In the Wind

May 5, 2015

What a winter.

Our son Andy writes for a daily news service at the State House in Boston and gets to see his prose online and in print the next day. Writing for a monthly journal is a little different. You’re reading in May, and I can only hope that the giant gears that drive the universe continued to function properly and the weather is warm. 

I’m writing in March on the first day of spring. I’m in my office at our place in Newcastle, Maine, looking across the Damariscotta River, a dramatic and beautiful tidal river. We’re eight miles up from the Gulf of Maine and the Atlantic Ocean, and the tide chart says that we’ll have an eleven-foot high tide just before 11:00 this morning, a couple hours from now, so the ice floes are drifting north toward town with the tide. I can barely see the sea ice on the river, because my usual view is all but obscured by the piles of snow outside.

A couple weeks ago, the weatherman predicted a heavy snowfall, to be followed by rain. There were already several feet of snow on the roof, so we hired some local guys to shovel the roof, fearing that the added weight would be too much. Those piles added to the drifts already in place to leave six feet on the ground outside my windows.

We’ve spent a lot of time outside this week in eight-degree weather because we have a new puppy, and in spite of the cold, we’ve heard the calls of eastern phoebes and cardinals right on schedule. The wicked weather must be unsettling for these denizens of springtime in coastal Maine. Think of the poor ovenbirds, who get their name from the oven-shaped nests they build on the forest floor.

We’ve had about 90 inches of snow here this winter, which is plenty, but it’s a foot-and-a-half short of the all-time record of 108 inches set in Boston this year. Last weekend, friends and family there were rooting for the predicted snowfall to exceed the two inches needed to break the record—“if we’ve been through all this . . . .” I trust they’re happy with their bitter reward. 

Subways stopped running, roofs collapsed, and houses burned down because fire hydrants were buried deep beneath the snow. Local school officials are debating whether to bypass legislated minimum numbers of school days, because it’s simply not possible to make up all the days lost to cancellations through the winter. And the New York Times quoted the city’s guide to street defects, which defines a pothole as “a hole in the street with a circular or oval-like shape and a definable bottom.” An actionable pothole is one that’s at least a foot in diameter and three inches deep. I wonder what they call a hole that doesn’t have a definable bottom.


But baby, it’s cold outside.

It’s been a terrible season for pipe organs. Long stretches of unusually cold weather have caused furnaces to run overtime, wringing the last traces of moisture out of the air inside church buildings. Concerts have been postponed, and blizzards have sent furious drafts of cold air through old stained-glass windows, causing carefully regulated and maintained pitches to go haywire. One Saturday night, a colleague posted on Facebook that the pastor of his church called saying there would be “no church” tomorrow. The sewers had frozen and the town closed public buildings.

One organ we care for outside of Boston developed a sharp screech lasting a few seconds when the organ was turned on or off. After spending a half hour tracking it down, it was easy to correct by tightening a couple screws and eliminating a wind leak, but it had been a startling disruption on a Sunday morning. 

A church in New York City that is vacant because it merged with a neighboring congregation suffered terrible damage when an electric motor overheated, tripping a circuit breaker for the entire (poorly designed) hot-water heating system. Pipes froze and ruptured, the nave floor flooded ankle deep, and the building filled with opaque steam. A week later, when heat was restored, steam vented, and water drained and mopped up, the white-oak floorboards started expanding, buckling into eight-inch-high mounds, throwing pews on their backs, and threatening to topple the marble baptismal font.

My phone line and e-mail inbox have been crackling with calls about ciphers and dead notes, swell boxes sticking and squeaking, and sticking keys—all things that routinely happen to pipe organs during periods of unusual dryness. And I can predict the reverse later in the season—maybe just when you’re finally reading this—as weather moderates, humidity increases, heating systems are turned off, and organs swell up to their normal selves.


The floor squeaks, the door creaks . . . 

So sings the hapless Jud Fry in a dark moment in the classic Broadway musical, Oklahoma!. He’s lamenting his lot, pining after the girl, and asserting to himself that the smart-aleck cowhand who has her attention is not any better than he. The lyrics pop into my head as I notice the winter’s effects on the woodwork that surrounds me. We have a rock maple cutting board inserted in the tile countertop next to the kitchen sink. The grout lines around it are all broken because the wood has shrunk. The hardwood boards of the landings in our stairwells are laid so they’re free to expand and contract. Right now, there are 5/16′′ gaps between them—by the time you read this, the gaps will be closed tight. I need to time it right to vacuum the dust out of the cracks before they close. And the seasonal gaps between the ash floorboards of the living and dining rooms are wider than ever.

The teenager trying to sneak up the front stairs after curfew is stymied in winter, because the stair treads and risers have shrunk due to dryness, and the stairs squeak as the feet of the culprit cause the separate boards to move against each other.

The other day, working in my home office in New York, I heard a startling snap from my piano, as if someone had struck it with a hammer. I ran up the keyboard and found the note that had lost string tension. Plate tectonics. Good thing the tuner is coming next week. 

As I move around in quiet church buildings, I hear the constant cracking and popping of woodwork changing size. Ceiling beams, floorboards, and pews are all susceptible. But it’s inside the organ where things are most critical. The primary rail of a Pitman chest shrinks a little, opening a gap in the gasketed joint, and three adjacent notes go dead in the bass octave of the C-sharp side because the exhaust channels can no longer hold pressure. And there’s a chronic weather thing in Aeolian-Skinner organs: The ground connections to the chest magnets are only about a quarter-inch long, and near the screws that hold the magnet rails to the chest frames, where the wood moves with weather changes, the ground wires yank themselves free of their solder and cause dead notes.


Let’s talk about pitch.

Fact: Temperature affects the pitch of organ pipes. You might think this is because the metal of the pipes expands and contracts as temperature changes, and while that is technically true, the amount of motion is so slight as to have minimal effect. The real cause is changes in the density of the air surrounding and contained by the organ’s pipes. Warmer air is less dense. If a pipe is tuned at 70°, it will only be in tune at that temperature. If that pipe is played at 60°, the pitch will be lower; if it’s played at 80°, the pitch will be higher.

While it’s true that all the pipes involved in a temperature change will change pitch together (except the reeds), it’s almost never true that a temperature change will affect an entire organ in the same way. In a classic organ of Werkprinzip design, with divisions stacked one above another, a cold winter day might mean that the pipes at the top of the organ are super-heated (because warm air rises), while the pipes near floor level are cold. 

There are all kinds of problems inherent in the classic layout of a chancel organ with chambers on each side. If the walls of one chamber are outside walls of the building, while the walls of the other back up against classrooms and offices, a storm with cold winds will split the tuning of the organ. I know several organs like this where access is by trap doors in the chamber floor. Leaving the trap doors open allows cold air to “dump” into the stairwells, drawing warmer air in through the façade from the chancel. This helps balance temperature between two organ chambers.

One organ I care for has Swell and Great in the rear gallery on either side of a large leaky window. The pipes of the Swell are comfortably nestled inside a heavy expression enclosure, while the Great is out in the open, bared to the tempest. A windy storm was all it took to wreck the tuning of the organ as cold air tore through the window to freeze the Great. It only stayed that way for a few days, until the storm was over, the heating system got caught up, and the temperatures around the building returned to usual. Trouble was, the organ scholar played his graduate recital on one of those days, and there was precious little to do about it.

One of the most difficult times I’ve had as an organ tuner was more than twenty years ago, caring for a huge complicated organ in a big city. The church’s choir and organists were doing a series of recording sessions in July, preparing what turned out to be a blockbuster bestselling CD of Christmas music, on a schedule for release in time for the holiday shopping season. It was hot as the furnaces of hell outside, hotter still in the lofty reaches of the organ chambers, and the organ’s flue pipes went so high in pitch that the reeds could not be tuned to match. It was tempting to try, and goodness knows the organists were pressing for it, but I knew I was liable to cause permanent damage to the pipes if I did. It was a surreal experience, lying on a pew in the wee hours of the morning, wearing shorts and a tee-shirt, sweating to the strains of those famous arrangements by David Willcocks and John Rutter rendered on summertime tuning.


Mise en place

I started doing service calls maintaining pipe organs in 1975, when I was apprenticing with Jan Leek in Oberlin, Ohio. Jan was the organ and harpsichord technician for the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music, and had an active maintenance business on the side. I worked with him three days a week when I was a student, and loved driving around the countryside and rolling from church to church. (Many of my peers were trapped on that rural campus by a college that didn’t allow students to own cars.) I suppose in those days we did fifty or sixty service calls each year, and as my career expanded, there were some periods during which I was caring for well over a hundred organs, visiting each at least twice a year. I suppose the annual average has been around sixty a year, or 2,400 since those naïve days in Ohio. 

Each organ has peculiarities, and each has its own environment of climate and acoustics. The tuner-technician has to learn about each organ and how it relates to the building, as well as learning the ropes of the building itself. Over the years you learn where to find a stepladder, how to get the keys to the blower room, and most important, where to find the best lunch in town.1

And speaking of peculiarities, organists crown ’em all. A professional chef has his mise en place—his personal layout of ingredients, seasonings, and implements that he needs to suit his particular style of work and the dishes he’s preparing. It includes his set of knives (don’t even think of asking to borrow them!), quick-read meat thermometer, whisk, along with an array of seasonings, freshly chopped or minced garlic, parsley, basil, ground black and white peppercorns, sea salt, and several different cooking oils. 

Likewise, the organist, both professional and amateur, sets up his own mise en place—cluttering the organ console with hairbrushes, nail clippers, sticky-notes, paper clips, cough drops, bottled water, even boxes of cookies. Sometimes the scenes are surprisingly messy, and these are not limited to those consoles that only the organist can see. Next time you’re at the church, take a look at your mise en place. Does it look like the workplace of a professional? If you were a chef, would anyone seeing your workspace want to eat your food? 

Care for the space around the organ console. Ask your organ technician to use some furniture polish, and to vacuum under the pedalboard.2 Keep your piles of music neat and orderly, or better yet, store them somewhere else. Remember that what you might consider to be your desk or workbench—the equivalent of the chef’s eight-burner Vulcan—is part of everyone’s worship space.


Everywhere you go, there you are.

There’s another aspect of visiting many different churches that troubles me more and more. As a profession, we worry about the decline of the church, and the parallel reduction in the number or percentage of active churches that include the pipe organ and what we might generally call “traditional” music. But as I travel from one organ loft to another, peruse Sunday bulletins and parish hall bulletin boards, I’m struck by how much sameness there is. What if suddenly you were forbidden to play these pieces:

Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring (you know the composer)

Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (ibid.) 

Nun danket alle Gott . . . (which of the two?)

Sheep may safely graze

Canon in D


Etc., etc.


Each of these is a beautiful piece. There are good reasons why we all play all of them, and congregations love them. The same applies to choral music. We could get the sense that if we took away “ten greatest hits,” no organist could play for another wedding. Take away a different “ten greatest hits,” and no organist could play another ordinary Sunday worship service.

I know very well that when you’re planning wedding music, it’s difficult to get the bride (or especially, the bride’s mother) to consider interesting alternatives. And I know very well that when you play that famous Toccata, the faithful line up after the service to share the excitement. It would be a mistake to delete those pieces from your repertoire.

But if we seem content to play the same stuff over and over, why should we expect our thousands of churches to spend millions of dollars acquiring and maintaining the tools of our trade? Many people think that the organ is yesterday’s news, and I think it’s important for us to advocate that it’s the good news of today and tomorrow.

The grill cooks in any corner diner can sustain a business using the same menu year after year, but if the menu in the “chef restaurant” with white tablecloths and stemware never comes up with anything new, their days are numbered.

This summer, when many church activities go on vacation, learn a few new pieces to play on the organ. Find a couple new anthems to share with the choir in the fall. You might read the reviews of new music found each month in the journals, or make a point of attending reading sessions for new music hosted by a chapter of the American Guild of Organists. Here’s a real challenge for you—work out a program of preludes and postludes for the coming year without repeating any pieces. Can you rustle up a hundred different titles? You never know—you might find a new classic. Remember—every chestnut you play was once new music! ν



1. In the days when I was doing hundreds of tunings a year, I made a point to schedule tunings so as to ensure a proper variety of lunches. As much as you may like it, one doesn’t want sushi four days in a row! It was tempting to schedule extra tunings for some of the churches—there was this Mexican place next to First Lutheran . . . Wendy would say I have a lot to show for it. 

2. It’s traditional for the organ technician to keep all the pencils found under the pedalboard.