I’m an Organ Ambassador
by Jan Kraybill
Like most musicians, I have created a career out of many jobs – part-time and full-time; musical and non-musical; temporary, interim, and permanent; paid and unpaid. I have often joked that I need multiple business cards, or perhaps one very long one with accordion folds, to list all of my roles.
My current official titles are Principal Organist for the Dome and Spire Organ Foundation, an affiliate organization of the Community of Christ (formerly RLDS) in Independence, Missouri; and Organ Conservator at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City, Missouri. I also have an active career as a concert organist and workshop presenter, and I serve in volunteer positions in many musical organizations. My day-to-day tasks include, among many other things, overseeing the three largest pipe organs in the Kansas City metropolitan area: the 113-rank Aeolian-Skinner installed in 1959 at Community of Christ Auditorium, the 102-rank Casavant (1993) at Community of Christ Temple, and the 102-rank Casavant (2011) at the city’s newest concert venue, The Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. I’m kept very busy coordinating details to ensure that 317 ranks of pipes, 15 key- and pedal-boards, and the mechanisms linking them all to the fingers and feet of resident and guest musicians, are maintained in top form. But all of that activity, essential as it is, would of course be in vain if we had no congregations or audiences to appreciate the glorious music made at these instruments.
That thought brings me to the point of this article. Now that I’m about mid-way through my musical career, I realize that the common denominator for all these activities, and the one over-arching job title that could be applied to all of my various roles over the years, is Organ Ambassador.
I believe that the organ world is beginning a resurgence of public awareness and appreciation. One could say that’s just due to the cyclical nature of creation: things seem to naturally fall into periods of waxing and waning. Hundreds of years of musical history have proven that the arts have cycles, too. Put very simply, the extensive use and appreciation of organ music in the Baroque waned during the Classical era; a great resurgence of public interest in our art in the 19th and early 20th centuries waned beginning a bit after the middle of the 20th century. We’re due for another waxing cycle. Now is a great time to be an organist!
The current resurgence is also partly due to concentrated efforts of organizations like the American Guild of Organists (AGO) to invest in young people interested in organ music, organ playing, and organ building. Programs such AGO Pipe Organ Encounters – week-long “camps” for teenagers through adults – have resulted in the development of many organists who have gone on to win competitions, earn organ degrees and certifications, and contribute to the organ world themselves via teaching, worship, and/or performance careers. I have personally contributed to and observed the changed lives as a result of these kinds of endeavors.
In very recent years, the numbers of university and conservatory students enrolled in organ lessons or majors has been slowly rising in some areas of the U.S., reversing the disturbing downward trend that resulted in many institutions closing their organ departments during my lifetime. I’ve also seen the numbers of enthusiastic audience members for organ concerts, including many first-time attenders, slowly grow. And, I must say, the general level of playing and expertise among organists is at an all-time high. Today’s organ events are amazing feats of musical, athletic and mental abilities!
The area that I feel is still lagging far behind the current resurgence, and in fact is holding it back, is that of Organ Ambassador. Today’s public is bombarded from every angle with information and solicitations for time and dollars. We in the organ world don’t do nearly enough to contribute our voice to this stream, to tell “outsiders” what is great about our instrument and its players. At times we are our own worst enemies in the area of public relations.
Too often after organ performances I hear my colleagues in the organ world criticizing what they’ve just heard, in public, in print, and online. Sometimes the comments begin before we’ve even exited the performance venue. All is fair game: the organ, the acoustic, the programming, the registrations, the tempi, the fingerings and articulations, the list goes on and on. And I haven’t even mentioned yet the perennially hot topics: electronic vs. pipe, mechanical vs. electric, organ compositions vs. transcriptions, spoken concert notes, and concert attire!
I’m not saying that we organists should not have artistic opinions – of course we should, and certainly we should express them at appropriate times and places. After all, musicians improve by listening to deserved constructive criticism. My point is that if my primary role is Organ Ambassador, I must be more discerning about when and where and to whom I voice my dislikes. Bottom line: the organ world is far too small for those of us inside it to take shots at each other, especially when the public is listening. Since the world of female organists is even smaller, we must be even more supportive of each other.
Let’s imagine ourselves in the shoes of an audience member. If I’ve just attended my first organ recital and been moved to rise to my feet in a spontaneous standing ovation while looking to my neighbor audience member and mouthing “WOW!”, it would be great if the organ experts around me would allow me that pleasure. An Organ Ambassador would even help me extend that feeling! I am not helped if the first thing I observe indicates an expert’s negative impressions, no matter how well-reasoned they may be. If I, a newcomer to the art form, begin to doubt that the organ or organist I just heard wasn’t worth the price of admission, I won’t be purchasing another ticket soon. An Organ Ambassador would help me learn by answering my enthusiasm with an enthusiastic description of the technical wizardry needed to build and to play this complex instrument. An Organ Ambassador would tell me what about this art form is the most wonderful. An Organ Ambassador would encourage my future attendance by letting me know what’s great about the next organ event in my city.
Let’s imagine ourselves in the shoes of a worshipper. If I’ve just sung a hymn accompanied by an organ, and thereby had an incredibly moving personal encounter with God, that worship moment becomes sacred to me. An Organ Ambassador would help me extend that feeling! Instead of critiquing the tempo or the improvised harmonies on the final stanza, an Organ Ambassador would help me appreciate the organ’s unique contribution of its many voices, blended with those of the congregation, to inspire my Divine encounter. An Organ Ambassador would help me understand and be moved by the devotion that leads someone to invest hours of training and practice to be a great worship leader from the organ. An Organ Ambassador would lead me to realize how essential the organ is to my worship experience, so that when the congregation next has a vote about budget, I will know that it’s important to protect the bottom line that affects the organ and organist.
We all have public and personal networks in which we have much influence. What if we made a personal vow to enthusiastically “talk up” the organ world whenever we interact with those networks, saving our critiques for when we are among colleagues? What if we all considered our primary title to be Organ Ambassador?
Won’t you join me? Let’s go print those business cards!