So You're The Chair Of The Organ Committee

"Why me, Lord?" is a frequently asked question posed by those who have the opportunity to serve as the chair of their church's organ committee. And the question is understandable given the complexity of the organ and the lack of knowledge about it by the typical lay person and other church members who will serve on the committee. Oh, the church organist or music director will know something. The organist, after all, has two music degrees. And of course there are several other church members with musical backgrounds who will also agree to participate. And we can't forget the need for a couple of people in the leadership and a couple of potential "big givers." If this is your committee, and there is no one with any depth of experience in organ projects to advise the church, ask the opening question one more time.

If an organ committee chair is asked what his or her prayer for the organ project would be the likely answer would probably include "a good organ at a fair price that matches our needs perfectly and for which funds were raised without bloodshed." Such a prayer can be answered but it helps to understand where you're going before you actually leave on the journey.

The organ is the largest and most complex musical instrument known to man. It has a fascinating history and a bright future. Acquiring one is rarely easy, and in the case of pipe organs, may take several years. Often the organ is part of a larger project, frequently involving sanctuary and/or acoustical renovations. Members of the congregation may not understand the need for another organ. The leadership of the church must often resolve competing financial priorities. In some churches there may be pressures to consider the purchase of an electronic organ. The organist of the church studied on a mechanical-action organ in college and now wants the church to purchase one. "Nothing else will do," they say, followed by, "and I certainly know enough about organs to give you my opinion." Omnipresent is the always confusing, complicated world of the organ.

I participated in my first organ project in 1966 at the age of fourteen. The church which had employed me to play the wheezing old tubular-pneumatic Hall organ in the last stage of its life finally decided "enough was enough" and embarked on a search for a new organ. They considered whether to rebuild the old one (not practical; too expensive), or save the pipes and incorporate them into a new organ (not practical; too expensive), and finally decided on an electronic (practical and less expensive). Only a teen, I appreciated the fact that the new organ actually worked, and even though the sound wasn't as good as the Hall, there were more and different sounds, and the last time I checked the electronic was still playing (now calm down, I'm not advocating the purchase of electronic organs over pipe organs, just relating some personal history).

In 1974 I had the good fortune to become the organist of a church which was building a new sanctuary. "We'll just move the present organ," they said. "Our architect has it all in hand." In reality, the "present organ" wasn't worth moving, having been assembled by an amateur organbuilder/priest who had stored portions of it all over the property. Furthermore, the architect had simply drawn boxes with pipes on top and positioned everything on the rear wall of the choir loft. He did so with no knowledge of pipe organs and his plans, had they materialized, would have resulted in an unmitigated disaster. As a 22 year old college student I advised the church on potential organ builders and issues. Even I knew that boxes with pipes on top weren't simply attached to walls. The new organ arrived several months after the new church was dedicated. It contained all of the good pipework from the old one plus some new pipes to complete it properly. The money was raised and the organ is still playing. And I had an incredibly good time and added to my store of knowledge about organ projects.

Fifteen years ago I had another opportunity to deal with organ issues, again at the church where I was the music director. This time the project was larger in scope and part of other renovations being done to the historic sanctuary. Other churches who were aware of the project and considering their own began calling for advice. My consulting career had officially begun.

Now, more than fifty projects later, I have gained and continue to amass an enormous understanding of the issues related to churches and organ projects. I also continue to learn from each project as every one has its unique set of complexities. Relationships now exist with old and established organ companies. Younger companies have also been involved with projects for which I've provided consulting services. The list of builders and denominations is long and the work has been inspirational and (I hope) helpful to client churches and schools. I've worked with acousticians and architects, liturgical consultants and interior decorators, churches large and small. There is tremendous satisfaction in helping others avoid mistakes and make wise decisions based on knowledge rather than ignorance.

But back to you, because you are the CHAIR OF THE ORGAN COMMITTEE. I suspect your church wouldn't build a new sanctuary without employing an architect. By the same token, embarking on the acquisition of an organ without employing a knowledgeable person to represent the interests of the church could lead to the same kind of disaster which would befall the parish which built its sanctuary without an architect. How can an organ consultant make your life easier?

First, by knowing what to do and when to do it. Committees need to learn about organs and this should be the first thing they do. I typically arrange visits to other churches so that the committee can experience what other churches have done. The basics of organ terminology are covered. I believe that pipe and electronic organs each have their place. Committees need to learn what each can do and under which circumstances they can do it successfully. They must also have some idea of the time frame for the project and what to reasonably expect from the organ company. Complicated negotiations are required with builders as most organs are custom-designed for each church. Even electronic organ projects involve many variables. Having been through all of this many times, I can offer the insights gained from this experience to the church.

Second, the consultant can take the burden of dealing with organ sales representatives off of the church pastor, the organ committee chair, and members of the committee. Often, over-eager sales representatives plague the committee and church. A process should be agreed upon establishing the necessary search parameters. I am accustomed to the various ways by which different companies approach the sales process. Organ companies also provide better service to the church when they understand the dynamics of the search from a knowledgeable organ consultant's perspective. The consultant represents the church in dealings with the companies and this reduces the chances for misunderstandings between church and organ builder. And no reputable consultant EVER takes payment of any kind from an organ company. To do so is unethical and violates the relationship between the consultant and the church.

Third, I am comfortable representing the organ committee on those public occasions when the congregation is encouraged to ask questions about the project. I have never been asked "a stupid question" or failed to be sensitive to the views of those who sit in the pews. Having a knowledgeable representative present removes pressure from the committee and its chair.

Fourth, unless there is a major donor underwriting the bulk of the cost of the organ, there will be financial issues to address. Again, when the committee has a knowledgeable representative to present the issues, the process goes more smoothly. Additionally, I have experience in fund-raising and can offer that to the church as well.

Fifth, I am comfortable dealing with architects, acousticians, and liturgical and interior designers. A good acoustic is the most important stop on the organ and also (and more importantly) enhances both the sung and spoken word. Rarely does an organ project proceed without consideration of acoustical matters.

Sixth, I am comfortable dealing with organ builders. Many different companies have been awarded contracts and at no time will I ever tell a church whose instrument to purchase. One organ committee chair, upon hearing this, said to me, "you must not be very good if you can't tell us whose instrument to buy. What good are you if you can't do that?" My answer to this gentleman's excellent question? "If I have to tell the church whose instrument to buy, I haven't done a very good job of educating the organ committee. If I've done my work properly, the committee will have enough knowledge to make their own decision and it will probably be a wise one." As the organ consultant representing the church I must take into account the various needs and personalities involved in the project, from the church organist to the donors in the pews to the organ builder. Organ builders frequently disparage the work of organ consultants. This is due to the fact that many churches retain consultants who have little experience but lengthy opinions which they are more than happy to share with the victim organ builder. My relationships with major builders are excellent and based on the fact that I have an understanding of their needs and business practices and respect the fact they they, not the consultant, are building the organ.

Finally, the organ will be built according to a contract which will have been negotiated with the successful organ company. After the organ is installed it must be inspected by the church's representative to insure that it has been built according to the terms of the contract. This is one of the most important functions of an organ consultant and lacking one, the committee must depend on its own devices (organ builders like to relate how this plays out in reality: the organ committee chair counts all of the pipes in the organ to make sure they match the number listed in the contract. This constitutes the final "inspection.").

So you're the chair of the organ committee. I'd love to speak with you and discuss your project. And I can provide you with references from other committee chairs who, like you, have taken up the important work of acquiring an organ for their church or institution.