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Organists & church organs gain new wind for the 21st century

RIDGECREST, N.C. (BP)–As more churches incorporate contemporary or “blended” music into their worship, the organ, once considered a staple of Sunday morning services in the majority of Southern Baptist churches, also seems to be blending — into the background.

Expensive organs are covered up and unplugged, and aspiring organists often wonder where they can use their God-given talents for ministry.

Is it curtains for the organ? Has the praise band replaced the traditional piano and organ combo?

Church accompanists say no. It’s simply time for some rethinking, and re-training.

Church organists and pianists got some of that training during Music Ridgecrest, a weeklong training conference this summer at LifeWay Ridgecrest Conference Center near Asheville, N.C., and sponsored by LifeWay Christian Resources. Many of the classes offered new ideas on accompanying for hymns and choruses as well as practical ways to develop new skills.

“Training is so important,” said Martha Kirkland, a LifeWay music specialist who led several of the workshops. “We’re trying to help the organist succeed in the 21st century.”

Many organ companies are producing quality instruments, Kirkland said, and they’re incorporating new technology enabling an organ to imitate the sounds of a guitar, for example. It’s new technology that is making it possible for organs to take on a new life.

Becky Lombard, a music theory and organ professor at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, also serves as a ministry multiplier for LifeWay. Her most-requested conference: how to play contemporary music on the organ.

“As organists, we have to learn to adapt,” Lombard said. “When I do a conference, I usually review how we were traditionally taught to play hymns, and how bad that technique sounds on choruses. … Organists of this century are going to have to know how to read a chord chart.”

The relationship between music ministers and their accompanists is a crucial part of the solution. Right attitudes are a must on both sides. Lombard said it is important for music ministers to understand how their organists feel when they’re not used.

“What if you were in church on Sunday morning and the pastor is told, ‘We’re just using the video this time, so you can sit out and enjoy the worship,'” Lombard reflected. “That’s how your organist feels.”

At the same time, Lombard said organists are going to have to learn to play effectively within the contemporary ensemble.

That’s where music ministers come in. They need to help their organists learn how to adapt, because the majority of organists struggle with switching easily from one style to the next.

Dennis Worley, minister of music at Brentwood (Tenn.) Baptist Church, underscored the technology by which an organ can offer much more in terms of sound.

“Unfortunately, many younger congregations have only heard a particular organ sound,” Worley said. “They conclude that it’s boring. I believe it’s up to the organist and music minister to explore the options offered on each particular instrument. A few years ago, we would never have dreamed of using the combinations of instruments currently being used.”

Worley’s son, whose church is in Waco, Texas, recently told him about a service they had where Gregorian Chant was sampled and used in worship.

“What a cool idea!” Worley said. “Worship services should always provide different textures. We would never go to Best Buy to buy a black and white TV, so why do we limit our sounds and textures in worship to only black and white?”

Technology now offered with organs offers a great deal of flexibility, said Worley, allowing the organ to function as a synthesizer with endless capabilities of sounds and sampled sounds.

“Again, the organ as an instrument can provide so much more than what most of us hear most of the time,” Worley said. “Someone simply needs to dig deeper and spend more time investigating and learning.”

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  • Sara Horn