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Obtaining An Organ

Obtaining An Organ

Most of us are experienced as consumers. We know how to weigh the advantages, costs, and life spans of different models of an item. An organ, however, since it is designed and built for a specific location, is more like a painting than an appliance: it is commissioned from the most suitable and productive artist rather than purchased from a supplier.

Suggestions For The Organ Committee
  • Secure a consultant (optional);
  • Listen to organs by different builders;
  • Check references. Investigate builders’ performances with other churches;
  • Meet with chosen builder;
  • Establish musical goals (Needs Analysis);
  • Plan stoplist, type of action, and appearance;
  • Builder and architect work together.

Bidding is not appropriate for organs, since the organ builder is both the designer (architect) and the contractor, just as it is not appropriate for selecting a pastor or music teacher. Bidding is appropriate for things like roofs and parking lots—those items which have detailed plans drawn up by an architect and which use standardized materials.

Regarding Organ Consultants

On the one hand, the presence of a consultant adds to the builder’s work. On the other hand, the presence of a consultant increases confidence and minimizes surprises or misunderstandings. (As someone in Carlsbad said, it is difficult for the people there to know what is going on in our shop in Fort Worth.) The builder feels better knowing that the Church has assisting it a person who is experienced about the building and installation of organs.

A church does well to considering using as a consultant a university organ teacher who is experienced in the ways of both churches and organbuilders and who is sensible about both money and art. A church might also consider using an architect—that is, an architect who ordinarily works with buildings and contractors, not necessarily an architect who has special knowledge about organs.

The consultant should do the following:

  • Be available to advise and comment on (but not prescribe) the design of the organ;
  • Evaluate the Memorandum of Agreement (contract) with the organbuilder;
  • Verify the details of the builder’s Purchase Orders to his outside suppliers;
  • Verify the adequacy of the builder’s facilities, staff, experience, reputation, and backing;
  • Verify the adequacy of details in the plans for the organ;
  • Verify the arrival at the builder’s premises, the condition, and conformation to specifications of parts for the organ from outside suppliers;
  • Verify the conformation to specifications of the builder’s work;
  • Verify the conformation to specifications of parts delivered to the church’s premises if the church wishes;
  • Be available to advise and comment on (but not prescribe) the way the organ is installed and voiced if the church wishes.
  • Be available to explain things to the church from the builder’s point of view.
Types Of Organ Action

Tracker (mechanical) action is highly regarded and was used for all the centuries before the discovery of electricity. It is the most enjoyable to play, particularly for contrapuntal music of the 17th and 18th centuries. The virtues of tracker action are maintained by not separating the console from the pipes, by not depending on couplers between the different departments, and by not having the organ in a chamber. The action can be affected by changes in humidity, especially changes resulting from heating or cooling. Plastic and leather components are sometimes used to minimize this problem, but these materials subtract from the otherwise long life of the action.

Electro-pneumatic action has been the most frequently-used style in America since about 1915, especially by the larger builders, and especially for organs in chambers.

All-electric action is the simplest.

Neither of the electric actions is seriously affected by changes in humidity, but the organist does not have the intimacy with the pipes as with mechanical action. Electric action makes it easy to borrow voices to play from more than one keyboard or at more than one pitch and to have accessories such as combination action (preset pistons), crescendo pedal, and couplers between keyboards.

Casework is the wooden cabinet enclosing the pipes. Since a pipe is actually a musical instrument, no pipe should be in a chamber (a room outside the main listening room) any more than a singer or a preacher should be in a chamber. Neither should the pipes be standing exposed without a case to blend and project the sound. Depending on the complexity, type of wood, and decoration, a case adds about 20% to the cost of an organ.

Acoustics of the room is the single most important factor affecting participation, especially congregational singing, in a church service. When the surrounding sound level is absorbed to the point that an individual can hear only herself, she becomes self-conscious and ceases to participate. Many churches between 1950 and 1980 used carpet and ceiling tile, unwittingly absorbing the energy produced by the congregation and leaders. Fortunately, this situation is changing as architects and church leaders recognize the influence of acoustics on congregational participation.

Placement The organ should be in the main body of the worship room, with the case and pipes on a line-of-sight to the worshippers, close enough to the choir so that the choral and organ sounds blend together before reaching the congregation. The organ should speak toward the worshippers, not sideways across a chancel. All of the pipes should be together in one place, not separated on opposite sides of a room. In the typical U.S. building with heating and cooling, the pipes should all be at the same elevation to avoid temperature inequality and the resulting tuning problems.

A set of pipes, all producing the same tone color, one pipe for each key on the keyboard.
A control at the console which turns on a rank of pipes.
This is usually produced by a single rank of pipes. In the case of mixtures (Mixture, Scharf, Plein Jeu, etc.), several small ranks are combined together to produce one voice. A Mixture of 3 ranks takes no more space and is no more expensive than a single rank of large pipes, but it has 3 times as many pipes. The number of voices is therefore the most useful indicator of an organ’s size.
The length of the longest pipe, as shown on the stop control, indicates the pitch of the rank. An 8′ rank produces normal piano pitch. Shorter ranks are added to alter the color of the basic 8′ ranks.
Financial Security
  • Make detailed inquiries about the builder’s past performance and present financial status and facilities.
  • Specify accurate progress payments in the contract based on amount of work and materials, not time elapsed.
  • Verify that suppliers are paid, that a sufficient number of qualified workers are employed, and that drawings and plans are thorough.