Category Archives: Opinion

Revitalizing Organ Music Beyond Church Walls: A Call to Action

In a recent article, the Seattle Times brought to light a challenging reality – church attendance in the Seattle metropolitan area is lower than in any other part of the country. This trend is alarming beyond spiritual considerations; it threatens a major pillar of our cultural heritage – the organ and its majestic soundscapes.

Indeed, most organs are housed in churches, and if the hallowed pews remain unoccupied, so too do the resonant chambers of these magnificent instruments. Our music, which once filled sanctuaries with ethereal harmonies and profound echoes, now often falls silent. In instances where music does fill a church, it is more often accompanied by the strumming of guitars and beating of drums – a dramatic and deplorable departure from the sophistication and sublimity of organ music.

It is essential for us to understand and address this: the survival of the organ as an instrument is inextricably tied to the context within which it is played. We must strive to assert the organ’s independence and equate it not merely with religion but with its intrinsic musical value, its power to captivate, and its capacity to elicit emotion.

There exist several avenues by which we can catalyze this transition. A primary tool in our arsenal is education. By organizing educational events, particularly targeted at the fertile minds of children, we can engender an appreciation for organ music at a young age. Think “a day at the opera”, only it’s “bring your children to see how an organ works.”

Additionally, aligning organ events with secular observances such as Halloween and July 4th, and arguably Christmas, could imbue these occasions with a classical touch, increasing the visibility and broad appeal of organ music.

Casual gatherings such as “Bring a bag lunch and enjoy 30 minutes of compelling organ music” could also provide a setting that makes organ music more accessible and enticing to the public.

Local chapters of the American Guild of Organists are far from impotent in this regard – in fact, we are key to ensuring a vibrant future for the organ. By actively working to boost the visibility and appeal of organ music, we can stimulate interest and develop a lasting appreciation for this magnificent instrument.

Let’s harness our potential and make a concerted effort toward revitalizing the role of the organ, not only within the hallowed confines of places of worship but also in the wider world of music and cultural events. This will surely contribute to ensuring the organ’s continued relevance and survival. The future of the organ is in our hands, let’s play it right!

Managing COVID-19 Risk as an Organist

As the COVID-19 pandemic has evolved, so have scientific opinions concerning infection risk. Because the virus was initially thought to be primarily transmitted by surface contact, masks were not recommended. The global supply of alcohol-based sanitizers was quickly depleted. Distilleries retooled to produce hand sanitizer instead of whiskey. Ironically, whiskey may have been more useful. Now it is clear that the virus is transmitted primarily, if not almost exclusively, by the inhalation of infected droplets and aerosolized particles in indoor spaces.

The infection rate has begun to drop, probably because of both the effects of effective public health messages and the increasing effects of vaccinations. Churches and universities are beginning to reopen, and organists, who have been largely relegated to Zoom, are beginning to return to an environment that may involve being in an enclosed space with other individuals.

Don’t be fooled, though. Even though buildings are reopening, the risk of COVID-19 is still very real. It is still a very dangerous disease with risks of long-term complications and death. It is still infectious–in fact, increasingly infectious with the rise of variant strains. Let’s take a look at how an organist can return to work safely.

Strategies to avoid infection

There are only three effective strategies to avoid contracting COVID-19: isolation, vaccination, and the proper use of effective masks. Organists, along with everybody else, should be vaccinated as soon as they can be. There is virtually no reason not to. It’s protective against infection and serious illness, and each vaccination will contribute toward defeating the pandemic. However, until sufficient numbers are immune, we will be wearing masks. Which masks we purchase and how we wear them could well determine the difference between life and death.

Masks are not created equal

It is probably true that any mask is better than no mask. Thin cloth masks that do not fit well probably still contribute to the safety of others in a room; however, they probably offer virtually no protection to the wearer. Cloth masks with multiple layers are better, but if they do not have an embedded wire to seal the mask around the nose, they are still not a good choice. An effective mask has to have enough layers to filter small droplets, and it has to fit well enough to prevent the exchange of gas around the edges of the mask. If you’re wearing a mask, you also need to breathe through the mask. If you can feel air escaping around your nose or around the edges of the mask, it is not protecting you, though again, it is probably still reducing the risk to those around you. Do not be fooled into thinking that you are safe if you go into a room with other people while wearing a thin cloth mask without a nose bridge.

The best masks are N95 masks. They filter at least 95% of airborne particles. However, they are also in short supply and still recommended only in healthcare settings. The best alternative is a KN95 mask. It meets the same standard as N95, but primarily in China. They were also initially depleted, but now are readily available on Amazon for $1 each. It is not necessary to use a new one for every occasion. They can be used unless damaged or until they no longer fit properly. You have to be a careful shopper, of course. There are counterfeit KN95 masks, but there are counterfeit N95 masks as well. The CDC has published an article providing guidance on the purchase of foreign masks. In addition, there are numerous reviews of masks on Amazon. If you’re going to be in a room with others, buy a real mask and wear it, and ask others to do the same.

Where are the risks?

Organs are mostly indoors. Therefore organists are mostly indoors. However, if attending an outdoor meeting or talking on the street, you have little to worry about as long as you maintain distance. There is almost no documented transmission of the virus in outdoor settings. Even the large recent outdoor demonstrations did not lead to a spike in transmission. If you get into a heated argument with a parishioner, yelling with your faces inches apart, you would be advised to wear a mask. However, keep in mind that you shouldn’t be getting into such situations in the first place.

Can you catch the virus from a toilet seat? Probably not except for unusual circumstances that are beyond the scope of this publication. How about from the door handle on your way in? From an organ keyboard? Again, time has demonstrated that the risk is very low. There is almost no documented transmission of the virus from surfaces, if any. In an article in The Lancet in July 2020, Emanuel Goldman pointed out that the risk of surface transmission was exaggerated. Subsequent articles, in particular, a paper by Australian researchers, became tabloid fodder as they appeared to demonstrate a prolonged risk of catching the virus from any number of surfaces. The predicted glut of infections from surfaces did not happen, however. In a recent article in The Atlantic entitled “Hygiene Theater is Still a Huge Waste of Time,” Goldman is quoted describing the Australian paper as a “greatest-hits compilation of research errors.” An editorial this month in Nature reiterates the idea that we are foolishly directing resources on “deep cleaning” when those resources would be better applied to vaccinations, ventilation, and masks.

The risk for organists (and almost everybody else) is being in an indoor space with others. The social distancing recommendation of six feet may be effective for large droplets, but it is known to be irrelevant for aerosolized particles. Aerosolized particles spread quickly throughout a room and can remain there for hours. Cigarette smoke is also composed of small particles carried through the air. Though the comparison is not exact, it is helpful to think about cigarette smoke when evaluating the risk of aerosolized particles. If you’re sitting in a church, properly socially distanced at six feet, and the closest person to you lit a cigarette, do you think you would smell it? You could also inhale aerosolized droplets expelled by that person as a result of coughing due to a viral infection (and smoking!). An N95 or KN95 mask, worn effectively, substantially reduces, but does not eliminate the risk. A cloth mask that leaves gaps around the nose does not.

What’s an organist to do?

Practicing alone in a closed church carries very low risk. If you’re practicing after other people have recently been in the room, you might consider waiting an hour or wearing your newly purchased KN95 mask to further reduce the risk of inhaling a residual aerosolized droplet. If the previous organist coughed on middle C 100 times (an analogy inspired by the previously referenced Atlantic article), you come in a few minutes later and begin to play Passacaglia in C Minor, but take a break to pick your nose, you might just inoculate yourself. However, again, you shouldn’t be doing that anyway. Use a Kleenex. Wash your hands after you practice.

Meetings and church services up the risk considerably because they involve being with others in an indoor space. Still, you can take precautions to protect yourself and others. Wear your KN95 mask. You might also consider mask education for attendees. There appears to be no general public understanding that masks offer varying degrees of protection depending on their composition and how they’re worn. Even in the CDC’s recent requirement to wear masks on public transportation there is no real description of an effective mask except to say that it has to cover the nose and mouth. You might consider including a mask requirement in meeting notices stating that effective masks be purchased and worn at all times, without exception, in accordance with the guidelines published by the CDC.

Finally, what about choirs and congregational singing? The short answer is don’t do it. The idea that singers are safe without masks as long as they are separated by six feet is absurd. There is no way to make singing safe at this time; it should not resume until the pandemic is over. Asking people if they have symptoms is not effective; many infected persons spread the virus before they have symptoms. Taking temperatures has also been shown to be an ineffective screening tool. If you haven’t figured it out already, deep cleaning the choir loft is a waste of time. If, however, your job requires you to go into an indoor space where people are singing, remember that your new KN95 mask is your friend. If worn correctly and consistently, it should provide adequate protection from that coughing tenor.

The author is an organist, a retired physician, and Secretary of the Tacoma Chapter of the American Guild of Organists.

Organists could learn a thing or two from Dmitry Sinkovsky

When Nancy suggested going to hear the Seattle Symphony perform Messiah on our birthday, I was not excited. I have heard Messiah many times–possibly enough for a lifetime, and didn’t particularly relish the thought of adding a symphonic rendition to the many dull performances already in my memory.

Conductor Dmitry Sinkovsky

However, when conductor Dmitry Sinkovsky appeared on stage and began the overture faster than I’ve ever heard it, it made me sit up and take notice. The performance was clean, crisp, and exciting, with a strong pulse of one beat per measure. The string players followed his lead well, with perfect intonation and phrasing.

Having established his reputation as a conductor, in my mind at least, Sinkovsky then proceeded to sing the counter tenor role beautifully, and played solo violin as well, and exquisitely. In his various performance roles, he still led the orchestra, not with his hands, but with his music.

And he shall purify the sons of Levi

When the choir began “And He shall Purify,” I was a little apprehensive, but the choir stayed with him–with perfect elocution, pitch, and phrasing, the difficult fast moving polyphonic runs leading up to the burst of homophonic “That they may offer unto the lord…” . Transcending the printed notes, the musicians were able to invoke images of fiery currents blowing up into a wall of flame. The audience clearly felt it. Even I felt it, and I have essentially no spiritual inclination.

In his interpretation of Messiah, Dmitry Sinkovsky was in charge. He was not worried about whether the singers would keep up with him–he knew that they would. He was not worried about producing exactly the same effect as the rehearsal, and I doubt if he cared much about what other conductors would do. He had mastered the music, and was able to make it come alive, to speak to the audience through the performers in a way that captivated even yours truly, who normally can’t sit in one place more than an hour.

Organists and organs are facing some difficult times. Classical performers, in general, are having a hard time attracting audiences. Even fewer people are motivated to attend organ recitals. Church attendance is declining nationwide, and praise bands are replacing organists in many of those churches that are still hanging on. And, I would have to agree, why bother to go to a concert if it doesn’t offer anything more than a recording would, if even that much?

In many ways, organists are facing a tougher battle than other musicians when it comes to attracting and pleasing audiences. The organ is relatively more obscure than the piano or the orchestra. Its long association with the church has been protective in the past, but may be a liability in the future. Organists are often unseen while playing, making it harder to establish a rapport with the audience.

Yet there are lessons we can take from Maestro Sinkovsky. I would summarize them as:

  • Play with confidence. One of my favorite memories as a resident in pathology was a sign on an office door that read, “Not always right, but always sure.” Make your musical decisions and stick to them.
  • Play with passion. Even though you may not be visible, your excitement about the music and desire to share it should shine through the rukwerk or whatever else might be between you and the audience. If the organist is bored or nervous, the audience is going to be bored or nervous. If the organist is passionate, the audience will follow.
  • Do not worry about whether your teacher would approve of your playing. The purpose of your musical education was to teach you how to think, and that is what you should now be doing. The only way you can accomplish goals 1 and 2 is by being musically true to yourself. You cannot play well if you are primarily concerned about what other organists will think.
  • Do not worry so much about what deceased organists would think either. In the case of The Messiah, the historically accurate performance practice was one of the major factors in its success, and that may often be the case. It would be a mistake, however, to put a pedantic desire for historical accuracy above musicality. Organists in the sixteenth century probably placed musicality above all else, and we should also, and for the same reasons. The audience is paying the bill.

So here’s a New Year’s resolution for organists worldwide: Let’s use some of that practice time to look at the big picture–to develop an understanding of the music and a strategy for conveying that understanding to the audience. Move past the notes. Master the music, and let the audience know that you’re in charge. Play with passion. Speak to the audience through your playing. Give them something they can’t get from a recording, or from watching TV. Let’s make the organ sing in 2019!

Appliances Belong in the Kitchen

In spite of my advancing age, and in defiance of such stereotypes, I embrace technology.  I cannot be accused of resisting change.  I live in a (mostly) smart house.  I write much of the code that drives it.  I am never more than a few feet from my smart phone.  When something new appears on the technological scene, I feel compelled to buy it.  I have no fear of early adoption and have a deep appreciation for technology that saves me time or money or improves my life in some other way.

Yet I am deeply disturbed by the trend to accept “electronic organ-like devices” as equivalent to real organs.  A real organ is a wind instrument, in a case, played by a keyboard through mechanical means.  A real organ has a case,  pipes and trackers.  It cannot be duplicated by technology.

When Fenner Douglass was attempting to persuade the board of directors of Carnegie Hall to buy a real organ, he asked Isaac Stern, “How would you feel about cutting your violin in half, and connecting the two halves with electrical cable so that the sound would come from the other side of the stage?”

It is, of course, an absurd proposal.  Yet that is exactly what we have allowed to happen to organs.  Taking the analogy one step further, we have replaced those violin strings with tone generators and the violin case with speakers.  How many violinists would willingly play such a musical abomination?

There are many strong and well known musical justifications for real organs.  A player who is pressing keys attached to pallets receives mechanical feedback that is missing or distorted when playing against a spring or haptic device.  A player sitting at the source of the sound receives strong audible feedback that is missing when the source is far away.  Pipes sounding from a common wind source reflect small changes in pitch and intensity when other pipes sound.  A carefully, and often beautifully, carved case with pipe shades serves to blend and focus the sound in a way that isn’t possible with speakers.

Why, then, are we being asked to accept electronic devices as equivalent to real musical instruments?  Like most motivation, it’s financial, of course.  Manufacturers of electronic devices have put a lot of money into marketing.  They sponsor concerts, pay for dinners, purchase expensive advertisements.  They persuade editors to put their latest devices on the front covers of national organ magazines.  They have managed to create an environment of political correctness in which it is somehow considered discriminatory to treat electronic devices as second class citizens.

We need to resist!  What will be the endpoint if we don’t?  We will leave a world without organs for future generations.  Our professional organization will have failed.

What can we do as individuals?  If you subscribe to a magazine or journal that features an electronic device on the cover, let the editor know that you don’t like it.  If you work for a church with an electronic device, push for a change.  When your friend who goes to a church with one asks you what you think of it, be truthful.   You can always make new friends.

Our chapter has a treasure that few others can boast–two internationally renowned organ builders who build–you guessed it–real organs.  We schedule events at their shops on a regular basis.  Next time that happens, invite your friends.  They don’t have to be church organists to make a difference.  You never know which of your friends might end up on a music committee.  We have at least four concert series on real organs built by artists who are members of our chapter or have close ties to our chapter–Pacific Lutheran University, Christ Episcopal Church, St. Andrews Episcopal Church, and University of Puget Sound.  Attend those recitals and take your friends.

While you and your friends are waiting for the concert to begin, spend a few minutes talking about the art of organ building–the case, the pipes, the keyboards, and the trackers.  Point out how fortunate we are in this area to have so many fine organs and organ builders.  Let them know that real organs belong in concert halls and churches.  Appliances belong in the kitchen.

Opinion: What’s Wrong with Organ Recitals?

I recently attended a widely advertised organ recital featuring a nationally known player at a major organ venue, and there was almost nobody in the audience.  In this time of declining attendance at organ recitals, and the inextricably linked precipitous decline of the church, we need to take a look at how we manage organ recitals, and whether we can ensure that our instrument has a future.  Is there anything we can do to attract new audiences, and to make them want to come back for more?

Multiple Facets of Responsibility

When I talk to those who plan organ recitals, I sense a strong resistance to setting expectations for the performer for fear of causing offense.  The normal course of events seems to be to extend an invitation, receive a program in email, then turn on the heat in the building and hope for the best.

But why?  The event organizer has a responsibility to the performer for sure, but also to the audience, to the sponsoring organization, to the venue, and to the future of organ performances.  The event organizer is paying the performer on behalf of the other interests, and has not only a right, but a responsibility to set expectations. The event organizer should manage that event to maximize customer satisfaction even if it means telling the performer not to play Philip Glass.

Programming and Length

I was an organ major in college.  I love playing organ, and listening when the organ is well played.  However, I have trouble sitting through more than an hour of organ music.  Perhaps it is because I have watched too many one-hour episodes of Law and Order, or maybe it is harder to listen to organ than other instruments.  Following the recital with which I introduced this essay, there was warm applause, but certainly not a demand for more. Yet the performer announced that she was adding an encore to the more than 90 minutes we had already heard.  My thoughts turned to the Metro bus that would arrive in 4 minutes, and the bus won.

Yet, you say, everybody else in the audience stayed.  I don’t know for sure; most probably did, some because they wanted to hear more, but others because it would be impolite to leave. Of those who stayed out of a sense of duty, how many will come back the next time?  Of those who weren’t there at all, how many chose not to be there because of their past experience?

The program should be the result of interaction between the performer and the organizer.  It should be chosen to appeal to the expected audience, and to be suitable for the instrument and the room. It should have integrity.  It should not simply be the default program that a performer used at the last concert.  Its length should be known. And, in case you missed it, I will be more inclined to attend recitals that do not exceed an hour.  Advertise the time and content.  In publicity and calendar entries, list the exact time, such as 7:30  PM – 8:35 PM.  Give a good description, such as “This program is intended to appeal to a wide variety of audiences.  The music was chosen to demonstrate … The performer is particularly qualified to play this program because…  And print the entire program in the calendar entry.  You shouldn’t be creating the calendar entry before you have the program anyway.


There are undoubtedly people who like for the performer to talk about each piece, including where they first heard it, how long they spent learning it, who their next-door neighbors were at the time they learned it; but others attend for the music and aren’t particularly interested in the talking (and yes, by now you have guessed correctly that I fall into that category.)  Why subject everybody to the additional program length when it is very easy to separate it?

For those organizers and performers who want to feature a lecture accompanying the recital, I think that’s great.  It could draw in people who otherwise might not come; but if you do it, give people a choice by providing two start times.  Let people know that they can come at 7 PM for a lecture and question-answer session, followed by a program from 7:30 PM to 8:35 PM.  Those who don’t want to hear the talking can come for the music.

Admission Cost

I’m not sure how we evolved into the system of “Seniors” paying less than young working people with entry level jobs and family responsibilities.  It probably originally was intended to make things easier for fixed-income seniors, which is still a great idea.  However, I would like to see a change in admission cost that would encourage attendance by younger audiences as well.  It could feature better definitions, such as lower prices for students, young workers, and fixed-income seniors, leaving the higher prices for the older adults who can afford them.  Perhaps a better idea would be to list prices as a voluntary sliding cost.  For example, admission cost could be listed as $10-$20, depending upon ability to pay. Organizers should set aside tickets for those who cannot afford to pay, and advertise that they are available.

Leave the Young Children at Home

Concentrating on organ music–or anything else–for 2 hours isn’t easy for 2 year-olds.  Yet people bring their infants and small children and allow them to ruin concerts for everybody else who has paid to be there. Ushers don’t do anything for fear of offending a parent.

Concert organizers have the right to set a minimum age limit, and should do so.  In the publicity and calendar entries, make it clear that “Children are welcome over the age of 10.” Provide a nursery if you can.

And for those parents who were genuinely trying to forge an early interest in organ literature rather than trying to save money on the babysitter?  Tell the babysitter to play organ music for them, but not to exceed one hour!