offered which details the services to be provided by the consultant and the responsibilities of the church. It is unethical for any organ consultant to receive compensation from any organbuilder or to represent an organbuilder. This negates the consultant's function as the church's representative. Churches which have enjoyed beneficial relationships with an organ consultant will typically state that the fee was "the best money we spent."

All too often, the purchase of an organ is a case of "the blind leading the blind." Given the cost of instruments and their longevity, can't we do better than this? So the next time you encounter a poorly designed instrument, "ask not for whom the bell tolls." It was probably just another case of "our organist likes a lot of bass. Just give us a big pedal."

- Keith Shafer is the Director of Music and Organist of Historic Saint Paul's Episcopal Church, Augusta, Georgia and is a church music and organ consultant.