Monday, January 11, 2010

A Toaster, a Piano and a Pipe Organ

The organ at our church is a rather old Rodgers electronic organ, that we affectionately call "The Toaster". The organist, the substitute organist, and I dislike the Toaster and have been hoping for its demise so we could replace it with a real organ, a pipe organ. You may ask, "Why? Isn't it the same as an organ?" Well, no, it isn't.

The main problem with an electronic organ, (in my opinion,) is that the sound is uni-dimensional. The sound of an electronic organ is produced by a reaction of transistors and capacitors and not by the vibration of air common to all musical instruments. Furthermore, all the sound comes from one set of speakers, instead of several different pipes. In a pipe organ, each individual sound is created by an individual pipe (unless it's a mixture in which case it's a couple/few pipes at a time, but I digress). Because the sound of an electronic organ is uni-dimensional, it's very "in-your-face". There's also a very "buzzy" quality about the sound. It's really very hard to sing with. So, the Toaster was not my favorite instrument, but our pastor warned us not to hope for its death too soon. You know the old adage, "Be careful what you wish for". We could end up with a dead Toaster and nothing to replace it with.

Over the Christmas Holiday, our pastor located and purchased for us, a real pipe organ: a Schantz two manual, five rank pipe organ. The organist and I were ecstatic! Early last week the pastor and a friend of the parish went to Knoxville, TN to retrieve it, and on Tuesday, a work crew started setting it up in the back of the church. Things are moving along quite well, but it will take some time before the organ is really ready to go. It needs to be tuned. Some modifications need to be made to it to make it work in the space we have for it. It needs to be made a bit louder. I was expecting to maybe have it in use by Easter.

So, Saturday I was working with a group of girls who are training to be cantors at our parish, and they were doing a mighty fine job, indeed. I was very pleased with the progress they were making on learning the type of chant tones that we use at my parish and decided to introduce them to another type, as well. That way, if they ever saw something that was set out and metered, they'd know what to do with it. In order to do that, I needed to use the Toaster. I was sitting on the bench working with the girls when, completely out of the blue, it made a sound like a book was dropped on the manuals (that's what the keyboards are called) and the whole thing shut off. Of course, the girls screamed (it was loud) and then dissolved into giggles. Obviously, this was not going to do for Mass.

After the workshop Father and I tried re-creating the effect. Which we successfully did two more times and then decided that perhaps we would have to use the piano this weekend.

On the surface, the piano may sound like a pretty good idea, but you know it is really remarkable how different the sound is from an organ (even from the Toaster) and how much less sure the congregational singing is. The piano was easier to sing with in many respects. Because it is a real instrument, it has dimension to its sound, which makes it easier to match pitch with. I didn't feel like I was straining as hard and it sounded like the choir was having an easier time, too. However, I don't think the congregation could hear the piano. I wasn't hearing much singing from them.

Additionally, much of the music that we use for Mass was simply not written with a piano in mind. On an organ, when you are holding a key, it is making a sound until you stop holding the key. It stays the same volume throughout. On a piano, because it is a struck string, there is an attack and decay. Eventually, the note stops sounding, even if you hold onto the key. Some of the music we do, requires that you hold a chord to support the singing for an extended period of time. Pianos do not excel in this area.

So, it was determined that the piano would do for Mass on a very temporary basis. But, we are kicking the pipe organ project into high gear. The goal is to have the new pipe organ somewhat serviceable for next weekend and then make improvements as we go.

This could have been a lot worse. We could have had nothing to replace the Toaster with. But one parishioner commented that maybe the Toaster was jealous and that's why it died. The new organ is awfully pretty.

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