In the wind . . .

May 31, 2013

The magic machine, 

The power of Aeolus, 

Combined for worship.

Recently I’ve spent a couple long days in my car traveling to visit churches that are working to acquire pipe organs. It’s fun to talk with people who are excited about the future of their churches, and who are devoted to the power and beauty of great music in worship. I’m energized by those conversations. They are great opportunities to review what led me to spend my life with the organ, and to refresh my own philosophies about the majesty of our instrument, its origins, its purposes, and its uses. I love going into a building for the first time, learning how the local musicians and clergy use their building, and imagining how a new organ could enhance the life of the place. Yesterday I drove more than 600 miles for two of those meetings.  

Yesterday was also the day that Boston and surrounding communities were on alert because of the massive hunt for the surviving suspect in the bombing at the Boston Marathon. This story was personal—thankfully not because anyone I know was directly affected, but because it was our city, our neighborhood. Coverage on television showed the roads we drive, places we shop, places we take recreational and exercise walks, even trees I recognized. My son Mike and his girlfriend Nicole live close to the site of the horrific firefight in which one of the suspects was killed. A dog that’s afraid of thunder sure doesn’t like gunfire, and their household was up in the middle of the night experiencing all that terror first hand.

Being something of a news junkie, as I drove I fired up my iPhone to stream coverage from WBUR—the excellent NPR news station in Boston—whose reporters predictably droned on all day, whether or not they had any new information to share. There may have been fighting in Syria, protests over gun control, even a horrible deadly explosion in Texas, but you would have thought that Boston was the only city in the world for that one day. Having listened to that for the first 300 miles, after my first meeting I changed gears and switched to a great collection of organ music I keep at the iTips of my iFingers, and hurtled through the Poconos savoring the great heritage of our instrument.

The powerful music in my ears combined with reflections on the day’s great conversations and as I drove I thought about various aspects of the world of the church organ. 


Is tracker action

Or electro-pneumatic

Better for good sound?


I grew up in Boston during the height of the revival of tracker action in pipe organs, and was sure that a good clear tracker-action instrument was the one true form. I was in my twenties and working on renovating an Aeolian-Skinner organ when I started to understand the merits of a first-rate electro-pneumatic action. Later, when I was curator of the mighty Skinner/Aeolian-Skinner organ at Trinity Church in Boston—a few hundred feet from the finish line of the Boston Marathon—I had the rich experience of hearing a different artist play the same instrument each week on the popular “Fridays at Noon” series. I was amazed to realize how many different ways there are to approach a single instrument, and how different the organ could sound from one week to the next.

Today I’m not able to name a favorite type of organ. I’m interested in good organs that are well chosen and effectively designed to meet the needs of the congregations that buy them, and to enhance the buildings into which they are installed.


Good registrations,

Not formulaic, better

Chosen for their sounds.


Give the same collection of tubes of paint to a succession of different artists, and you’ll get a succession of approaches to color. Place a succession of musicians on the same organ bench and you’ll get a wide variety of approaches. I’ve written before, and recently, about my dislike of formulaic registrations. Why do so many different people play the same piece with similar registrations? Why does one organist draw the same list of stops for a given piece, no matter what organ he’s playing? “I can’t play that piece here, there’s no two-foot.” Baloney. Learn to listen. And learn to hear. Find stops that sound good. If you have good taste and you listen, you can’t go wrong. The ghost of François Couperin is not going to rattle chains in your bedroom if you add a Principal, an Oboe, or a colorful flute to the Grand Jeu. 


Choruses of reeds

Add color, pizzazz, beauty,

Bring music to life.


“When they are good, they are very, very good, and when they are bad, they are horrid.” I care for an organ in Boston that has lots of beautiful flutes, terrific well-developed Principal choruses, rich Cornets, and lousy reeds. They are thin and harsh sounding. They resist tuning, and will hold pitch until my car leaves the block. The variety is disappointing—the Oboe sounds like a Trumpet—and to my ears they detract from the effect of the organ. It sounds great until you draw a reed.

A good chorus or two of Trumpets, a powerful Trombone, a contrasting softer sixteen-foot reed, and a couple colorful solo reeds like Oboe, Clarinet, or English Horn can transform an organ from ordinary to magical. Well-made reeds, well maintained, dominate the personality of any great organ.  

The great organbuilder Charles Fisk left us an apocryphal definition for a reed: “An organ stop that still needs three days of work.” Reeds are tricky. They’re expensive. They can be moody. And they’re wildly affected by outside forces like humidity and cleanliness. They’re the Venus Fly Traps of the pipe organ. Because they’re shaped like funnels, hapless flying creatures often their way in and can’t get out. And the leg of a moth or common housefly is more than enough to leave a hole in a melody.

If you love pipe organ reeds and haven’t heard the terrific organ at Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles, you’re nuts. Get there. Reed tongue magician Manuel Rosales has festooned the instrument with the most exciting and colorful collection of reeds in captivity. Everywhere you look on those stop jambs there’s another cool-sounding Spanish word that translates to “fire.”

Ernest Skinner gave American organists a new vocabulary of reeds. He listened to the symphony orchestra and tinkered in his voicing room to create the Orchestral Oboe, the Flugel Horn, and his signature contribution, the French Horn. Boy, does a Skinner French Horn ever make an instrument special.

Temperature change

Pulls the pitch of the Organ 

Like a rubber band.


A rising tide floats all boats, and a rising thermometer hikes all flue pipes. While the flues change pitch with the temperature, the reeds stay still. Because there are fewer reeds than flues, we tune the reeds to follow the pitch of the organ. The more often we tune the reeds, the less stable they become.

The outstanding Trinity Choir at Trinity Church in Boston is renowned for the magnificent Candlelight Carols services they offer each year during the Christmas season; during my time with that organ, Brian Jones and the choir planned to make a recording based on that service that has since become a perennial favorite and best-seller. In order to be able to release the recording in time for the Christmas shopping season, the recording sessions happened in July. In a big center-city location like Copley Square with heavy traffic and the rumble of subway trains, it’s necessary to make recordings in the middle of the night. There was a heat wave. I remember lying on a pew in the wee hours of the morning, wearing shorts and a tee shirt, and sweating while listening to the most glorious of Christmas music. It was surreal. 

It was also a conundrum. Of course, Brian and associate organist Ross Wood wanted the reeds to be right in tune with the organ, but the instrument’s pitch was so high because of the extreme temperature (it was 100 degrees in the Solo box) the poor old reeds just didn’t want to go. The tuning wires were moved down on the reeds so as to reduce the curves of the tongues and stifle the sound of the pipes. What a challenge.

Like a rubber band, the organ’s pitch returns to normal with the temperature. If the organ is tuned at A=440 at 68 degrees, it will always go back to that, no matter how high or how low it has gone. Try not to over-tune your organ. If you can put up with the reeds being below the pitch of the rest of the organ for the summer, leave it be. Stretch a rubber band too many times, and it deforms or snaps.


Careful thought, good taste.

Everything in the right place,

Nothing too strident.


Perhaps the most famous of all reed stops is the State Trumpet in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. That one set of pipes must have thrilled more people than any other organ stop in the world. The trouble is, it has also influenced some of the most poorly chosen organ stops. When the State Trumpet hit the airways, every organist wanted one, and shrill, tinny, piercing “pea shooters” were installed in some of the most intimate churches.

Seems they forgot that the cathedral holds more than fifteen million cubic feet of air. In New York City, north-south blocks are 260 feet—twenty to a mile. The interior of St. John the Divine is over 600 feet. That’s the distance between the front doors of St. Thomas Church and St. Patrick’s Cathedral, kiddy-corner between 51st and 53rd Streets.

The sound of that powerful organ voice echoes around in that vast space as if it belongs there. There’s a good reason for that. It does. Take a look at this YouTube video: Listen to the exclamation of the guy holding the camera. But don’t try this at home. Someone might get hurt.

(By the way, I often include links to websites, photos, and videos in my writing to illustrate my points. I don’t know if I’ve ever said directly that I expect you to look them up. I think you’ll enjoy this one. It’s grand. And don’t worry that those singing nearby are not always with the organ. After all, it’s a block away.)

The First Congregational Church in Anytown, USA might hold eighty thousand cubic feet. Think it through, people. There’s such a thing as big-city organ music, and we don’t need to do it in every church. I’ve seen those nasty little en chamades mounted on balcony rails not five feet over the heads of the unsuspecting bridesmaids.

In some churches, a sweet and gentle-sounding organ is a treasure. Loud music is not, by definition, beautiful music. Funny, not everyone knows that.


Good craftsmanship sings.

Sloppy work makes sloppy sounds.

Sharpen your tools, please.


A dull saw won’t cut straight. A dull drill bit tears at the wood. A dull chisel crushes fine wood grain rather that cutting. And a dull mind produces dull thoughts. When restoring a smashing organ by E. & G.G. Hook I was deeply impressed by the precision of the pencil marks left by the woodworkers. The men in that workshop sure knew how to sharpen a pencil. A pencil line that’s a sixteenth of an inch wide gives a margin of error of an eighth. And if you cut a piece of wood an eighth of an inch too short, you’re fired.

Laypeople visiting a new organ often comment that they didn’t realize that people still have the skills of “old world” craftsmen. They see raised panels mounted in mortise-and-tenon frames, carvings and moldings, checkering and inlays worthy of the finest royal chambers. It’s thrilling to visit an organ shop where keyboards, casework, and wood and metal pipes are made. Great organbuilders have deep affinity for their materials. They choose the finest wood and purest metals, and work the stuff with respect and care. Measurements are precise, tools are sharp, cuts are clean, square, and accurate. It’s a pleasure to watch.

If the interior of an organ looks chaotic, it probably sounds that way.


Neatness in public.

Institutional hygiene,

A common shortfall.


Servicing pipe organs can be like cleaning other peoples’ bathrooms. Sometimes I think that if all the organists in the world suddenly disappeared, the companies that make and sell Kleenex™, cough drops, dental floss, hairbrushes, nail clippers, and Post-Its™ would instantly go out of business. An organ console in a worship space should not be considered a private office or place of refuge, especially if it’s visible from the pews. Nail clippers, really? Are you using them during worship? Imagine that distant snip–snip–snip during the sermon.

One organist I worked with, now deceased, had very long gray hair. It was routine for notes in the pedalboard to go dead because of being clogged like a bathtub drain.  

Lots of organists keep a special pair of shoes just for playing the organ. Some prefer especially supple petite shoes, some prefer slick soles or raised heels. Besides the pedagogic reasons for organ shoes, think of the guy who tramps through snow, ice, slush, and salt to get from his car to the church door, and sits down at the organ with dripping shoes. You can be sure he’ll be calling the technician to fix dead notes in the pedals.

And coffee cups. A ten-ounce cup of coffee can do a number on a stack of keyboards, especially if there’s sugar in it. I’m not making this stuff up.

The custodian finds that inside the door of the organ chamber is a great place to store a vacuum cleaner and extension cord. And there was the organist who called saying the organ was “sounding funny,” when the custodian had left a bucket of dirty mop-water on the reservoir. Let’s see, a gallon of water weighs about eight pounds, five ounces. A couple of them plus the weight of the bucket is enough to double the wind pressure in a low-pressure organ. And what if it spills . . . 

There was the Saturday morning emergency call from the organist saying that the church was full of people, bagpipes were playing, the bride and groom were ready, and the organ wouldn’t play. The lights came on with the blower switch, but not sound. Now that’s a real emergency because the bagpipes won’t stop until I get there. There was a card table up against the air intake of the blower.

I came up with the phrase institutional hygiene during a consultation trip. I was struck by how orderly everything was. Kitchen cupboards were immaculate, closets were neatly organized. All of the desks in all of the offices were trim and efficient, waste baskets were empty, gardens were cultivated and weeded. There was no huge stash of treasures left from last year’s rummage sale, and the Christmas pageant costumes were nicely hung on hangers. You didn’t have to move a pile of boxes to service the organ blower. I commented on this in the written report that I prepare at the conclusion of each consultation, and the music director wrote back to me that a previous pastor had purposefully established neatness as a feature of the life of the parish.


Rambling through thoughts,

Combining memories with

Fresh observations.


When I walk by myself for recreation and exercise, I often carry index cards so I can write down my thoughts. It’s so easy to come up with the perfect idea for solving a problem or the perfect phrase for a business letter, promise myself I’ll remember it, and then lose it altogether. That’s something I can’t do when I’m driving. I’ve tried Siri™, the oddball virtual assistant left to us by a cynical Steve Jobs, to record verbal reminders. (You can hold a button on your iPhone, summoning a quirky female voice asking if she can help.) But simple as it is to use, I know it’s bad to do while driving alone. Besides, the noises of the motion of the car seem to confuse her.

The organ is a deep and rich subject.  It has a terrific heritage. I hope I can live up to it.

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