s Thoughts from the Physics Chick: In which the Grand Hypothesis is revealed

Saturday, June 26, 2010

In which the Grand Hypothesis is revealed

A few weeks ago on By Common Consent, there was a post about what's wrong with music in LDS worship services. There was a lot of talk in the comments thread about trouble with organists, in particular, which got me to wondering . . . are we running out of organists?

The thing about LDS organists is that they’re hard to grow. First, you have to grow a pianist. (You don’t technically have to learn piano first, but playing the piano develops finger strength in a way that playing the organ doesn’t. It's like the difference between typing on a typewriter and typing on a computer keyboard.)

And once you’ve grown a competent pianist, they have to unlearn a lot of piano technique in order to learn proper organ technique, plus learn to play the pedals. (Add to that the phenomenon of LDS pianists who don’t really want to be organists, but get called to serve in that capacity anyway and so aren’t very motivated to learn to do it well.) And the capping injustice is that anyone who’s motivated enough to learn to play the organ at a professional level will probably end up working on Sundays at some other denomination (LDS organists aren’t paid), which pulls some of the best LDS organists out of the pool of people who can play during Sacrament Meeting.

The upshot is that it takes a long time to grow an organist from scratch—I’d guess an average of ten years or so—and no one is going to call someone to be an organist ten years in advance, so we rely on being able to call people who are already well into the process of learning to be an organist.

But what if that pool was shrinking? What if fewer people were learning to play the piano (or any musical instrument) in favor of other pursuits? We could be facing a massive shortage of organists for simple demographic reasons, with dire implications.

So, my survey was designed to test whether fewer Mormons (or Americans, in general) are taking music lessons now than in years past. And my stunning results are . . . that I have a serious sampling problem. 80% of my responses were from people born in the same decade, which makes it difficult to do a chronological comparison by decade. Given enough data, I could work with that kind of skew, but the bigger problem is that every single person who responded said they’d had formal music instruction, which I know isn’t true of all Americans or Mormons, as a whole. (This is either a case of birds of a feather flocking together, or my not making it clear that responses from people who hadn’t had any musical training were also welcome.)

Anyway, I’ll have to find another way to gather data for my hypothesis if I want to test it, but it was still interesting to see the survey results.

19 Comments:

At June 26, 2010 1:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A few years back they called a handful of people in my home ward to be organists whether they had any training or not, maybe to avoid an organist shortage, but mainly so they didn't have to be so exclusive with certain callings. It always seemed to be the same two people that would rotate between organist and choir director every few years.

 
At June 26, 2010 5:31 PM, Blogger Katya said...

Did they even have pianist or music training, or was the calling genuinely from scratch? (I'm very much in favor of that sort of thing, but it seems like you'd have to take a very long-term view to make it work. Or to even consider doing it.)

 
At June 28, 2010 2:26 PM, Blogger Th. said...

.

Did you see the article in the recent Friend about training Primary kids from scratch to play piano in Primary?

 
At June 28, 2010 2:47 PM, Blogger Katya said...

I hadn't seen it, so I read it on lds.org. What a great idea! I would love to be called as the Primary piano teacher. :)

 
At June 30, 2010 7:45 PM, Blogger Trueblat said...

My mom was the one who taught piano lessons to all of the kids at church. Course she did it more as a service. One lesson was $3, and she finally raised it to $4 10 years ago. Several of those kids have become the ward organists because of it.

This reminded me of a blog rant I wrote several years ago. http://trueblat.blogspot.com/2006/09/kawai-must-die.html

 
At July 06, 2010 2:34 PM, Blogger Jason said...

When I was called to be the new organist, I was all gung ho to learn the pedals and really get it under my belt. But within a few weeks of early morning organ lessons, working on my thesis, and the outgoing organist showing me the magical bass coupler trick, I resigned myself to "good enough." Sigh, someday...

 
At July 06, 2010 6:24 PM, Blogger Katya said...

Trueblat - Ohh, I hate those digital pianos.

Jason - There's still a lot of room between "master of the pedals" and "slave to the bass coupler," though. These days, I tend to play the organ on very short notice, so I don't have time to practice what I'm going to play, but one trick I learned is to put one foot on the tonic pedal note and one on the dominant pedal note and just play those when they come up in the hymn. You can keep your feet in the same place for the whole song, but you still get to hit a lot of the pedal notes, and I think it sounds pretty good.

 
At July 06, 2010 9:26 PM, Anonymous zehill said...

What are these "dire consequences" you speak of? I say scrap the organ if you don't have a true organist, and focus on the piano. The best ward music I've heard in the church was in a ward in Manhattan with an amazing pianist and no organ. Is the threat of running out of pianists as high as running out of organists?

 
At July 07, 2010 9:17 AM, Blogger Angie said...

Zehill, you make a good point! The piano is better accompaniment for singing anyway! But somehow, most American LDS have the idea that organ accompaniment is more "reverent" or something.

 
At July 07, 2010 12:08 PM, Blogger Chempianos said...

I'm a stake music chairman now teaching a short course for pianists in how to make the transition to organ. My motivation was simple: we have very few organists, but many more pianists. The problem I'm finding is that most of them have never heard the organ played correctly, and so have no models to copy. Organ is much more suitable for congregational singing than piano, especially if the organist knows the little trick of adding some 2' stops and harmonics to make the melody audible to the congregation. I highly recommend BYU's series of 12 podcasts designed to help the piano-organ transition. Take a look, and then use them to help out

 
At July 07, 2010 12:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am one of those "pianists forced to organist" some 20 years ago! I now love to play the organ! I could not have said that 15 years ago. And I have never had an organ with a coupler, so it's pedals all the way! It take a LOT of practice to learn pedals. I have started teaching the YM/YW in my ward who can play the piano well. It's tough, they're scared to death, but my hope is to expose them early and when they are " fearless"!! (haha).

 
At July 07, 2010 4:34 PM, Anonymous GJ said...

There are several pianists turned organists out here who never get a chance to play. There are those who are placed in that position and others aren't given the opportunity.

 
At July 07, 2010 5:58 PM, Blogger James said...

The challenge of finding capable pianists and organists is why new church buildings have an organ with built-in digital memory and at least one digital piano with all of the hymns programmed in.

 
At July 07, 2010 6:20 PM, Blogger Katya said...

zehill - I haven't heard a pianist who could play loudly enough to be heard over a large congregation. How large was your ward in Manhattan?

GJ - True, and I'm actually in that position right now (although our organist is pretty good).

James - Unfortunately, the digital pianos I've had experience with in LDS church buildings have been ghastly to play as real pianos. I hope that newer buildings are getting better models, because I don't see the point in losing good instruments as well as good musicians.

 
At July 07, 2010 7:15 PM, Blogger Donnann said...

In our ward, we have started rotating the youth that play the piano. Our ward organist (who is amazing, btw) meets them for a few basic lessons before Sacrament meeting and then has them play prelude music. As the new organists get more comfortable, they are rotated into playing for the entire meeting. I (the music conductor)work with them to go over my leading style. The whole process has been amazing. Before a recent ward split, we had 5 youth that were playing regularly in Sacrament meeting - one of them bravely using the pedals!

 
At July 07, 2010 11:40 PM, Blogger Frau Magister said...

It seems like the American Guild of Organists has done some research on this that indicated that the number of people studying organ was shrinking.

As for LDS organists, I wonder how much of an impact the outreach effort made by the BYU professors (particularly Prof. Cook and the organ tutor lessons) has had an effect on the larger English-speaking church population. In a related note, I wonder if you could look at the enrollments of the basic organ class (Music 115?) at BYU and see if they've increased or declined over the years.

 
At July 08, 2010 12:21 AM, Blogger Michael said...

For me I just wish more organists and conductors would learn to real the tempo suggestions. Far too many wards sing every song at the same speed and volume. In my current ward every song is played very slow and dragging like a funeral or death march, it drags down everything about the meeting. Try singing all the verses of The Spirit of God at about 60 bpm or less. It's painful and anything but inspiring. I miss the Organists who are not afraid to change tempo, change keys, or have creative sustains to wake people up and pay attention to the songs. Most ward meetings feel stuck in a 1950s stereotype of boringsville.

 
At July 08, 2010 12:27 AM, Anonymous Linda F. said...

We just had a ward split, two wards making three. I was put into another ward, and found out that I am pretty much it when it comes to who can or cannot play the piano, let alone the organ (all the piano/organ talent went to the other two wards). I don't play organ yet, but I would like to learn. However, my bishop said piano is just as good, so don't feel like you have to do it, or that you have a deadline.
And we don't have a problem with hearing the piano as we have a grand piano in our chapel that can be opened up.

 
At July 08, 2010 6:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just wanted to brag a bit. My grandmother was a fabulous organist. She loved to play in her ward and she even had an organ in her home. I have fond memories of pushing buttons and pedals as a kid.
My mothers 1st cousin is Clay Christiansen who plays the organ at the tabernacle and conference center. I always love watching him play. My mother said as kids he would make all the cousins and friends sing "we thank thee o god for a prophet" before they could go out and play. Funny!

 

Post a Comment

<< Home