Organ Evaluation

Care, Management, and Maintenance of Our Musical Instruments

By M. Jason Abel, Director of Music

One of the responsibilities outlined in my job description at Christ Church is to manage the care and maintenance of our musical instruments. This typically means having the organ and pianos tuned regularly. Some of the pianos on our campus do not get tuned as frequently as others due to the limited amount of use they receive. However, even those rarely used pianos have to be tuned occasionally to prevent the soundboards from cracking.

The largest expense of instrument maintenance goes towards the organ. It is tuned a few times a year, usually based on significant changes in the weather (temperature affects the organ’s intonation). Each tuning session costs $750 to $1,000. Depending on the amount of work that must be done, the cost could be even higher. Over the past few years, the amount spent towards maintenance of the organ has increased steadily. It is still in good working condition (largely because we pay for its upkeep), but it is also 37 years old. For 37 years it has played for countless Sunday worship services as well as numerous weddings, funerals, Masonic services, Holy Week liturgies, Evensongs, and concerts. Additionally, for 37 years, the air return vents on our HVAC system have sat directly above the pipes pulling in dust and dirt from throughout the room in the direction of the pipe chambers. It has received LOTS of use and has actually been quite a good investment for Christ Church, given the demands that this large and vibrant parish has placed on it over time.

Some of you may recall reading an article I wrote in Rejoice several years ago, which spoke of adding some additional digital voices to our instrument. I was talked out of this idea eventually by a number of our guest organists who did not feel it would be wise to put that type of money into the instrument given the overall lack of quality in the sounds that it was making – in short, was it worth investing $100,000 in an instrument that was not best serving the needs of our congregation? In seven years here, every visiting organist has suggested numerous changes they would make to our organ if they had to play for it weekly in services. A recent visiting organist commented after Evensong that he was surprised that Christ Church was such an active parish with so many great things going on, and among those great things was our music program – yet we were handicapped by an instrument that did not best serve the needs of either the congregation or the choir.

No individual organ can accomplish everything that one might want – play organ repertoire spanning 600 years with authenticity, accompany choral anthems for choirs of 10 to 100 members, provide superb leadership for hymns, and provide an infinite option of sounds for supporting the liturgy. Even some of the world’s largest organs fail in some of these areas. Our organ, for example, lacks much foundational tone to provide support for singing without quickly overwhelming everyone. (To read about the organ's specifications, click here.) I have long thought it is a larger instrument than we need, and it seems to lack many of the colorful characteristics many other organs have. Nevertheless, I considered much of the problem to be the layout of the church itself, and the limitations any organ would have in such a space – low ceiling height, short balcony, and a number of acoustical impediments. After all, Christ Church was not constructed with the idea of being a place for a grand organ and reverberant acoustic.

During my sabbatical, I was surprised to visit a number of churches from a similar time period and style as ours – yet they had lovely instruments that well served the needs of the broadening Episcopal Church’s rich liturgical offerings. I even had the chance to play a number of these instruments and was pleased with the warm sounds and tones that these small instruments could make.

Last summer in Boston, I was fortunate to meet Jonathan Ambrosino, who is one of the nation’s leading organ consultants. He visits parishes around the country (and some beyond our borders) to evaluate instruments – describing their strengths and making proposals/suggestions for ways the organs can best be used for their congregations. I invited Jonathan to visit Christ Church this fall when he was in town for organ consulting visits at the National Cathedral and St. John’s Episcopal Church in Georgetown. I wanted to seek an impartial party’s expert opinion on our instrument. Jonathan visited us in September and provided us a detailed report which I invite you to read by clicking here.

As I stated earlier, I am charged with being a steward of this parish’s instruments. You will note in Jonathan’s report that in about 10 years we will need to spend a large amount (in excess of $200,000.00) for the releathering of our organ. This will be necessary if the organ is to continue being used. There is a small light on the console that has been used for years for the clergy and wedding docents to signal from the sacristy that a procession is prepared to begin. The mechanism for this light stopped working over a year ago, and the cost for having it repaired was $1,500. I decided that it did not need to be fixed. For that amount of money, we can rely on someone giving me a thumbs up when the procession is ready. The light on the music rack also has not functioned for several months. This is a more pressing need, so we are paying the $1,000 to have this light fixed. There are already some very small air leaks that are temporarily patched, and there are a few dead pipes. At the same time, the cost of a new instrument is a considerable investment ($800,000 to $1,000,000 for what we would have space and need for). What I found of particular interest in Jonathan’s report were his comments about the physical appearance of the instrument and how it detracts from the simple elegance found elsewhere throughout the historic church.

Soon a committee will form that will help evaluate needs and plan for the future expenses associated with an organ. Our goal is to arrive at a decision based on what will best serve the needs of this congregation for many years to come. Music has long been an important part of the worship life at Christ Church. I look forward to working with the committee and seeing what it might recommend to assure that this continues for future generations.