Wild Air


September 17th, 2011

Once upon a time, your humble correspondent was employed by Sears, Roebuck, & Co., then the largest retailer in the world.   It was a company so big and so powerful that its symbol on the New York Stock exchange was simply “S.”

I learned a lot from Sears – a lot about business, a lot about people.  

One lesson of how NOT to do things has particular relevance today in the organ world.   We called it “A-Store-itis.”  

Sears had three store types, roughly decided by volume.   “A” stores were the big full-line stores, and were usually found in big population centers.   “B” stores were in the smaller cities and towns.   A “B” store carried the most popular lines, but the stores were physically smaller and their assortments more limited.   “C” stores were mom-and-pop operations in the very smallest towns.   These stores might carry some tools, a few washers and dryers, and they also had a catalog desk.   Although the big stores were far sexier, there were far more “B” stores, and, combined,  the  “B” stores  did much more volume.

“A-Store-itis” was the tendency of home office people and district people to consider everything in terms of the big stores.   These were the fun, glitzy stores, and were also the closest to the home or district offices.   So, a new display for, say, shock absorbers, might be designed for the big stores.    It would be sent to ALL the stores, and the smaller units would re-engineer it for the space available.   Then, a home office guy would come in and tell you it was all wrong.

Even worse, Sears was the master of the unfunded mandate.   For instance, they might say that all stores would be open until midnight the two weeks before Christmas, without any real thought to how much this would cost the smaller stores or to the fact that in the smaller towns, they roll up the sidewalks at 9 pm.

So, you are asking, how does this apply to the pipe organ???

We hear a lot about the music programs in the big churches.   Our universities train young organists to play the great literature, and to play it well.   It is interesting to note in these difficult economic times that there are more concert organists listed in the organ periodicals than ever before.   Dozens of them.

What about the small churches?   What about the students who want part time jobs serving them?   What about the instruments in these churches?  

To my mind, our colleges need a training track for young musicians who NEVER PLAN TO MAKE A FULL-TIME LIVING playing the organ.   Consider a small church that can pay, say $150 a week for an organist.   If that person spends about 10 hours per week in preparation, practice, and performance, it works out to $15/hr.   Not a princely sum, but pretty good for a part-time job in a small town.   It’s also a guaranteed gig every week, and all but a couple of hours of the required work can be done whenever it is convenient.

First, we need to tell students that these opportunities exist.   Smaller churches are crying for organists and pianists.   Then we need to give them the training they need to fill these jobs.   The playing skills should include hymn playing, choral accompaniment, and workable service pieces.   This last would include pieces that are effective, but can be prepared in a week or two.   There is a lot of this music out there, some of it quite good.   They should also learn to register the organ effectively.   This last seems to be a major problem for many teachers, and it is amazing the number of organists we encounter who don’t really understand how to use the resources of the organ effectively.

What these people DON’T need to know, IMHO, is how to properly phrase a Bach Chorale, or whether the Hautbois is properly part of the Grand Jeu.

Did I mention that they should have some training in fundamentals of keyboard harmony?

On my side of the console, we have to learn to build pipe organs that are affordable for smaller congregations.   This does not mean defaulting to a digital instrument that doesn’t even sound like an organ, although some digital voices can be useful in filling out a modest pipe organ.   As a small organ company, these sorts of projects are our bread and butter.  

I would like to hear more discussion about this, as I think it is a key to the future of the organ, and, in fact, to good music in our churches.   We all love the prominent “A-store” churches, but we need to look to the needs of the smaller congregations.   After all, there are more “B-stores” than “A-stores” in our world, too!

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