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Technology subs for organs

Posted on: February 4, 2014 4:58 PM
Liz Russell Skypes the organ music to Emmanuel's service from her home in Alberta
Photo Credit: Dennis Smyk
Related Categories: Canada, communications, worship

By Diana Swift, Anglican Journal

Thank heaven for iTunes. And Bose audio. Without these technological tools the 11 congregations in the far-flung parish of southeast Labrador would have no organ, and some even no choral music at Sunday services.

"There are no longer any organs in the entire parish, although until recently we had a few pump organs," says the Rev. Jeffrey Petten, one of the parish’s two priests serving such picturesquely named communities as Black Tickle (pop. 168). "A few churches have a capella choirs only, and some use guitarists as accompanists."

An organist himself, Petten now uses a digital keyboard and hits the organ-mode button as needed. "But I really don’t like to preside and play at the same service because it becomes more work, hopping between the altar and the keys. You can’t properly prepare the altar for the eucharist with a hymn book in your hand," he says.

Enter iTunes and Bose. The result is fine music at a modest price. "Our annual iTune bill is around $250 a year for both," Petten says.

Then there’s Skype. The blended Anglican-United congregation at Emmanuel Church in Ignace, Ont., a small town 150 miles west of Thunder Bay, has its former principal organist, Liz Russell, play the service for them via long-distance video from her new home in Canmore, Alta.

The Rev. Jeanne Bryan, rector, sends Russell the bulletin each week and she keeps her computer near the organ. She and Russell need only the occasional hand signal to orchestrate the instrumental side of the service. “Liz still does readings for us, too,” Bryan says.

Bryan thinks that other churches facing the dearth of organists and organs should consider technological alternatives. As to why the organists are becoming a thing of the past, Bryan says: "Who even takes piano lessons these days?"

For Nicholas Fairbank, the Victoria-based national president of the Royal Canadian College of Organists, choirs and organists are inextricably intertwined. "One reason there are fewer church organists is that there are fewer church choirs. Singing in the choir is often the path to playing the organ," says Fairbank.

He also notes that the cost of maintaining large pipe organs is becoming prohibitive, whereas you can buy a digital keyboard that will last 25 years with relatively little maintenance.

As a member of the University of Victoria's faculty of music, Fairbank focuses on the pipe organ as a secular concert instrument. "My own opinion is that the organists of the future will unfortunately not be able to make much of a living working for the church. If the pipe organ is to survive, I think it will be as a concert and recital instrument."