Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Temperamental Organ

In the wind…

May 2011

The Temperamental Organ

Winter was coming to an end and at Fenway Park, fabled home of the Boston Red Sox and the facilities manager was working down his checklist of pre-season chores.  This would be the second year of the new ballpark organ and he figured it would need tuning.  He called up Fred Opporknockity, the guy who had delivered the organ, and asked if he could come to tune the organ before Opening Day.  Fred replied that the organ didn’t need to be tuned – he was sure it would be fine.  Mr. Facilities suggested that the organ at his church was tuned for Christmas and Easter.  “No,” said Fred, “don’t you know that Opporknockity tunes but once?”

This joins a long list of so-called jokes like the one that ends, “Is that an almond daiquiri, Dick?”  “No, it’s a hickory daiquiri, Doc.”  Or the one that goes…..  But I digress.  (How can I digress when I’m only a hundred-sixty words into it?)

In fact the Fenway Park organ didn’t need to be tuned.  It’s electronic and was tuned at the factory.  But the tuning of pipe organs is a subject without end or beginning, without right or wrong, without rhyme or reason – it just needs to be in tune!

Mr. Facilities’ recollection that the church organ needs to be tuned for Christmas and Easter (notice that I capitalized Opening Day as a High Holyday!) is only half right, in my opinion.  For years I scheduled big tuning routes that occupied Advent and Lent, but where I live in New England Christmas and Easter are almost always both winter holidays, and the August brides would walk down countless center aisles straining to the strains of sorry eight-foot Trumpets that made that her guests pucker as if they were biting into a lemon.  It’s my experience that summertime tuning problems always involve either “soprano” D, F#, or A, ruining virtually every Trumpet-Tune processional.  In one wedding I played, the fourth E went dead – the trill on beat three of Jeremiah Clark’s ubiquitous tune made me laugh.  I was only quick enough to go down a half-step, a safe enough transposition because you can keep playing the same printed notes with a different key signature.  It was an awkward sounding transition, but at least it gave me back my “dee diddle-diddle-diddle da-da dum de dum dum” instead of “dee doh-doh-doh da-da dum de dum dum.”

Gradually I changed my plan to define seasonal tunings as “heat-on” and “heat-off” – around here that works out to be roughly November and May – and maybe it means I found myself a little extra work because there often seem to be Easter touch-ups as well.


Why do we schedule tunings according to seasons?  Simply and authoritatively because the pitch produced by an organ pipe of a given length is subject to temperature.  Say a pipe play “440-A” and say it’s seventy-degrees in the church.  Raise the temperature a degree and now the same pipe plays 442 (roughly).  And the catch is that the reeds don’t change with temperature and the wooden pipes (especially stopped pipes) are more affected by humidity than temperature.  So when there’s a temperature swing the organ’s tuning flies into pieces.  You cannot define organ pitch without reference to temperature.  A contract for a new organ is likely to have a clause that defines the organ’s pitch as A=440 at sixty-eight degrees.

And here’s the other catch.  My little example said it was seventy-degrees in the church.  But it’s never seventy-degrees everywhere in the church.  It may be seventy at the console, sixty-six in the Swell, sixty-one in Choir, and eighty-two in the Great.  If these are the conditions when it’s cold outside and the thermostat is set to sixty-eight, you can bet that summertime conditions have it more like seventy-five or eighty degrees everywhere in the building except any high-up area where you find organ pipes – then it’s super hot and the reeds won’t tune that high.

Conditions outdoors can have a dramatic effect on organ tuning.  Imagine an organ placed in two chambers on either side of a Chancel and imagine that the back wall of each organ chamber is an outside wall.  The tuner comes on a rainy Friday and gets the organ nicely in tune.  Sunday dawns bright and sunny, the south-facing wall gets heated up by the sun and that half of the organ goes sharp.  During the sermon the organist “txts” the tuner to complain about how awful the organ sounds.  (Wht wr u doing L)  The following Thursday the organist shows up for choir rehearsal and finds the tuner’s bill in his mailbox.  What would you do?  Was it the tuner’s fault that it rained?  Any good organ tuner pays attention to weather conditions and forecasts as if he was the mother of the bride planning an outdoor wedding.

I care for a large tracker-action organ in Boston housed in a free-standing case with polished tin Principal pipes in the facades of Great, Pedal, and Ruckpositiv cases.  It’s situated in a contemporary building designed by a famous architect who gave the congregation the gift of light from the heavens coming through a long narrow window that runs along the ridge of the roof.  In the winter as the sun moves across the sky brilliant light moves across the front of the organ heating the fa├žade pipes as it goes.  Instantly the Great eight-foot Principal goes thirty or forty cents (hundreds of a semi-tone) sharp.  Do the math – how many hundredths of a semitone are there in a quarter-tone? Guess what time of day this happens?  Eleven AM.  And guess what time the opening hymn is played of a Sunday morning?  The first time I tuned that organ I felt as though I was in a carnival fun-house with mirrors distorting the world around me as the organ’s pitch followed the sun across the room.

Temperature’s rising.
In order to do a conscientious tuning, we ask the church office to be sure the heat is up for when we tune.  When they ask what it should be set to I reply that they should pretend that the tuning is a Sunday morning worship service.  If the heat is turned up to sixty-eight degrees five hours before the hour of worship, then set the heat at sixty-eight five hours before the tuning.  It’s not very scientific but it seems to get the point across.

I’ve arrived many times to start a tuning to find that there is no heat in the church.  Sorry, can’t tune.  I’ll come back tomorrow – and the time and mileage I spent today goes on your bill.  Once I showed up at the church (made of blue brick and shaped like a whale – some architects have the strangest ideas) and the sexton proudly announced, “I got it good and warm in there for you this time.”  It was ninety-five degrees in the church and the organ sounded terrible.  Sorry, can’t tune.  I’ll come back tomorrow.  He must have run four-hundred dollars of fuel oil through that furnace in addition to my bill for wasted time.

And the haughty authoritative Pastor of a big city Lutheran church once said to me from under an expensively-coiffed shock of theatrical white hair, “We heat the church for the people, not the organ.”

The eternal battle of the organ tuner and the thermostat is not because we don’t like working in cold rooms.  It’s not because we want the organ to be warm.  It’s physics.  When you chill oxygen the molecules get closer together and it thickens to the point at which it becomes a liquid. When air warms, the molecules get further apart.  When the air molecules get further apart the air gets less dense.  When the air gets less dense, sound waves need less energy and they shorten.  When the sound waves shorten, the pitch increases.  It’s not a matter of comfort, it’s physical law – the laws of physics. 

The same laws say that the organ will be in tune at the temperature at which it was tuned.  Set the thermostat at sixty-eight on Thursday for the organ tuning, turn it down to fifty-five, then back up to sixty-eight on Sunday.  Voila!  The organ is in tune – unless the weather changed.  And it’s better for the organ not to be heated vigorously all the time.  Ancient European organs have survived for centuries partly because their buildings are not superheated.  American churches are often guilty of “organ baking” – keeping the heat up all winter using the argument that it’s more cost-efficient than reheating a cold building several times a week.


It’s a Zen thing.
I’ve been asked if I have perfect pitch.  No – and I’m glad I don’t.  A roommate of mine at Oberlin had perfect pitch and he identified that my turntable ran slow (remember turntables?).  It didn’t bother me – but he couldn’t bear it.  The organ tuner with perfect pitch has to compensate for the fact that you are not necessarily tuning at A=440.  If the organ is a few cents sharp or flat when you arrive to tune, chances are you’re going to leave it that way.  It takes several days to change the basic pitch of most organs.  And for really big organs it can take weeks.

I’ve been asked how I can stand listening to “out of tune-ness” all day.  I don’t like hearing it when I’m listening to organ music or attending worship, but when I’m tuning I love it because I can change it.  There’s a satisfaction about working your way up a rank of pipes bringing notes into tune.  You can feel them “click” into tune – in good voicing there’s a sort of latching that I sense when I give the pipe that last little tick with my tool. 

An organ tuner is something of a contortionist – he has to be able to forget about physical discomfort in the often awkward spaces inside an organ so he can concentrate on the sounds.  He often hangs from a ladder or a swell-shutter for stability.  (Keyholders, please keep your dagnabbit feet off the Swell pedal!)  He learns to tune out little mechanical noises and defects of speech.  An organ pipe might have burps and bubbles in its speech that are clearly heard when you’re inside the organ and still sound perfect from the nave or the console.

He gets into a nice quiet state and a rhythm develops: “next,” tick-tick-tick, “next,” tick-tick-tick.  A couple hours and ten ranks (610 pipes) into it and the sexton comes in with a vacuum-cleaner.  The flowers are delivered for Sunday.  A lawn-mower starts up at the house next door.  The Pastor brings in a soon-to-be married couple.  They politely assure me, “don’t worry, you’re not disturbing us.”

Once I showed up to tune the organ at a University Chapel.  A couple heavy trucks full of equipment were outside and a guy was loading tools into the bucket of a cherry-picker.  I went up to him saying I was there to tune the organ and wondered if they’d be making noise.  “Not much,” he said, “just a little hammer-drilling.”  I suggested that a mosquito would be a lot of noise for me.  “Well you’re in deep -----.”


As I write, the Red Sox official website says that the Opening Day game at Fenway Park starts in twelve days, eight hours, thirteen minutes, and twenty-five, twenty-four, twenty-three seconds.  It doesn’t really matter whether the organ is tune or not – they don’t use it as a ball-park organ any more.  But there was a time when the organ music was an integral part of the ball-park experience.  A common question in Boston sports trivia quizzes was, “Who’s the only person who played for the Red Sox, the Bruins (hockey), and the Celtics (basketball)?”  Answer – John Keilly, the organist for Fenway Park and the Boston Garden.

My father and I have been to dozens (maybe hundreds?) of games at Fenway Park.  He’s had the same seats (Section 26, Row 4, seats 13 and 14) since the early seventies.  When John Keilly was at the Hammond B-3, we joked about getting to the Park early so we could hear the Preludes.  And he had an uncanny knack for playing the right tune at the right time.  When Carlton Fisk hit his now legendary “walk-off” twelfth-inning homerun to win game six of the 1975 World series, Keilly created a secondary sports legend when he played “Hallelujah” – though not according to historical performance practices.


Nancy Faust was organist for the Chicago White Sox from 1970 until her last game on Sunday, October 3, 2010.  She missed five games in 1983 when her son was born – otherwise she played for more than 3200 games without missing one.  When she was hired petitions were circulated by fans and sports officials offended that the White Sox had placed a woman on the team’s payroll.  But she came into her own when Harry Carey became the radio commentator for the Sox.  He gave her the moniker Pretty Nancy Faust, and started the tradition of leaning out the window of his announcer’s box to lead the singing of Take Me Out To the Ballgame as Nancy played.  She played by ear, and kept current with all the latest music through her four decades of playing so she was always ready with a current musical quip for the amusement of the fans.  She was the originator of the ballpark use of the now ubiquitous 1969 Steam song Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss him goodbye), playing it when the pitcher of an opposing team was pulled out during the 1977 pennant race.

Nancy Faust was honored by the White Sox for her years of service to the team and its fans on September 18, 2010 in a pre-game ceremony.  Ten thousand Pretty Nancy Faust bobble-head dolls were distributed to fans that day.  My wife Wendy lived and worked in Chicago for about ten years and as both a gifted organist and a baseball fan, she joined countless other Chicagoans celebrating Faust’s contribution to the game.  We heard about her retirement on the NPR sports program Only A Game” early one Saturday morning and Wendy let me know how much she wanted one of those dolls.  With thanks to Chicago colleague organbuilding and theatre-organ guru Jeff Weiler, I found one complete with the ticket stub for the September 18 game and it now has an honored place in our living room.

In the pages of this journal we often read about churches celebrating their retiring long-time organists.  I’ve read plenty of stories about fancy concerts with reunions of dozens of past choir members, music committees commissioning commemorative anthems (bet you can’t say that three times fast!), cakes that look like pipe organs, bronze plaques, and surprise tickets for Caribbean cruises, but never bobble-head dolls.  How cool is that?

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Former glories.

In the wind…
July, 2012

Former glories.
I love visiting church buildings.  I love experiencing all the different forms these buildings can take, reading bulletin boards to try to understand what’s going on in the place, meeting with church officials, hearing organs, imagining what organ from our lengthy list of available instruments might best suit a given church.  I love the vitality of an active church, gaily decorated classrooms, purposeful rooms for the rehearsing and production of music, busy offices chattering and clattering away.  I love the sense that all that activity and dedication of treasure is focused on the public worship of a faith community.  And I love meeting with the committees charged with the task of acquiring a new organ for their church, discussing the various forms of the pipe organ, and helping them focus on how to conceive a plan and present it to their superior committees.

Around 2000 when I had just joined the Organ Clearing House, I visited a church building and was greeted by the organist who recognized me and asked, half in jest, “what are you doing here?  We love our organ!”  I guess my reputation preceded me.  It was first time I realized that I might be considered the grim reaper of the pipe organ.  I like to think that what I do is bring beautiful vintage organs into church buildings, but I realize how likely it would be that I would be known for the reverse – taking organs out of buildings.

There’s a church in suburban Boston that I’ve know for more than twenty-five years.  In the early 1990’s, my firm, the Bishop Organ Company, renovated the organ.  We installed new pitman windchests replacing poorly designed and sluggish ventil chests, releathered fifteen reservoirs, and installed a solid-state combination action and relay.  It’s a big organ, more than sixty ranks with nine sixteen-foot voices.  It’s a big church building – the sanctuary seats twelve hundred.  But when we did this extensive project, there were only seventy-five pledging units – church-finance-speak for “families.”  The job cost more than $250,000.  Do the math.

Elsewhere in the building there is a dining hall that is served by a big commercial kitchen, all fitted out with the latest restaurant-style appliances from about 1952.  Adjacent to the kitchen is a pantry lined with elegant oak-and-glass cabinets filled with what must be a thousand place settings of china, all monogramed with the church’s initials.  It must be forty years since they had a really big dinner, but all the stuff is there and ready to go.  This church is doing pretty well.  There’s a relatively new pastor who is attracting new people, they have a good organist who is inspiring people to join the choir, and in general they are doing quite a bit better than holding their own.

There are many buildings like this around the country.  Great big places originally built and furnished to serve huge congregations are now being operated by dwindling groups of faithful who struggle with fuel oil bills approaching $10,000 per month, and eighty-year-old roofs that are starting to fail.  It’s increasingly common for a congregation to worship in a chapel, parlor, or low-ceilinged Fellowship Hall during winter months to reduce the heating bill.

And it’s common for these churches to close. 


We at the Organ Clearing House have had many experiences with people who are losing their church.  We organize the sale of an instrument, and arrive at the building with scaffolding, crates, and packing supplies to start the dismantling of the organ, and an old church member comes to us with a photograph of her parents’ wedding taking place in front of that organ.  Her parents were married and buried, she and her husband were married, her husband was buried, and her children were all baptized, confirmed, and married with that organ. 

It’s a regular and poignant reminder of how much the church means to people.  There have been a number of occasions when people have wept as we start to dismantle an organ.

Last year I was invited to assess the pipe organ in a church building in New Jersey that had closed.  It was a grand building with mahogany fronted galleries surrounding the sanctuary, sweeping stairways, and an organ with more than eighty ranks.  This place was unusual in that there had apparently been no planning for the closure.  It was two years since the last worship service, and the place looked like a ghost town.  It was as if the organist finished the Postlude, the ushers turned off the lights, the sexton locked the doors, and no one came back.  The last Sunday’s music was still on the console music rack.  Stuffed choir folders complete with lozenges and Kleenex were piled on the choir room piano.  Half finished glasses of water were on the pulpit, there was unopened mailed on the secretary’s desk, and the usher’s station at the rear of the nave was still stocked with bulletins, attendance records, and the neat little packets of biblical drawings and crayons for little children.  All it needed was tumbleweeds being buffeted down the center aisle.

Some churches form a “disbandment committee” that is charged with the task of emptying the building, divesting of furnishings, and archiving parish records.  I contact the chair of that committee when I want to bring a client to see and hear the organ.  There’s a myth that says that the nominating committee is the worst duty to draw in a church (or in any non-profit institution) because you get rejected so regularly, but I think the disbandment committee must be worse.  Pageant costumes, Christmas decorations, hymnals, folding chairs, classroom supplies, communion sets, Styrofoam coffee cups, choir and acolyte robes, and all the other gear it takes to run a church are piled in corridors, destined for dumpsters.  People leaf through it all thinking there must be uses for it, without registering that there are a hundred other churches in the state going through the same thing.  You’d think you could sell a nave full of pews in a heartbeat, but more often, a nave full of pews is heartbreaking.


There’s a positive side to all this.  Often we can save the organ, and when we do it moves to another parish representing a spark from its original home.

Woburn (WOO-burn), Massachusetts is a suburb of Boston with a population of a little under 40,000 located about ten miles north of the city.  During the nineteenth century Woburn was a center for the tanning of leather – the High School football team is still called “The Tanners.”  It’s the next town to the north from my hometown, Winchester, and when I was in high school I was assistant organist at the First Congregational Church of Woburn, home of E. & G.G. Hook’s Opus 283 built in 1860, with three manuals and thirty-one speaking stops.  I think I had an idea at that young age of how fortunate I was to be playing on such an instrument.  William H Clarke was the organist of that church when the organ was installed, and ten years later he was organist of the First Unitarian Church, just across the town square, when the Hook brothers installed their Opus 553 in 1870.  (Note that Hook covered two-hundred-seventy Opus numbers in ten years!).  A few years after that, William Clarke left the Boston area to establish an organbuilding shop in Indianapolis, taking with him Steven P. Kinsley, the head voicer from the Hook Factory.

Opus 283 is still in its original home.  It is still playable, though the parish is not strong enough these days to mount a proper restoration.  But Opus 553 is now in Berlin, Germany – widely referred to as “Die Berliner Hook.”  When the Woburn Unitarian Church closed in 1990, the organ was sold to the church in Berlin, and the proceeds from the sale were saved under the stewardship of former church member Charlie Smith with the intention that they would be used when an appropriate opportunity came along.

Stoneham, Massachusetts is the next town east of Woburn, with a population of about 21,000.  In 1995 the Stoneham Unitarian Church was closed, and the building was converted into a nursery school.  A crew of organ lovers managed to get E. & G.G. Hook’s Opus 466 (1866) out of the building and into storage before the balcony was boarded up, and the organ was offered through the Unitarian Universalist Association to a “neighboring church that could give it a good home.” 

Lexington, Massachusetts is the next town west of Woburn (it also adjoins Winchester).  It has a population of 30,000 and is home to the Lexington Battle Green where the first battles of the American Revolutionary War took place.  Facing the Battle Green is the stately First Parish (UUA) Church, home to a marvelous three-manual Hutchings organ.  On the east end of Lexington on Massachusetts Avenue (Paul Revere’s Ride) is the Follen Community Church (UUA), a unique octagonal structure built in 1840.  In 1995, the organ at the Follen Church was a hodge-podge affair that had been assembled from parts by an enthusiastic member of the church.  It had a 48-volt DC electrical system, unusually high voltage for pipe organ action, and as the organ deteriorated, the console emitted puffs of smoke that unnerved the parishioners.

When members of the Follen Church heard through the UUA that the Hook organ from Stoneham (#466) was available, they pounced on the opportunity.  Organ Committee chair Wendy Strothman spearheaded a campaign that raised the funds necessary for the restoration and installation of the organ.  The organ was first played in its new home on Easter Sunday of 1997.

As the restoration progressed, Charlie Smith of Woburn got wind of the story, and offered the Woburn organ fund to the Follen Church to support the care of the restored organ, and to support regular organ concerts there.  So Hook Opus 553 wound up supporting Opus 466 in its new home – and Wendy and I are married!


As I write, the Organ Clearing House is participating in another project that allows a redundant organ a fresh start.  Christ Church (Episcopal) in South Barre, MA closed its doors last year after a long period of declining membership and dwindling funds.  Their organ was Hook & Hastings Opus 2344, built in 1914, a sweet little instrument with three stops on each of two manuals, and a pedal sixteen-foot Bourdon.  The impeccable craftsmanship of its builders, and its mechanical simplicity combined to make the organ an remarkably reliable and durable instrument.  The Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts contacted us about the disposition of the organ as the building was being offered for sale, but a few weeks later called again with a fresh suggestion. 

St Francis Episcopal Church is in Holden, Massachusetts, about 15 miles east of South Barre.  Several of the parishioners from Christ Church in South Barre had begun worshipping in Holden, and some people wondered if the Hook & Hastings organ in Christ Church would be appropriate for installation at St. Francis.  We compared measurements in the two buildings, and sure enough the organ would fit beautifully.  The Vestry of St. Francis put that project together in record time, and we are in midst of relocating that organ now.  It’s especially meaningful for the members of the former Christ Church to be able to bring their organ with them as they suffer the loss of their church and work to get used to a new worshipping life.  As we came to town to start dismantling the organ, one of those members told me that she had been a member at Christ Church for sixty-five years.  She lives across the street from the building.  It’s personal.


Sometimes the relocation of an organ is an artistic exercise, taking an instrument from a long-closed building and seeing it through installation with little or no contact with the people who were its original owners.  This is rewarding work as we know we are preserving the craftsmanship of our predecessors, reusing the earth’s resources by placing an organ in a building without having been a party to contemporary mining and smelting, and refreshing our ears with some of the best organ voicing from a previous age.

But when the relocation of an organ can involve the people who worshiped with it in its original home, and especially play a role in the blending of two parishes, the process is especially meaningful.  It’s personal.


E. & G.G. Hook #553 (1870), Die Berliner Hook Orgel, formerly in the Unitarian Church of Woburn, Massachusetts.  Sold through the Organ Clearing House, restored and installed by Christian Scheffler of Bautzen, Germany.

E. & G.G. Hook #466 (1868), formerly in the Stoneham Unitarian Church, Stoneham, Massachusetts, now in the Follen Community Church, Lexington, Massachusetts.  Restored and relocated by the Bishop Organ Company of North Reading, Massachusetts and volunteers from the Follen Church congregation.

Hook & Hastings #2344 (1910), shown in its former location - Christ Episcopal Church, South Barre, Massachusetts, relocated by the Organ Clearing House to St. Francis Episcopal Church, Holden, Massachusetts.

E. & G.G. Hook #283 (1860), The First Congregational Church, Woburn, Massachusetts.  Renovated and continually revitalized by George Bozeman & Company, Deerfield, New Hampshire.