The Inner Life of the Pipe Organ – King of Instruments!

In my first three years of college I had a summer job working for a 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.

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.

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. The loud 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 build shake with the big 32 Foot in the pedal.

The first video shows you some of the basics of how a pipe organ works. The second video shows you the work of a true virtuoso as he plays Boellmann’s Tocatta from Suite Gothique. This was the piece that I heard that day over 30 years ago that hooked me on the pipe organ as the building shook all around. The greatest virtuoso is the organist and you will see why! Not only does he play all sorts of notes with his hands and feet, he’s also switching back and forth to different keyboards, controlling the volume with the black pedals at the center of his feet and switching stops using the toe buttons above the pedal keyboard. It takes ALOT to be a good organist.

4 Replies to “The Inner Life of the Pipe Organ – King of Instruments!”

  1. Mike Rowe on Dirty Jobs spotlighted a Pipe Organ Service Job…how cool is that? 🙂
    You had a dirty job!
    There is nothing that can compare to the wonderful sounds of true pipe organ, thank you for sharing.

    1. Hmm…it could get real dirty. Also, amny organ builders didn’t do a great job of thinking that the instrument would need to be tuned and serviced. I remember having to be a real contortionist in some settings. I was very thin in those days and was able to tune some instruments that some of the heftier guys could get into. And oh the dust! Dirty job at times!

      1. I am pleased that somebody from the ADW who is ordained also has good music experience. Ever consider that the organ, although controlled by keyboard, is actually a wind instrument, much like a woodwind or brasswind instrument? In that case, you can go further, and posit that the Holy Spirit, in the form of ruach, may indeed be present in the inspired playing of the pipe organ, and although the organist may indeed be inspired, an electronic instrument simply lacks this very important symbol. But not many will follow you, if you go there…

  2. Thank you, Msgr, for sharing this part of your life experience. I have studied the organ and used to sometimes play during Holy Mass. I work in D.C.; perhaps I can meet you sometime?

    By the way, have you ever attended any of the Summer organ recitals at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception?


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