Playing the pipe organ is a dying craft, and P.E.I. churches are struggling to find organists

Local organists say a lot of the 20 or so churches in P.E.I. with pipe organs have had trouble finding people to play the instrument.

'As far as us old-timers on the organist field, it's a dying field'

Why church pipe organists are hard to find

10 hours ago

Duration 2:47

P.E.I. churches working to attract players to 'dying craft.'

The pipe organ has been a part of the liturgical service at St. Peter's Cathedral in Charlottetown pretty much since the church was built.

The 75-year-old instrument currently sitting in the cathedral's organ loft was built using parts of its original organ, installed just 17 years after the church was founded in 1869.

But this relic of the past serves no one without an organist.

"We have people who can play. But none of them wants that responsibility," said Father David Garrett, rector of the cathedral.

"We've been advertising, and we've had somebody — well, we've had several applications — and the one we thought best was to come for an interview in May of 2020. And, of course, that didn't work out because of COVID."

For 44 years the role of church organist and choirmaster at St. Peter's belonged to Alan Reesor, the long-time chair of UPEI's music department who passed away last March. Some of Reesor's former students have taken turns playing for the church, but no one has been in that role full time since he retired in 2015.

Organ keyboard and sheet music

The organist originally selected for the cathedral will finally arrive from Toronto this summer. But local organists say that of the 20 or so churches in P.E.I. with pipe organs, St. Peter's is not the only one that's had trouble finding people to play the instrument.

"As far as us old-timers on the organist field, it's a dying field," said Leo Marchildon, organist at St. Dunstan's Bascilica and director of music for the Charlottetown diocese.

The actual beauty of the authentic pipe organ is actually becoming rarer and rarer.

– Leo Marchildon

In fact, Marchildon said the problem stems from a widespread shortage of people in Canada who can play the instrument.

"Not so many people are going to the churches today that the children are not being exposed to this mighty king of instruments," he said.

"Then you've got a domino effect, where the children have no idea that this whole other world exists. And then there's fewer and fewer people coming down the pipe to learn the craft."

'A symphony at your fingertips'

Man in suit seated at pipe organ.

Unlike the piano, a percussion instrument that produces sound when a hammer hits the strings, the organ is a woodwind. It generates sound by releasing pressurized air through valves and letting it to go through its large pipes.

Because notes can only be sustained by keeping the keys pressed, a pipe organ requires a different fingering technique. And its wide array of pipes allow for wild variations in sound.

"The piano is one-sound-fits-all basically: you hit the keys and that's what you get," Marchildon said.

"Whereas the organ it opens up a whole different bank of pipes. Some are metal, some are wood, some sound like flutes, some sound like French horns, a few of them sound like strings. So, in essence, it's like having a symphony at your fingertips."

"You kind of can control everything," said Jason Chen. "Your feet is moving and going up and down, changing the registration."

Chen, who is 15, is one of two people Marchildon is teaching to play the organ. He became his student under a new scholarship from the Royal Canadian College of Organists (RCCO), a not-for-profit dedicated to promoting the instrument.

Young organists

The program finances the first few lessons for a student interested in learning to play the organ. Applications are currently open.

Teenager playing pipe organ

"We are trying to encourage young people to take up the slack here," said Marchildon, who's also president of RCCO's chapter in P.E.I.

"We're doing little things that we can to try to make the instrument less intimidating, make it kind of a fun thing that people might want to actually take up. And when they hear a real pipe organ in action it is, you know, thrilling."

Chen started playing the organ as a way to improve his piano skills. He only started two years ago, but has already played at concerts and is now gearing up for his first full solo recital.

I think that music is another way of praying.​​​​​

– Father David Garrett

He said he plans to stick with the instrument, and become a professional organist.

"I just think of the organ as a much better route, because the piano — there's like a lot more [pianists] in the world," Chen said.

"[I'd like] playing for others, just traveling around the world, seeing different organs and trying something on them."

4,000 pipes

The organ you play does make a huge difference. Marchildon said that because the sound it produces is sophisticatedly linked to the space where the instrument has been set up, organists must make a lot of adjustments depending on where they're playing.

"That's what makes the organ kind of interesting for my students, too … Every one has a different challenge," he said.

Large, grand-looking, old church

"The unfortunate thing about pipe organs is that they are usually only housed in very large places like churches, or maybe some auditoriums … to get onto a real pipe organ, you kind of have to have access to a large church."

St. Dunstan's pipe organ comes from a decommissioned church in Montreal and was reassembled, piece by piece, at the basilica in 2012. It's almost a hundred years old, has about 4,000 pipes, and a recent restoration of the instrument cost about $500,000.

Marchildon said another reason why pipe organs have become rarer is that they're costly to keep, and that a lot of congregations aren't able to afford them.

"Part of the problem is, too, that because of the cost of maintaining a pipe organ and keeping it in tune. And all the costs involved, people are now defaulting to just having a guitarist come into the church or a pianist, or maybe get an electric organ. But the actual beauty of the authentic pipe organ is actually becoming rarer and rarer," Marchildon said.

Pipes of large pipe organ

Grand sound

Chen said the sound at the basilica is "completely different" and much grander than what he's used to with the virtual pipe organ he usually practices with at home.

He's been invited to play during mass as a special guest at St. Dunstan's a couple of times. Though his family isn't religious, he said he enjoys being in church because of his love of music.

"It's the real thing," he said.

At St. Peter's, the church organist plays for the main Sunday service, as well as on Christmas and during Holy Week. On request, they also play at weddings and funerals.

All these services would feel much different, Garrett said, if they didn't have the hymns, motets and other liturgical music that usually accompany them, and which have at their core the cathedral's pipe organ — and the person who plays it.

"I think that music is another way of praying," he said. "The prayer that changes us, that makes us better able to love our neighbour. And so [music] is meant to move and change us, like prayer does."

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