Coping With the Organist Shortage: How about accompaniment tracks?
How many members of your congregation are taking organ lessons? How many have pianos in their homes? Probably far fewer than a generation ago. Some congregations are getting desperate to find competent organists.
If the trend continues, we could consider going back to unaccompanied singing, typical of the early days of the Protestant Reformation. It's likely, though, that few congregations would have much success with acapel-la singing. Our culture is simply not a singing culture.
Many churches who are unable to find organists have begun using piano rather than organ. Others are involving a variety of instruments and discovering the joys of using instrumental talent previously ignored. But what about those congregations who have no competent musicians?
Enter twentieth-century technology. Why not buy one of a growing number of commercial products, such as "Synthia," for all those times
when music is needed but nobody is available to play it. It makes no difference what day, time, or place she's called upon to attend. Simply plug Synthia in to a MIDI compatible keyboard and the most commonly sung songs from your hymnal are instantly available.
Sound tempting? After all, if we use recorded music in our homes, why not in our churches? Wouldn't it be a relief to all our busy schedules (not to mention our budgets) if we could just pop in a tape rather than asking our musicians to work—especially since they may never play as well as the musicians on tape? And since the technology exists, why not?
Many congregations are already using accompaniment tracks for soloists and even for choirs. One organist turned tables: "Why not instead invent track choir and soloist? At the touch of a button one could accompany a perfectly prepared, totally reliable choir of any size, complete with soloists"—perhaps with a "live" choir lip-syncing along!
What are we trying to offer to God when we worship—our own offerings of prayer and praise or the best we can buy? May we borrow our praise and offer that?
Our culture, so dominated by the entertainment media, makes it too easy for us. It is getting harder all the time to distinguish between music as entertainment—even edifying entertainment—and music as worship, in which we offer the gifts of our worshiping community to the Lord. It's far better that we offer to God the most simple music, well prepared and lovingly offered, but not borrowed.
Here the traditional Reformed prohibition against choirs and soloists comes into play. Before the Reformation, professional choirs and priests performed worship for the people. Let the people perform their own worship, and stick with congregational singing, our Reformed ancestors warned us.
Today the trend is again tipping dangerously in the direction of a new professionalism—this time not of the church, but of the entertainment media. I'll have to admit that I would rather hear a good recording of music excellently performed than a poor live performance of the same music. If I were to buy a new instrument for our church (which has a pretty good pipe organ and piano), I would consider a synthesizer, because its potential is so exciting. But I am excited about that instrument not because it offers some easy, plug-in solutions, but because it would allow us to compose and perform music that is indeed the offering of the congregation.
Contrary to popular opinion, the musical skills needed to use a synthesizer with integrity are just as demanding as those for learning to play the organ or piano well. Those looking for a quick fix to their shortage of musicians should not hope that buying tapes or a synthesizer will make worship better. There is just no shortcut to integrity.
We need a new commitment to developing the musical gifts in our congregations. To make it happen, we also need a new concept of a music director—not so much a performer as one who enables and coordinates the musical talent in the congregation.
The music director and/or other church leaders can make musical training a possibility for members of your congregation by finding ways to encourage those who display musical talent. That might mean offering practice time on your organs and pianos to anyone willing to study, or agreeing to subsidize those studying organ as an investment in the future.
The shortage of organists can become an occasion to unleash a much greater wealth of sound and involvement of young and old in offering their praise to the Lord. The music may be simple. It should be our best. It must be our own.