BY JONATHAN M. PITTS
BALTIMORE – When the longtime organist at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Havre de Grace, Md., announced her retirement last fall, the leaders of the small 200-year-old congregation faced a bigger challenge than they knew.
Music — particularly the music of the organ — is central to the life of the church. Members say the instrument’s rich sounds complement their liturgy, inspire congregational singing and even seem to invite the Holy Spirit into their presence.
But a six-month search has turned up just one potential applicant.
Church leaders are trying every new strategy they can think of to get things moving.
“We’re praying and trying to stay optimistic, but this we had no idea how challenging this would be,” says parishioner Casi Tomarchio, a member of the search committee. “There aren’t enough organists out there.”
Feeling the pinch
At a time when fewer Americans describe themselves as affiliated with any religious denomination, the ranks of those who play the instrument long considered a mainstay of Christian worship — the organ, and most specifically, the pipe organ — are thinning.
The shortage has hit less hard in major metropolitan areas, where historic cathedrals and churches with bigger budgets can invest the funds it takes to buy and maintain a serviceable organ and offer a musician full-time work.
But smaller congregations — including those in rural and suburban America — are feeling the pinch.
Stay for decades
Most church organists stay in their positions for decades, but when they do retire, there frequently is no one to replace them. The shortage has been changing the sound of Christian worship in the United States.
“In the major religious institutions, sacred music is alive and well, and there are plenty of musicians who are eager for those positions,” says John Walker, a member of the organ faculty at the Johns Hopkins Peabody Institute.
“But as the organ community grows somewhat smaller through attrition, with people aging out of the profession and fewer young people coming in, we have — well, I hate to say a crisis, but we have a very challenging situation facing us.”
By the numbers
Few speak with the authority of Walker, an internationally known church and concert organist who has performed in major cathedrals and on some of the finest instruments in the world. But even he might be understating the point.
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 years of age 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.
Gordon Truitt is senior editor at the National Association of Pastoral Musicians, which “fosters the art of musical liturgy” in the American Catholic Church, according to its website.
“There’s a serious shortage, and it’s growing,” Truitt said. “For smaller churches in particular, it’s a huge concern.”
Black churches impacted
It’s also a concern in Black churches.
J. Spencer Hammond is the former longtime organist and choir director at Douglas Memorial Community Church in Baltimore. The pipe organ long anchored hymn singing in African-American worship, he says. But fewer young people are learning it.
“It’s happening across the board, in all churches,” he says.
Church music consultants say the shortage has a range of causes, many of them rooted in changes in the broader culture over the past several decades.
Diminishing church attendance has made it harder for congregations to pay highly trained organists. A decline in clergy has forced many to ask organists to take on pastoral duties unrelated to music, such as teaching in religious schools.
Meanwhile, cheaper, more portable and more easily accessible instruments such as drums, guitar and piano have grown in popularity.
Church musicians say these and other cultural pressures have diminished the appeal of the organ, an instrument that has always required intense study.
The tradition is not extinct. Pipe organ fans who want to experience its power may visit any of the 15 or so area institutions that have a top-quality instrument, a full-time organist and acoustically complementary architecture, Walker says.
Those include two Catholic churches: the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, with its massive, Ohio-made Schantz organ, and the Basilica of the Assumption, with its Roosevelt organ that dates to the late 1800s.
A third is the 10-year-old Andover organ at Christ Lutheran Church in the Inner Harbor. Boasting two consoles and more than 4,300 pipes, it has been featured on the cover of The American Organist, the official journal of the organists guild.
As an instrument, the organ is known for generating an impressive range of sonorities, its pipes capable of mimicking everything from a flute to an English horn. Musicians say it’s uniquely suited to support congregational singing because its use of air and vibration mimic the mechanics of the human voice.
Those qualities were audible at Christ Lutheran one recent Sunday as music director Daniel Aune played “God Loved the World” and “Lift High the Cross.” The sounds began gently, then swelled in the columned sanctuary and swirled down among the pews.
Ann Hunter has sung in the church’s choir since 1967.
“A piano doesn’t fill a space the way an organ does, and this is a mighty organ,” said Hunter, who sings alto. “I can’t imagine doing a hymn processional down the aisle without an organ.”
Aune, who is president of the organ guild’s Baltimore chapter, says that power derives from the organ’s very structure.
“With other instruments, [such as] a piano, the sounds can decay, but an organ is sustaining,” he says. “Because it is a vocal instrument — it requires air and has its own lungs — it encourages singing. It can breathe with you and has a sense of vocality.”
The Baltimore Sun Tim Prudente contributed to this article.