Tryna Be A Rockstar Part V – Playing The… Pipe Organ?

Dispatches from the front lines of the music industry.

In order to make a living, most musicians have to find a variety of types of work. Rarely does a single gig pay a full salary. In my situation, drumming and recording do not generate income. Instead I earn a modest wage by playing the pipe organ.

I have realized that people know very little about about pipe organs. Even those exposed to them in church almost never sit down even to just noodle around. So let me offer a window into the world of this underappreciated king of instruments…

“How does a person start playing the pipe organ?” Well, I can only speak for myself, though I imagine it is similar for most organists: I went to church growing up. My church had an organ. At some point, I began to play it. The end.

Specifically, when I was fourteen, the church got rid of its electric organ and installed a new pipe organ. At the suggestion of my mother, I met with our church’s organist and started taking lessons. To be honest, I did not immediately fall in love with it the way I did with drums. But I knew it was a cool, unique thing to do and was told that you could make some money subbing for churches. With keyboard experience on piano and coordination developed from drumming, it seemed like an appropriate challenge. I didn’t really have a reason not to play it… so I took lessons. For several years.

“Riveting. But what exactly is a pipe organ?” Well, it’s like a piano, but instead of hammering strings, each key opens a valve to a pipe. There are various sets of pipes called “ranks” that produce notes of different ranges and colors. Some pipes are thin and short, producing high stringy sounds, others are thirty feet high with reeds that vibrate creating notes like jackhammers. And everything in between. Usually there are multiple keyboards controlling different ranks, as well as a large pedal keyboard that your feet can play. But “playing the organ” is not just tickling ivories, it’s more like flying an airplane – with all sorts of switches and knobs you must set up beforehand to engage whatever combination of pipes you want.

Key fact: pipe organs are not just pipes and a console. They are inextricably linked to the spaces in which they reside. When a pipe organ is installed, there is a process in which the technicians “voice” the instrument: they shape the mouths of the pipes so that the sound rings out in the hall the clearest. The room is thus the resonating chamber for the instrument, much like the body of a violin amplifies and colors the sound of the vibrating strings. Literally, you play a whole building. Halls with a longer reverberation time are considered more desirable, though that’s just an aesthetic tradition and does not mean that an organ in a room with a short echo sounds “bad.”

I earn money with this instrument on sundays, playing during church services (mostly Presbyterian ones) when a regular organist is away. This involves (for those who have been to church, skip this paragraph): a three-minute piece of my choosing at the beginning as people enter and settle down, two or three hymns (during which the congregation sings), a couple short responses (more singing), a short piece during the offering (no singing, plates are passed around for cash or check donations), a piece during communion (where everyone gets a little bread and wine/juice), accompanying the choir on an anthem, and another short “postlude” at the end of everything (no singing, usually something exciting).

It is not a trivial amount of music, and some churches pile on the hymns. If you sub at places just once, you can play the same pieces from church to church. But even with shortcuts, you still have to learn different hymns and become familiar with each instrument, because they are all different. Some are old jalopies in need of tuning and repair, while others are spotless Maseratis. Some have just one keyboard, ten ranks, and don’t save your settings. Others have three keyboards and 100 memory banks for dozens of stops. And every room rings differently, sometimes the pipes are far away from the console, and each church has its own quirks and routines. Adaptability is paramount.

To prepare, I usually talk to the regular organist or the music director a week or so beforehand to find out what pieces I should play. Then I visit at least once to get accustomed to the organ. Friday and Saturday I practice on my recently-acquired electric organ in my house. Finally on Sunday morning, I put a suit and tie.

Oh, and fancy organ shoes.

Available in any color as long as it’s black

The thin soles enable you to feel the pedals and the thick heels mean you can play notes without pushing your heel down uncomfortably far. You do not want to wear street shoes anyway because they will make the pedals dirty and harder to slide around on.

As jobs go, it is fairly fun, though it can be very stressful when you’re not fully comfortable with the music. Church is a routine and people notice when notes are flubbed, though they are also very nice and give you a break if anything weird happens. As long as you practice enough beforehand, it goes fine. Plus it’s actually a bit of a thrill leading a couple hundred people in singing.

Then, when it’s all done: it’s only noon, you’re wearing a suit, the sun is out, there’s a check in your pocket, the worry of messing up a service is gone, and you’re on a high from the good performance and the positive energy of the congregation. It’s the best time of the week. Lake Wobegon plays on NPR as you drive home. Heartland, USA.

When I mention to my friends in the rock music world that I play pipe organ, they don’t really know how to respond. And when I mention to church people that I’m in rock bands, they don’t really know what to say either. Rock types are rarely churchgoers, and sometimes they have a genuine loathing for american christianity. They occasionally ask, “So, are you religious?” as if this will put a damper on our relationship. Church types, affable folk that they are, are less judgmental in this area – imagine your grandmother saying, “Oh! Well isn’t that nice!”

I feel comfortable in both worlds because I was brought up to think of church as a family place, not so much a religious one. My mother’s father is a minister, so their family always lived in the church manse (a house provided by the church for the minister’s family). To my mom, church is about community, not mythology, and that’s largely how I’ve come to think about it. I also went to a fairly liberal church that was not dogmatic or proselytizing, so I never felt pushed away the way others might. Playing the organ then is much more of a musical experience for me. I’m happy to sub at churches because it makes me money and introduces me to interesting communities of people. And – I have found that I enjoy being reminded of the moral side of life. It is so easy to avoid questions of right, wrong, love, and forgiveness living in modern secular america, so a good sermon every couple weeks can be refreshing. Whether or not the morality is prescribed by God or Jesus is beside the point. For me, anyway.

Unfortunately for the pipe organ, most organists do not share my approach. Organs are usually in churches. The majority of organ music is religious. The main organist association (where organists network, have conventions, establish standards of professionalism and musicianship, etc) focuses almost exclusively on how to be a good church musician. They make little effort to spread the instrument beyond that boundary. So to most people, the pipe organ evokes images of odd beast only played on Sundays.

Otherwise ignored. Lost. Invisible.

It really needn’t be.

Think about it.

It is literally the largest instrument ever (EPIC!!). And therefore also the loudest (MORE EPIC!!). There are churches everywhere, so you can easily find one to play (ACCESSIBLE!!). Tons of kids grow up taking some form of piano lessons, so playing organ is a simple leap (LOGISTICALLY REASONABLE!!). You play with your hands and feet – it’s a whole body workout (MENTAL STIMULATION!! HEALTH BENEFITS!!). It has all sorts of sounds – strings, reeds, trumpets, flutes – you are your own symphony orchestra (GOOD FOR THE CLASSICAL LOVER!!). Or you can think of yourself as a mad scientist at the controls (POWER AND EGO!!). Or as a phantom of the opera (ANGST!!). Badass, obviously (SEX APPEAL TOO!!). Or – it is a massive machine where huge bellows pump air through pipes… there is a serious steampunk angle you can take here (HIPSTER?). The mechanical workings are intricate and the physics of building them and calibrating their acoustics are complex (FOR NERDS AND ENGINEERS TOO!!) There are tours you can go on in various cities or across Europe, trying out all kinds of organs (TRAVEL!! HISTORY!!) It can touch all sorts of emotions, from the slow weeping tragedy of Barber’s Adagio for Strings to the euphoria of Widor’s Toccata (PLUMB THE DEPTHS AND HEIGHTS OF YOUR SOUL!!). And that’s just the pipe organ. It’s only a hop and a jump over to theater organs and accompanying Charlie Chaplin films (VINTAGE MOVIE NIGHT!!). Or go a little father to the hammond and play gospel, rock, or jazz (MUSICAL POSSIBILITIES ARE ENDLESS!!).

But ew. No. It’s in a church. Gross. Why would I want to play or listen to that? I never go to church – those places are scary and full of Republicans.

Tosh. Nonsense. Bullshit. Hooey.

Still unpersuaded? But there are so many unexplored possibilities! Don’t think of it as being stuck in a church. For example, an internet-age pipe organ piece:

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2 Comments on “Tryna Be A Rockstar Part V – Playing The… Pipe Organ?”

  1. Paul Says:

    Superb!


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