Chelsea Vaught is part of a new generation of Fort Wayne church organists – and someone who cherishes the status of pipe organs in her newly adopted hometown.
It totally blows me away how much people love the organ here, the musical director says after her customary Friday morning practice session at First Presbyterian Church, where she was hired in September.
The organ is used all the time – we have a chapel service at 8 a.m. on Sunday and a service at 11 a.m. with the choir, and the organ is used at both, says Vaught, 28.
People even stay after the service, just to listen to the postlude.
So, Vaught doesn’t think pipe organs have a chance of disappearing from the region anytime soon.
I would say, yes, there is sort of an unusual amount of interest in organs here, she says.
Interest, indeed. Fort Wayne is a city where Embassy Theatre’s Grande Page pipe organ is practically a local celebrity and where scores of people drive from church to church just to hear their outstanding pipe organs demonstrated as part of Follow the Pipes during the Fort Wayne Newspapers Three Rivers Festival.
The Rev. Paul Grime, dean of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod’s Kramer Chapel at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, traces part of that interest to the city’s German Lutheran roots.
It’s a denomination that spawned arguably the most virtuosic organ composer in history, Johann Sebastian Bach, and in which traditional hymn-singing still plays a central role in worship.
Historically, the organ was the primary instrument for leading singing. It was loud enough and large enough to lead a large group, Grime says. That’s not to say that churches aren’t using other instruments, but they usually have one service where they use the organ.
But finding organists these days can be a struggle, especially for small or rural congregations, Grimes says. Often, people with any keyboard skills are pressed into service, he says.
That’s one reason Concordia sponsors an annual workshop for beginning organists. This year’s sessions are June 17 to 21 and 24 to 28.
The average age for organists has increased over the years, and more and more people are retiring. It does challenge congregations, Grimes says. It’s not like 50 years ago where you had pianos in many homes and usually sitting on that piano was a hymnal.
Vaught, a native of Nebraska who took up the organ in her mid-teens and earned a doctor of musical arts degree from the University of Kansas, says she was first drawn to Fort Wayne through a national competition for young organists at First Presbyterian.
She competed in 2010 and fell in love with the church, she says. She applied last year for the organist job.
When she learned the congregation was so enthralled by its organ that it had underwritten a major restoration, she knew she was in a good spot.
First Presbyterian’s Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ, which astonishingly has more than 4,000 pipes, was installed in 1956, Vaught says. At the time, it was considered one of the finest made.
About 1,000 of the pipes were revoiced during the restoration, which built on another restoration in the early 1990s.
I think the fact that there’s more than one keyboard and more than a couple of pedals make it somewhat overwhelming at first, Vaught says of her instrument. But after I started playing in church and my home congregation was so supportive, I realized this is a way of connecting to people.
A lot of people really love the organ.