Friday, October 26, 2012

Killing us softly

This thing appeared in the Boston Globe a few days ago:

Below, my response.

Dear Ms. Graham-

As a professional organist and current doctoral student in the aforementioned, I was dismayed to read your recent opinion piece for the Boston Globe ("Save the church! (kill the organ)") wherein you advocate the widespread removal of the pipe organ from Christian worship in an effort to make worship services more appealing to young people. To be sure, the organ makes an easy scapegoat for observers who are unable to (or simply don't care to) take a detailed look at the many complex issues driving down attendance at American churches. That problem requires a book-length investigation, not a 750-word online-only opinion piece, and cannot be laid at the feet of any single cause. As a member of the press, you are held to a higher standard, and bear a certain responsibility to make a good-faith effort to uncover the truth, rather than resorting to tired cliches and easily digestible scapegoating. Sadly, this essay displays no commitment to this kind of responsible journalism and, as such, I feel compelled to defend my instrument, colleagues, and profession against what is in essence a baseless, childish, attack. I hope you will indulge me for a few more lines but, if you read no further than this, please know that there are hundreds of organists who have spent thousands of hours honing a beautiful craft, and to reduce our efforts to 'scary horror-movie music' is demeaning, hurtful and, frankly, ignorant. I encourage you to consider attending the weekly organ performance class at The Juilliard School, which is open to the public and occurs every Thursday of the academic year, from 11am to 1pm. I am certain it will change your opinion of the organ, and its capacity to elicit emotions other than fear and discomfort. 

To begin with, I must question the sources on which you base your argument. The top-ten list on i-Tunes is not a valid arbiter of artistic value, as the success of Justin Bieber and others gives ample testimony.  To take this radically populist approach is untenable, and incompatible with the fundamental ideal of the religion to which you adhere: that is, that there exists an absolute truth that is independent popular judgement and the fickle dictates of fashion. Are the Gospels also to be edited to be more palatable to today's children? Are Jesus's difficult demands and sometimes harsh proscriptions to be watered down for mass consumption? You say that you worry whether children will still regularly attend Mass as adults. The answer to this questions must depend on whether one as a parent is successful in instilling a respect and appreciation of Christianity and a desire to grow in a relationship with God, not on the popular or entertainment value of the worship service. 

As you are obviously aware, the post-Vatican II Catholic church made a serious effort to incorporate non-traditional music and musical instruments into public worship, an effort which was copied by many protestant denominations, and is still ongoing. The steep decline in church attendance over the past 40-50 years coincides directly with the proliferation of "popular" liturgical music, not with an obstinate commitment to traditional repertories and instruments. Praise bands abound in rural and suburban parishes; music publishers are falling over themselves to turn out indistinguishable anthems, songs, and hymns of light, popular character; most clergy receive almost no training in the traditional repertoires of the Christian church. The goal of all this has been ostensibly to make Christian worship more timely, relevant, and informal, characteristics which, it is presumed, will attract the ever-elusive "young people." As the statistics demonstrate, however, these efforts have had at best a negligible effect for the so-called "mainline" Christian denominations, whose attendance continues to decline despite efforts to make worship more accessible and less demanding: efforts that go far beyond music and into the core issues of theology and morality.  There's no reason to go off on a lengthy digression about the relative merits of these decisions: suffice it to say that you are not the first to have the the idea that traditional music should be banished, and that its relatively systematic application over the past 40-50 years has failed to bear any fruit other than the general feeling among young people that religion should adapt to the fashions of the day, rather than hold fast to temporally immutable truth.

It seems obvious to me that the music in your particular parish is somewhat lacking in quality, and this is a problem that can and should be addressed. The solution, however, must be better education and training of organists and choir directors, not placing responsibility for liturgical music in the hands of the totally untrained. If this is your only exposure to organ music, I can certainly understand how you would come to regard it as a tiresome nuisance but, I can assure you, this is not a ubiquitous situation (although it is an all too common one.) Once again, I invite and encourage you to attend the performance class at Juilliard. We would welcome the opportunity to change your mind about an instrument with a venerable past and, we believe, a bright future. 

David Crean

C.V. Starr Doctoral Fellow
The Juilliard School


  1. Exactly right, Doctor Crean. The article was a classic example of "Post Hoc Propter Hoc" fallacy, and perhaps that in itself is a touchstone for what is causing the problem - the fact that we're no longer teaching the Faith and that which support it: The Trivium, Quadrivium, and LATIN.

  2. I had not seen the article in the Boston Globe until now, and I could not have responded any more appropriately or eloquently than your response. Thank you for standing up for organists everywhere, who devote our time, our fingers, our hearts and souls to this beautiful instrument!

  3. Thank you for that!! The Episcopal Church recently wrestled with this issue just prior to it's general convention, and you may find the results also interesting. Turned out it was the under 29's that most wished to retain the traditional forms.

    It just kills me how many clergy are unaware that the organ is the traditional instrument for church because it's the one that best underpins congregational singing!

  4. I hadn't seen that article before reading this post, and would like to thank you for your excellent response. I agree with DaveP as well.

  5. Thank you for this superb post. The issue with the organ is, indeed, part of the larger picture of understanding what the Church asks of us for appropriate and quality music in the Liturgy. The 50th anniversary of the start of the Second Vatican Council is a time to again state clearly what the Church actually says, as there will be those using this year for the opposite purpose.

  6. Hey David,
    thanks for this insightful, well-articulated article. I felt personally attacked by the Globe article, but now I feel comforted by the hundreds of encouraging comments.
    Thanks and keep up the good work!