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Church organists: Soaring instrument appeals to fewer musicians
The Marysville First Presbyterian Church’s pipe organ traces its origins back to the mid-1800s. It has 1,223 pipes. According to organist Gail Pfister, the organ “came around the horn in 1869.” The organ underwent a restoration in 1981, and has “some new parts and some old parts,” Pfister said.
St. Joseph Catholic Church in Marysville’s organ is among the oldest in California, according to organist Diana Brookman. Its origins are in England, and it came to California in 1876. It has 443 pipes. Brookman was also involved in the organ’s 2001 restoration project, which took two years to complete.
The First Lutheran Church in Yuba City’s organ is new, by comparison. The organ was built in 1994; what is unique about the Lutheran church’s organ is that it was built on-site, according to organist Juanita Eddings. The organ has wood from a tree where the sanctuary now stands, among other features that make it “one of a kind,” Eddings said.
Few instruments in a church’s musical arsenal can compare to the pipe organ.
Standing several stories tall and with a range just as massive, the organ is often called the king of all instruments.
But while the pipe organ is said to be the closest instrument to God – second only to the human voice – it has fallen out of use in some churches. The number of available organists has gotten smaller.
So has the number of college students studying the organ. According to the National Association of Schools of Music, in 1998-99 there were 303 undergraduate students majoring in organ music. In the last school year, it was 182.
Is the organ, even the electronic version used in some churches, on the decline?
“It does seem that way, unfortunately,” said Juanita Eddings of Browns Valley, organist at the First Lutheran Church in Yuba City. “A lot of churches are doing praise bands now with the contemporary services.”
The Lutheran church’s pipe organ, built in 1994, is part of all of the church’s traditional services. “We use it to play hymns before and after church. That’s what we do because music is how you sing the praises of the Lord,” Eddings said.
The First United Methodist Church of Yuba City has an electronic organ but no one to play it.
“This past year, our organist moved to Texas,” said Lois Black, the church’s pastor. “Our backup organist passed away, so we haven’t been using it.”
When the church looked to find a replacement organ player, it also found the decline in qualified players.
“Contemporary music doesn’t require it,” Black said. “It detracts from contemporary styles (of worship). Right now, for our contemporary service, we have keyboard players and guitarists. Most of the younger people are into the contemporary instruments.”
For the traditional services, however, the organ remains silent.
“If our organist is visiting, she’ll play it,” Black said. “People love it when she plays it because it adds depth to the music and the service.”
The decline in organists, she said, is because young musicians will “learn the instruments to play the music (they) want to play.”
Not all church organs around Yuba-Sutter are silent.
The Marysville First Presbyterian Church’s pipe organ has an organist in Gail Pfister of Gridley.
“I’ve been playing (organ) for 40 years, since I was a church-going teen,” Pfister said. “I took organ so I could be of use to the church.”
The decline in players, she said, was cultural. “Pop culture has influenced (young musicians) not to play the organ,” she said. “I don’t understand why people wouldn’t like it. I love it.”
The church uses the organ for “everything,” Pfister said. That includes during congregational singing, during the offering and during prayer and meditation.
“We always have organ pieces,” she said. “It wouldn’t be my style not to have the organ.”
St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Marysville has an organist – Diana Brookman of Yuba City.
“It’s an honor to play it ... it has a beautiful tone,” she said.
The organ is “completely involved in the service,” Brookman said. “I do everything – the entrance, the gloria, the holy holys, all the parts of the Mass. ... It’s intertwined with the whole Mass.”
A decline in organ players wasn’t a surprise to Brookman. “Playing (the organ) is different from piano. You either like it or you’re intimidated by it.”
Even if it is on the decline, few instruments can compare to the organ’s sonic capabilities.
“It has great range,” Pfister said. “It can go from the softest, sweetest sound to a huge, powerful sound.”
“Children come up after hearing the sound (of the organ) and I show them all the different sounds it can make,” Eddings said. “The kids think it’s wonderful.
“We’re not going to give (the organ) up.”
The Kansas City Star contributed to this article.