Trinity Presbyterian Church Casavant Organ

Trinity Presbyterian Church

The Future of Organbuilding in America

Much has been made about the threat to the future of the pipe organ, threats from without in fewer young musicians wanting to play the organ, as well as threats from within from Digital organ substitutes. Men and women much smarter and with more experience in the field have written about those threats, I wish to address something that hopefully will not become an issue.

Who and where are the futures of OUR industry? It should come as no surprise that most AIO members and organbuilders are not under 30, or even 40. Think of your own firm, what is the average age? I am pained to think that in 25 years, at 54, I might be one of a few people doing the work.

There was much written and spoken about the declining number of qualified organists being produced by colleges and universities. Forward thinking groups like the AGO/RCCO, APOBA, and AIO have instituted programs such as Pipe Organ Encounters, Pizza & Pipes, and others to introduce young people to this amazing instrument. Most often, these programs are targeted at the young musician who already has musical training, but in another instrument field. The evidence of these programs working is happily all around us. With many new players under 18, and increasing enrollment in undergraduate collegiate study in the organ growing, the future of players looks promising.

There has not date been no such program or organized attempt to bring young people into servicing and building these instruments. Without knowledgeable, highly qualified people to care for and build these organs, the future of the entire field is at jeopardy. While I don't believe a large scale program such as P.O.E. is feasible for this task, there are suggestions to help spur discussion and further action on the grass roots level.

New Converts

There is a great, untapped resource for skilled, musical talent for basic organ building tasks and most importantly key-holding in America. It is the local college/university with a music program. Within the walls of those institutions are hundreds of young people who both need money, and who are required in their first two years of study to become proficient in keyboard technique. Even into their first semester, they will be able to find middle c and any other note on a keyboard. In addition to ready console assistants, they may also be suited for other simple tasks such as cleaning pipes/chambers, pouch rail disassembly, carrying heavy objects. While these young people may have complicated class schedules, the cost/benefit ratio is certainly high enough to consider their introduction into this business through key holding.

Examine establishing a work-study program with the local school, which depending on local laws, can be tax deductible. Even if not, tout the 'easy money' aspect to students as we all know holding keys to be one of the easiest jobs ever devised. Be certain to be enthusiastic about what youíre doing, and about the instruments you take them to see. It was in college where I discovered the pipe organ and the career I happily find myself in.

Another resource for labor assistance can be local musician friends, or even the local AFM (American Federation of Musicians) union hall. Musicians, like college students can have flexible schedules, and can also be hungry just as college students are. Again, the benefits of working with professional and semi-professional musicians without day jobs can be the same as the college student.

How to keep new converts loyal

First and foremost, once you have that 'newbie' to the art of organ building hooked (and they will be hooked), it is of the utmost importance to surround them with positive people and attitudes. After even a few months in this work, it is easy for the seeds of bitterness and jaded attitudes to creep into one's soul. It is during these critical times that a personís future in the business is won or lost. I have a very dear friend who I used to work with at Miller Pipe Organ in Louisville. After I moved to Atlanta, his wife was transferred to Indianapolis for her job. While my friend was not as quite as addicted to the work as I was, he certainly enjoyed many aspects of it and had a large repertoire of experience and skills to benefit any firm. After relocation, he began to work for a firm locally, and after a very few months decided to leave not only the firm, but organ work all together due to a very negative work environment. The loss of ANY person under 30 from this work is bad, but loosing a skilled and talented person like Ryan is devastating. Remember, everything trickles down, make sure you send good down the pike.

Always expose new employees to onsite organs and work in churches as much as possible. We should never underestimate the WOW factor of any pipe organ. Take them into an Austin chest, show how that balanced action works and self adjusts. Donít assume that just because you have seen hundreds of Artiste's that they wonít be amazed at the amount of stuff crammed into that small space.

When youíve assigned a new employee a menial task such as cleaning pouch rails, or punching pouches, take five minutes and explain or show if possible how that small task fits into the large picture of a properly functioning organ. Even if they do not fully understand, sparking a mind is preferable to leaving one to languish.

Patience, patience, patience with puppies and new employees is key. When someone with lesser experience than you, the orgelblaumeister, makes a suggestion, hear them out. Do not instantly dismiss what they have to say, or worse, cut them off in midsentence. Take the few minutes to hear them out. Not only might you hear a simple solution that you hadnít considered, but explaining to them why we are doing it this way increases their knowledge and skills.

Encourage and praise often, reprimand only when necessary. While we all strive for perfection in this work, we are also all only human. No job, or rarely even single task goes just as we would like, so when an employee makes a mistake, do not come down too hard on them. Demonstrate how it should have been done and help the person learn, rather than becoming discouraged.

Remain above interpersonal squabbles. It is unlikely that in even a small work situation everyone will get along perfectly. Just because one employee may not like another's manner or demeanor should not affect eitherís employment status if both produce a good product. If some shop staff feel the new voicer is aloof and hard to get to know, remind everyone that the new voicer does not have the benefit of working side by side with the staff on a daily basis. People do not have to like each other to work well together and ultimately do good work. Stay above these tensions and only intervene when work quality or safety is an issue.

Encourage learning. Try to establish a library for employees to reference to and pursue passions further. Subscribe to magazines such as Fine Woodworking, Wood, TAO, and others for bathroom or lunch table material. Also, encourage or if possible subsidize professional memberships in organizations such as the AIO, AGO, OHS and others. It was through the generosity of Jim Miller that I and many other current members of the AIO first became aware of the organization and joined.

Little gestures can move great mountains of morale. Take $20-60 to buy pizza for lunch one day can make a rough day or week more palatable. Small gifts such as books (The Little Black Reference book is a great one), small tools or CDs can also make someone's day. Donít necessarily wait for Christmas or a birthday; your generosity will reap great rewards of employee morale and loyalty.


There are certainly some reading this article who asks a valid question, "Why should I listen to someone who is just starting his own company and has never had a full time employee of his own?" These ideas and concepts are gladly taken from both very positive as well as negative experiences I have had in the employment of various builders and firms around the country. What is more, the purpose of this article was not to act as a "Handbook for Employee Relations", so much as to remind everyone that for this industry to continue, new young people must be brought into it.

Unlike in Europe, there are no formal apprenticeship programs here, much less a school for the exclusive education of organ builders/servicemen. We must care for the future of this industry ourselves. While there will always been Ďorgan nutsí and hobbyists in the world, quality builders and more importantly high quality service people are already in short supply. The Baby Boom generationís pending retirements will certainly affect our industry like every other, so we must be conscious of introducing new people into the field, lest it dwindle to a few dozen people caring for and building organs for future generations.

There are without doubt many other ways to encourage other young people to enter what I think is an exciting and rewarding career field. I certainly do not assume to have all the answers, or even know all the questions. In time, I hope to do my part to try and hire and encourage other young people to enter this field. But until my workload warrants a major change in my status, with luck this article might help address what I think is a potential problem for the future of the pipe organ in America.

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