Drumming Up Interest

James H. H. Lampert

Copyright © James H. H. Lampert, 2001. All Rights Reserved Worldwide

This essay was originally broadcast on the PIPORG-L list server in February of 2001, in response to two major discussions of the organ's current lack of popularity.

     I'm actually quite delighted that this thread surfaced again so soon, although unlike a few weeks ago, it seems to be generating more heat and less light than it did a few weeks ago. Indeed, some of the comments that have come up this time, e.g., this recent one that declared

If the members of the congregation liked it so much that they rushed out to get one in their home, they would have one less reason for going to church, where the organ is supposed to be!
are not only not part of the solution, but indeed part of the problem!

     The vast majority of the suggestions that came up a few weeks ago were (and are) excellent ideas, things that we should all try to implement, to the extent we are able. As are some of the ideas that have come up this time. But there isn't one of them that will make a rodent's fundament worth of difference unless we do two things: 1) implement as many of the suggestions as we can, and 2) consider the source of the problem.

What is the source of the problem? Why aren't more people interested in the organ?

     People generally don't develop an interest in anything unless it has positive associations for them. If the positive associations are strong enough, they can overcome almost any negative associations, but if there aren't any positive associations, then even a total lack of negative ones won't be enough to create interest. Indeed, even a mildly negative association is likely to be an improvement on no associations at all.
     Back in the days before instant access to recorded music, church organs were a major part of the musical lives of most people. But then, as now, whether church creates positive or negative associations for the organ is very much a function of the quality of the instrument, the talents of the organist, and the attitudes of the pastor. Church can be (as a wiser individual than I put it) "God's idea of a good time." Or it can be a tiresome and/or unpleasant obligation. Certainly, we should all do what we can to make it the former, for as many people as possible, but let's leave it out of the equation for now.
     I have little doubt that, as a militant tracker-backer, I'm surprising many people (including one particularly post-horny tibiaholic who has called me a "third-class ass" and asserted that I evidently live in a coffee can) by saying this, but (my own personal tastes aside) theatre organs have evidently been a source of overwhelmingly positive associations for an overwhelming majority of listeners, whether installed in theatres, ice rinks, rollatoriums, or that phenomenon of not all that long ago, theatre organ pizzerias.

     Let us consider things from a historical perspective. People have had organs (either positives, portatives, or various types of reed organs) in their homes for centuries. There was a time when pump organs were as common in the home as upright pianos, and were almost certainly a source of positive associations. Similarly, band organs and calliopes in circuses, carnivals, fairs, and so forth made organ music the sound people associated with amusements.
     In the heyday of the silent movie, the theatre organ was born more out of expediency than anything else: it gave theatre owners a far more grandiose sound than they could get from a piano, or even a pit orchestra, and they only had to pay one musician. It was ideally suited for the popular music of that era, and people associated it with an afternoon or evening at the movies. Perhaps their first date. Later on, when "talkies" drove silents into oblivion, and theatre owners began discarding the organs, they found their way into ice rinks and rollatoriums, where (at least until electronic sound amplification had developed sufficiently) they were the cheapest, most expedient way to fill the cavernous interiors of indoor skating facilities. And that created more positive associations of organ music with fun (as did organs in dance halls, ballparks and so forth).
     When Laurens Hammond developed his noisome little noisemaker, it (and the various Hammonds and analog "toasters" that followed) brought renewal to the home organ market (and supplanted pump organs) Then, when "Ye Olde Pizza Joynt" started the whole theatre organ pizzeria thing (is it still among the few surviving specimens?), that created another positive association between organ music and fun.
     By the 1960s, while the idea of a theatre organ in an actual theatre had long since gone entirely out of fashion, organs, Hammonds, and "toasters" were still common in sports facilities, with the latter two instruments also becoming common enough to be found in perhaps as many as every second or third home. And every form of popular music of that era, from Lawrence Welk to acid rock, was fairly littered with Hammonds and "toasters," a situation that continued through the seventies, until portable digital keyboards came onto the market. Not that everything was by any means good about all this: for one thing, Hammonds and toasters gave people a terribly warped idea of what an organ was supposed to sound like, and for another, the popular "spinet" configuration (with two short-compass manuals, the upper one short in the bass, the lower in the treble, barely an octave (if that) of pedals (positioned to be easily reached only by the left foot), and a swell pedal (positioned so as to be almost impossible for the left foot to operate, or the right foot to ignore) could not have bred more "Left-foot Lennys/Lindas" if it had been specifically designed to do so, and probably got more than a few utterly unqualified individuals playing for church services (and creating negative associations in the minds of the parishioners).

     What is the situation today? Certainly not as good as it was in the past. Most of the places where I've attended organ recitals, senior citizens overwhelmingly outnumbered kids. There's a resurgence of interest in theatre organs, but they're hardly the best sort of organ for current popular music. People have developed a notion that the "traditional" worship style is hopelessly out-of-date, a notion both encouraged and pandered-to by mega-churches with praise bands, some of which actually boast that they don't have an organ on the premises. (Ironically, a disproportionate number of the churches with the most progressive worship style seem to have the most backward and reactionary ideas about everything else.) Where "toasters" and Hammonds were once common mainly in homes belonging to the under-40 crowd, and at least created some positive associations for the organ among young people, now they're something you find in the common rooms of retirement homes. Where group organ instruction was once an activity considered suitable for Girl Scout troops, it's now considered more suitable for Leisure World. And yet, the after-effects of spinet-model "toaster" popularity are still with us, in the form of a sickening number of sickeningly bad organists who think they're qualified to play for church services. (I have no such illusions about myself, by the way: maybe, in a few years, I might have the chops, and an adequate repertoire, to play for a church service. But I'll probably never reach a point where I could do it on any sort of a regular basis, nor would I want to do so without being able to do it passably well.) And where organ music once filled movie houses, and various electronic substitutes littered popular music, now what kind of associations does pop culture create for the organ? Right. Vampires, lunatics, and (thanks to the "Beauty and the Beast" Christmas sequel) sourpuss court composers enchanted into organs. Theatre organ pizzerias have largely become a thing of the past, many of them victims of their own inability to get both the pizza and the organ music right.
     Still, the situation is far from hopeless. Felix Hell is certainly a big part of the solution. Between his youth and his unimaginably good chops, he is potentially the organ's first real "teen idol" in recent memory. Then, too, we have San Diego, living proof that if there's a good organ outreach program, young people WILL come to organ recitals (when I've driven down to Spreckels, there have always been plenty of kids in attendance, and plenty of high-school and college age (and occasionally even younger) organ students. At the Felix Hell concert I attended at All Souls', there were (between the effectiveness of the local youth outreach programs and the fact that Felix was playing) nearly as many kids as there were senior citizens. And at one of the churches I attend regularly (St. Luke's, where I take organ lessons), there is growing evidence that a goodly number of today's kids find "contemporary" worship as banal as their parents find "traditional" worship (in a parish that is very traditional Anglican, complete with Rite I for the early service, and no "contemporary" service at all, there's quite a few kids, especially at the 10:00 Rite II, who attend without their parents). And even theatre organs are making a comeback, very often returning to "movie palaces" similar to those for which they were originally designed (or installed in food courts of shopping malls, or high school auditoriums, or the few surviving theatre organ pizzerias).

     But little, if any, of this would happen without people making an effort to reach out to people, and convince them that there's nothing inherently "stodgy" or "out of date" about organ music. Without pastors who make traditional worship a joyful experience, "God's idea of a good time," as it were, rather than an unpleasant and/or boring obligation. Without church organists willing to go out of their way to encourage kids to try the instrument, and to give congregations postludes that make them want to not only sit through the whole piece, but applaud it. Without church organists who are willing to work with praise bands, instead of against them, so that the "contemporary" service includes the organ (even at the cost of occasionally letting the praise band into a "traditional" service). Without theatre organ pizzeria owners who realize that they need both the food and the music to be first rate, if they want repeat business.

Without people like you and me doing everything possible to give as many people as possible as many positive associations with organ music as possible.

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James H. H. Lampert
Revised Tuesday, February 20, 2001. Links updated Monday, November 16, 2015.
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