Sep 15, 2003

Musicians in Worship – II Where Have All the Organists Gone?

Online Edition

– Vol. IX, No. 6: September 2003

Musicians in Catholic Worship – Part II

Where Have All the Organists Gone?

by Lucy Carroll

Editor’s Note:

This is the second of a three-part series by Dr. Carroll on Musicians in Worship. Part I , "

Banish the Soloists – Let the People Sing"

, appeared in the July-August

Adoremus Bulletin



Musicians fulfill an important and necessary function in the sacred Liturgy. But whether fully trained professionals or ardent amateurs (translation: those who do it for love), all must remember that the purpose of the music is to implement the Liturgy, not to entertain the faithful or glorify themselves. The motto of all ought to be: Non nobis Domine, sed nomini tuo da gloriam! (Not to us, Lord, but to your Name be all glory!)


In many Catholic parishes today, there is a section up front — usually on an elevated platform — that holds a drum set, amplifiers, microphones, and stands for guitars and electric bass. There may also be a case holding such percussive additions as maracas, tambourines, finger cymbals, and wood block. One might see, as in some churches I have visited, xylophone and marimba. In use there will be a tangle of wires, and several persons running around setting up, setting levels, and adjusting things. A soloist will croon into a microphone.

In many such churches, the organ sits mute. It does so by choice of the back-up group performers, as it is unsuitable for the pop-style secular music thrown at us by so many publishers today. This has helped lead to a shortage of organists. The American Guild of Organists a few years ago suggested that for every 200 paid positions, there is one qualified organist.

As one such organist, I know there are any number of jobs I could take were I interested; I am constantly turning down requests. Organists are disappearing. Where have they gone?

Many have retreated — as I did myself thirty years ago — to the larger Lutheran and Episcopal churches where the quality of music is still high. Many opt for the concert stage, or for the field of music education. In their absence, replacements are not being trained. And in the parishes, when all that people see and hear are rickety electronic keyboards, or strummed guitars, why would any young person even consider learning the "king of instruments", the pipe organ?

I know of one young woman who had played the organ in her parish, then left to attend a distant college. She took organ lessons on campus, and was playing very well. She gave her time on Sundays to a local Catholic Church with a pipe organ. (Lucky parish, indeed!) One Sunday, however, the pastor said to her that she was no longer needed. They were locking up the organ and sticking to guitar, which better fit the (non-sacred) style of music they were using. What a disaster!

The pipe organ is the instrument named by the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council as the traditional instrument for our worship. We have seen in Part I of this series (

"Banish the Soloists" – July/August


) that vocal soloists were not envisioned by the Council; choirs were. And the choirs were to be led by the most suitable instrument to lead a congregation:

… the pipe organ is to be held in high esteem, for it is the traditional musical instrument which adds a wonderful splendor to the Church’s ceremonies and powerfully lifts up man’s mind to God and to higher things. (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 1963, chapter VI, #120).

Pope Paul VI’s 1967 Instruction Musicam Sacram repeats this. And in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), once again the pipe organ is reaffirmed as the instrument to be afforded first place. And "it is appropriate that…. the organ be blessed according to the Roman Rituale" (GIRM §313). So important a part of the church is the organ that the instrument has its own special blessing rite!

So why do we have electric keyboards, jazz and rock groups and an abundance of guitars instead of the pipe organ or a good pipe organ facsimile?

Protestant churches have rightfully held title to strongest congregational singing. These churches have known for centuries — as have Catholics — that the organ is the best way to lead a congregation in song.

Instruments are mentioned in the Old Testament, particularly in the psalms. In the temple’s Holy of Holies, however, music was provided by specially trained priests. When the temple of Jerusalem was destroyed, and synagogues became the only center of worship, the human voice alone was retained for praise. While this is still true of Orthodox Jewry, today the organ can be found in Reform and some Conservative synagogues.

In Christianity, too, only the unaccompanied voice was used in worship for several centuries. Early gatherings were, by necessity, small. But as Christianity grew and emerged into society, larger houses of worship were built. The larger congregations did not stay together well when it came time to sing.

Sometime between 600 and 800 AD the pipe organ was introduced into a monastic house. The immediate response of the brothers was… revolt! The early instrument was a noisy, wheezy thing: the keys were large and had to be struck with the fist, and in the absence of electricity, the bellows had to be pumped by hand. The brothers felt it covered the sound of their singing. Well, it did, but it also gave a strong lead for the congregation, who could hear it in all corners of the larger churches, and a tradition was born.The organ is still the very best way to lead a congregation. It can be powerful and authoritative in a way no other instrument can. It can play all the voice parts simultaneously from soprano through bass, thus encouraging all voice parts to sing.

The Pipe Organ as Leader

I was fortunate to have been trained both as a concert and a liturgical organist, especially fortunate to attend Pius X School of Liturgical music in 1963 and 1964 just before the deluge of post-Vatican Ii liturgical changes. Much of my professional life, thereafter, was spent in Protestant churches, beginning with the Lutheran.

Now, few denominations sing with as much gusto as old-time Lutherans! Luther was a firm believer in congregational singing, and began the tradition of German hymnody that continues strong even today. The pipe organ — or a good electronic equivalent — is still the song leader of choice.

The pipe organ is not only powerful and authoritative because of its depth and volume, but because it mimics the human voice, a fact alluded to by Pope Saint Pius X. That is, air is pumped through pipes (organ pipe/human windpipe) via a wind chest (lungs and diaphragm) and follows a nice straight path out the round opening (pipe opening/human mouth). This means that, like a singer, a pipe organ can actually breathe.

A well-trained organist will lift his or her hands at the end of each phrase, resulting in an obvious silence and a clear indication to the congregation that they can all breathe together at that spot. Strummed guitars, drums, and other percussive instruments cannot do that. And again, the organ can provide several lines of music simultaneously: melody, harmony, descant, etc. While playing, an organist is a whirl of hand and foot activity.

The Three-Way Training of an Organist

An organist is trained for three situations: to be a soloist, to be an accompanist, and to lead a congregation.

As a soloist, the organist is free to interpret. Preludes, postludes, meditative pieces at Communion: these are individual, solo pieces. While the organ is a difficult instrument — not for the timid — there are many fine pieces by well-known composers that can be played successfully by beginning organists. Composers have given us no end of suitable pieces for this instrument, pieces that are sacred in nature, pieces that can draw us to meditation, and thus, to God. Of course, we speak here of the traditional pipe organ, not the theater organ, with its bells and whistles, an instrument designed to entertain.

An organist is trained to be an accompanist. This involves an empathy with the soloist, for the accompanist is trained to follow. The organist shifts into this mode when accompanying a choir and following a director, or when accompanying a soloist. Of course, the very term "soloist" means no one else is singing, unlike the soloistic cantors. If a soloist pulls tempo, skips a phrase, or does anything else, the accompanist must follow, and must play softer than the soloist is singing. Now, in a situation in most Catholic churches where the keyboardist is trained and the cantor is not, this results in a disastrous tug-of-war. If the soloist (cantor) is followed by the accompanist, and the cantor as soloist is untrained, then the soloist is probably going to be wrong sometimes, perhaps often. The organ, playing softly to accompany the solo cantor, cannot steer the congregation. The congregation will be led astray.

The physical distances between cantors and organists are also a concern: communication is impossible, and can lead to stressful situations. We have all heard cantors begin a third verse after the organist has decided that two was enough — or the other way around. Or the cantor may sing the wrong verse, further confusing the people in the pews. Or change tempo. Or skip beats. There can only be one person in charge in a solo-accompaniment situation. This is another reason why the cantor should not be a soloist during congregational music.

The third part of organist training is as leader. Here the organist is trained to set the tempo, give the breaths, etc. By strong, authoritative playing, the organist will pull the congregation along — and the average singer in the pew is less likely to be intimidated by sound of his own voice, hence more likely to sing out.

A good organist knows that the introduction to a hymn should sound like the hymn, not a creative improvisation that has nothing to do with what the people will sing. The introduction — sometimes an entire verse — must be played in the same tempo in which the people are to sing. This cues the congregation: "Here is the music you are going to sing, and this is how fast you will sing it".

The organist as leader will determine breathing points, and will signal this by lifting his hands very briefly from the keyboard at the end of phrases, while keeping the tempo. This helps to keep everyone together.

There is an old saw about organists that says: the better the training, the louder one plays! This may come as a shock, even evoke a few complaints, but it is a proven way to get the congregation to sing!

Restoring the Pipe Organ to Its Rightful Place

To restore the use of the pipe organ (or a good equivalent) in our churches, we must also restore chant, polyphony, and traditional hymns — as mandated by the Councils and popes. This is a priority. Songs that sound like secular pop tunes naturally employ the keyboards and back-up groups. The result may be entertaining (if it is skillful); but it does not inspire worship.

The cost of maintaining a pipe organ can, for smaller parishes, be a daunting concern. Today there are excellent electronic organs that can closely approximate the sound of a true pipe organ. However, a small pipe organ is eminently preferable to an electronic one — for authenticity and history. (Similarly, the effect of real candlelight cannot be duplicated by electric bulbs.) Twice-annual tuning should keep organ-repair bills to a minimum. And, ah, isn’t the pursuit of beauty and excellence a part of our heritage and tradition? Oughtn’t we have the best for God’s house?

Resources for Aspiring Organists

The parish needs an organist, and that organist, if untrained, needs to find a teacher and take lessons. And all organists can benefit from the support and encouragement of other experts in the field. There is much help available.

The American Guild of Organists is the best place to start. There are chapters in many areas. The Guild also has teaching materials and videos that instruct on the correct way to lead congregational singing from the organ console. (Web site:; address: 475 Riverside Drive, Suite 1260, New York, New York, 10015.)

The Organ Historical Society ( also has many materials available, including fine collections of organ music.

The Organ Clearing House ( can help parishes find old instruments that can be reconditioned or restyled to fit a particular church. Sometimes the initial cost of a small pipe organ is about the same as that of a bells-and-whistles loaded electronic one, and much more suitable for sacred music. Many fine new instruments are also available.

Electronic instruments also need repair and updating, of course — and they decrease in value as the years go by. Pipe organs never decrease in value, however, and they can always have extra ranks of pipes added as size and need arise, and as budgets allow.

If we restore sacred music to our churches, replacing entertainment-style songs, the organ can again take its rightful place as the instrument best suited for leading music in Catholic worship. And, as the Council Fathers told us, this instrument can lead us to God.

To be continued: Part III: Bells and Whistles, Guitars and Castanets.


Lucy E. Carroll, D.M.A., is organist and music director at the public chapel of the Carmelite monastery in Philadelphia. She is also adjunct associate professor at Westminster Choir College, Princeton. She has taught high school through graduate school, and worked in Lutheran, Episcopal and Catholic churches and a Reform Synagogue. Her "Churchmouse Squeaks" cartoons appear regularly in the Adoremus Bulletin.

Musicians in Catholic Worship: Part I Banish the Soloists — Let the People Singby Lucy E. Carroll [July-August 2003]

Musicians in Catholic Worship: Part III Bells and Whistles, Guitars and Tambourines — This is the third of a three-part series. — by Lucy E. Carroll [October 2003]



Lucy E. Carroll

Lucy Carroll, organist and choir director at the Carmelite monastery in Philadelphia, teaches at the Westminster Choir College in Princeton. She frequently contributes essays on Catholic music to AB, and is the creator of the “Churchmouse Squeaks” cartoons regularly featured in these pages. In Memoriam: Dr. Lucy E. Carroll, DMA