The Inner Life of the Pipe Organ

When I was young and in high school I was a rock ‘n’ roll fan. It had to be loud and in your face. Then one day I walked into a large church and the organist was practicing with all the stops pulled (i.e. LOUD). The organ shook the building and resonated through my very body. I was hooked! I said, “I have to learn to play that!” And I was off on my adventure. Alas, I am no virtuoso but I can play hymns well and I do all the footwork. I love to play the organ and make the whole building shake with the big 32 Foot in the pedal.

My early fascination with the Pipe Organ led me not only to learn to play it, but also to tune and repair the organ in our parish church. That in turn led to a great summer job I had for three years.

I worked for Lewis and Hitchcock and company that built and serviced pipe organs. What a great job it was! I went all over the city helping to tune and repair pipe organs in some of the grandest churches of the area, both Catholic and Protestant. When you build and service Pipe Organs you have to know a little of everything: electrical, HVAC, carpentry (for the casework), plumbing (for the pipes and tubing that supply the wind), electrical motor repair (for the blower), even leather work for the air reservoirs and pipe valves. It also helps to know music and architecture to bring it all together. It was a great job it was. I learned so much. I was also very thin in those days and was able to squeeze into some pretty tight spaces to tune and make repairs. I shudder to think today of some of the high ladders and narrow platforms I negotiated to do the work.

These days, Pipe Organs are still being built but more often Electronic Organs are chosen by churches. Truth be told, with digital sampling, the sound of the newest electronic organs isn’t bad. But nothing beats the sound of a true pipe organ, the king of instruments.

The first video shows you some of the basics of how a pipe organ works.

The second video shows you the work of a an organist, Frederick Swann as he plays a toccata. You’ll see how an organist switches keyboards, pull stops, play with hands and feet, and controls the swell shades (volume). The greatest virtuoso is the organist and you will see why!  It takes A LOT to be a good organist.

Incidentally, in purchasing the “Crystal Cathedral” (Now Christ Cathedral) the diocese of Orange has also acquired the 6th largest Pipe Organ in the World and you will see it played in the second Video.

13 Replies to “The Inner Life of the Pipe Organ”

  1. A church organist’s son was inspired to write a song entitled IN THE GARDEN OF EDEN, as the keyboard player and vocalist for a band back in the sixties. It became a huge hit and the signature song for it’s author Doug Ingle of the band Iron Butterfly. Somehow during demo recording, someone, they assumed who was a little too full of the spirit, couldn’t understand the lyrics being sung and wrote down the title as IN-A-GODDA-DA-DAVITA. The producer thought it was more in vogue with the eastern religious influences which had become popular at that time so he went with the butchered title. How many times have you felt the urge to play the first few bars of that song when sitting down at the pipes?

  2. awesome! seems simple and complicated specially playing the Organ. I also find a nice entertainment building and fixing my computer

  3. The Kennedy Center is excited about the new 5000-pipe organ that arrived just a few days ago. “The role of a symphonic organ is to add fundamental power particularly in the mid-range and bass,” [said William Neil, the organist of the National Symphony Orchestra]. “When the organ enters, it needs to be felt as much as heard.”

    1. When I saw the Washington Post article about the new organ, I immediately thought of Msgr Pope. No doubt he’ll check it out at the first opportunity.

  4. Wowie, Msgr. Pope, you are a true Renaissance Man! …St. Peter’s Church in Lorain, Ohio, where I go to to celebrate Saturday weekday morning Mass, has a magnificent pipe organ which was re-constructed by a handful of fellows in 1992:
    …I can play the accordion (right-hand keyboard type) and have tried to teach myself to play the organ but the left hand is used to pushing the buttons and feels “untrainable” at my age of 60. I end up playing chords using my right hand alone. (If you know of any beginners’ training manuals that might help someone like me transfer my skills to the organ, please let me know. I wish that I could “wire” my accordion to the organ!)
    …Thank you for your daily Word–one-a day multiple spiritual vitamins, for sure!

  5. I heard that the human voice is the most noble of musical instruments because it was the only one built by God. Neat post. Thanks

  6. Msgr.,
    I would love to meet you some day. I,too, worked for a builder in my youth and, in retirement, live not too far from Michael Quimby’s shop. He recently restored the organ at St. John the Divine and is currently working on the wonderful E. M. Skinner at St. Paul’s Cathedral in MN. He is also custodian of the lovely old Kilgen tracker in my home, a lovely old 1870 Disciples of Christ church converted to a residence.

    The secret lies in the physics of sound. An amplifier produces “loudness” through a speaker system; a large pipe organ produces a “volume of sound” that engulfs the listener and moves the very air within the structure.

    One of the finest examples lies in France at the spectacular Abbey of St. Ouen in Rouen. It is (in my opinion) Aristide Cavaille Coll’s “magnum opus”. Gerard Brookes waits for the final measures of the Toccata to pull the 32′ pedal division contra-bombarde to crown the already full sound of this wonderful instrument.

  7. Cathy, do you read music? If so, you might want to look for the Hanon exercises for piano. They are designed to develop equal proficiency in both hands and independence of the fingers. I am a right hand biased piano player, and Hanon has greatly helped me play with better balance.

  8. Cathy, Daniels advice is spot-on. If you have access to an organ there are many good methods available. I think that an organ method should be as enjoyable as it is instructive. To that end there is no more delightful book than the William Carl “Studies for the Organ”. It’s filled with interesting exercises that are a delight to hear as well as a collection of pieces worth owning.

    Take heart. One of my organ professors, a graduate of Union Seminary, did not touch a keyboard until his mid-thirties when he decided that he wanted to play Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. That started a chain that ended in a doctorate in sacred music and his understanding of the works of Bach surpassed most. He was an admirable performer, a fine teacher, and a brilliant service player.

    I’ve had students in their 60’s who have only had a smattering of piano lessons in their youth and all made rather decent organists. You have an advantage in that the accordion is also wind-blown and you don’t have to overcome the transition of converting from a percussive keyboard instrument to a wind-blown one.

  9. When the organist in the video was practicing I wonder whether he had to put post-it notes on the stops to be able to find the ones he wanted to use.

  10. When I was young and in high school…. I also was a rock ‘n’ roll fan. In 1969, I found myself at Woodstock where the music was ….also loud and in your face. Earlier that same year, I snuck into the pipe chamber of a local church, where I proceeded to pull the different pipes from the chests, sound them with my mouth and I confess….returning them to wrong toe holes.

    My early fascination with the Pipe Organ led me to become a church organ technician. For nearly forty years I’ve been intimately acquainted with the inner life of church organs, making amends for my teenage prank.

    Bless me Father for I have sinned.

  11. Thank you for the history of the organ. I have always loved to listen to the organ when I was young. Our Church does not have a organ but I am happy to say we have beautiful singing. I love all your articles. My friend Cathy always sends them to me.

    God Bless


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