2 February 2023

Organs are beautiful instruments. Why aren’t people playing them?

Beverley Phillips says aspiring organists need more options for learning and training. Photo: Elspeth Kernebone.

By Maya Pilbrow

19 January 2023

These days Daniel Brace is the organist and music director for St Oswald’s, Glen Iris, but he didn’t grow up listening to the music he now plays.

As a young man he was a gifted musician, but his knowledge of church music was limited to a vague understanding of the church’s role in the history of the Western classical canon.

Everything changed when he was in his late teens.

He went into a church. The organ was playing.

“It blew my mind to hear that music in the environment for which it was written,” Mr Brace said.

He began learning to play the organ shortly thereafter.

For many organists, their instrument is awe-inspiring.

But the organ’s volume, both in terms of decibels and sheer size, poses challenges for churches and musicians alike.

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St Mary’s, North Melbourne music director and organist Beverley Phillips said the organ was capable of things that no other instrument could match.

“You’ve got this wonderful colour palette to work with, that you cannot do on any other keyboard,” she said.

Ms Phillips said the organ’s versatility in texture and tone was especially important for liturgical purposes.

She said different forms of church music, such as hymns and mass settings, required different types of accompaniment.

Ms Phillips said it could at times be difficult to get the whole congregation to sing along during services, but that the full sound of the organ helped bring people together.

“You can gradually build it up and create a sense of excitement and take everybody along with you,” she said.

The Very Reverend Keren Terpstra said church music had the capacity to connect people to God’s presence.

“Music transcends the physical, the material, the rational,” she said.

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Ms Terpstra, who is Dean of the Cathedral Parish of Sale and an acclaimed composer and organist, said the organ was a useful tool for connecting young people to worship.

“I’ve watched as organists have performed and young people have stood there with their mouths open. The organ can be such a powerful instrument,” she said.

Ms Terpstra said the organ’s versatility came from its many pipes and stops. When used, the stops block airflow to sets of pipes, producing different sounds.

This allows organs to have the range of a full orchestra, with stops that can mimic the effects of stringed, brass and reed instruments.

Ms Terpstra said every organ was unique, and that organists had to spend time familiarising themselves with the quirks of their instruments.

The intricacies of organs mean that they can be difficult to maintain and costly to repair, according to Organ Music Society of Victoria treasurer and membership secretary Stephen Baldwin.

Mr Baldwin, who plays the organ at Christ Church, Brunswick, said that properly maintained pipe organs were less expensive to repair, but that there was very little funding available for caretaking of historical instruments.

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The Organ Historical Trust of Australia keeps records of organs across the country, many of which are in disrepair or damaged, including Hamer Hall’s organ, which was removed for renovation in 2011 and has yet to be restored.

In addition to the costs associated with maintaining these instruments, Mr Baldwin said there was a dearth of organists, meaning that many churches have organs but no one to play them.

The OMSV works to find organists to fill vacancies in parishes, but Mr Baldwin said more could be done to facilitate these connections.

Chairperson of the Victorian branch of the Royal School of Church Music Tony Way said the current lack of organists was due to changes in education.

“In terms of actually training church musicians at the tertiary level, there’s not quite the same resources as there were back in the last century,” Mr Way said.

The Australian Catholic University used to offer courses in church music, according to Mr Way and Ms Phillips.

Ms Phillips recalled how she had initially enrolled in the bachelor of church music at ACU before the course was renamed to a bachelor of music before she graduated.

“[These days] it is almost impossible to find a course that would give you the opportunity to really study well as an organist,” she said.

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She said that church music required not only technical skill but also liturgical knowledge.

She said her own responsibilities included training herself and others vocally, understanding choral and organ repertoire, as well as knowing how to improvise musically and teach others.

For Mr Brace, who did not come from a church background, the vast skillset required to play the organ during services made his first few Sundays overwhelming.

Since then, he said he has grown accustomed to the traditions and rituals of church music and now relishes the opportunities he gets to bring music to others.

“I’m in a place where people value and love music,” he said.

As to the challenges facing parishes and organ enthusiasts alike, Mr Brace said he felt optimistic.

“I’m hopeful that we organists will muddle our way through. Music is part of that, it binds people together,” he said.

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