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The Journal Gazette

  • Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette The number of organs impresses Dr. Chelsea Vaught.

  • Photos by Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette Wayne Peterson, musical director and organist at Trinity Episcopal Church, says a change in church culture has begun to phase out organs.

  • Peterson says the number of organists “is on the decline.”

Sunday, July 16, 2017 1:00 am

'City of Churches' running out of organists

Concern growing as qualified players age

STEVE WARDEN | The Journal Gazette

Yes, we've heard the term before; that Fort Wayne is often called “The City of Churches,” particularly because of the proximity of the historic downtown churches, from the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception on South Clinton Street to Plymouth Congregational on West Berry to Trinity English Lutheran on West Washington Boulevard, and many others. But it's what is within those churches that has also given the city national acclaim.

For in nearly every downtown church is an organ that washes over the congregations and saturates the rafters with music, and many are as stately as the churches themselves.

Because of the spate of great instruments in such a confined area downtown, Fort Wayne played host to a regional convention of the American Guild of Organists in 2001.

“We had people from as far away as California and as far east as New England, because they had heard of Fort Wayne and its organs,” says Irene Ator, local renowned organist who teaches the instrument at IPFW. “Does the average Joe Schmoe on the street know? I don't know. It would be great if we could host another one, but I'm not sure we have the manpower to do that.”

Therein lies the rub, or rather, the concern.

Fort Wayne's churches may be blessed with magnificent organs, but in the distant future, the question is who will play them with the same skill of today's musicians?

Dr. Chelsea Vaught is a Nebraska native who earned her Master of Music and Doctor of Musical Arts degrees from the University of Kansas. Now the director of music at First Presbyterian Church, she has participated in organ recitals across the country and in Russia, and has played at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

Despite her experience and travels, she finds Fort Wayne unique.

“I've never been anywhere where we've had this many churches in a close area in town like we do here,” she says. “I've always been impressed with the amount of organs, and the fact that we do daily organ recitals during Germanfest. And then there's 'Follow the Pipes' during Three Rivers (Festival). This town has a lot more enthusiasm for the organ than I've seen at other places.”

For the moment, Ator says churches aren't in a panic to find qualified organists, even though few are under 40. Vaught, for example, is only 33.

“I would say a majority of us are now in our 50s, 60s and 70s,” Ator says. “What's going to happen? When any of the downtown churches start looking for new organists, they've had to go far reaching. … It's one of our bigger concerns.”

Wayne Peterson, 58, who recently celebrated his 30th anniversary as the musical director and organist at Trinity Episcopal Church, says, “I think it's safe to say that the overall number of people who play the organ is on the decline.”

A 2015 survey by the American Guild of Organists confirmed the picture is bleak and getting worse. The organization found that about 60 percent of its 16,000 members were 58 or older. Just 11 percent were younger than 37.

More than half – 58 percent – had played at the same religious institution for at least 31 years, while only 14 percent had done so for less than a decade.

Much of the decline, Peterson surmises, are the “hobbyists; the people who would do it on the side.” And yet he has hope for the instrument itself and those who play it.

“The AGO (American Guild of Organists) has, at a national level, made some concerted efforts attracting young folks through a variety of ways,” Peterson says. He cites regional universities offering an intensive week of organ lessons for musicians with a piano background. Locally, he says, there is “a Saturday program called 'Room on the Organ Bench,' which we will have in October.” No date has been set, he adds.

“We reach out to elementary, middle school and high school kids and tour them around the downtown churches and give them a chance to play the organs and walk inside and try to excite them a little bit, so there are efforts being made,” he says.

For many churches, costs are also prohibitive.

Almost any functional organ costs tens of thousands of dollars. Price tags of half a million dollars or more are not out of the ordinary.

Full-time organists may demand $60,000 to $100,000 per year plus benefits, depending on location and congregation. But it can cost more than $160,000 to earn a bachelor's degree in organ performance or sacred music at a top academic program.

The 33 percent or so of organists who pursue graduate degrees can lay out more than $300,000 to enter a field in which more than 90 percent of available jobs are part time, according to the guild.

Both Peterson and Vaught cited that the perception of a lack of organists could be that some churches are moving away from organ music altogether.

“Nowadays, it's the change in worship style,” Vaught says. “That could be part of the problem. Some churches have moved to more contemporary. Some may think the organ is old-fashioned. Some say the organ is going to make a big comeback. I agree with that at times.”

Peterson concurs that organs are being replaced: “The church culture has changed, more than anything, regarding the instrument. There are a lot of churches that use pianos or bands or something other than the organ for their primary music source.”

Yes, the church organ may be on the decline elsewhere. But this is the City of Churches, where the organ still has a loud voice. How long will it last, no one is sure.

“I would venture to say that every church organist in town is looking for talent within their own parish or through personal contact and families and so forth to find people who are interested,” Ator says. “… The main problem we have is getting that word out and generating the interest.”

The Baltimore Sun contributed to this article.