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Frederick Swann on the Value of the Pipe Organ to the Worshiping Church

An article from the March 21, 2017 issue of Patheos – Ponder Anew contains an interesting article on the value of a pipe organ in worship.

Famed American organist Frederick Swann was recently asked for his view on the value of the pipe organ in the life of the church. This was his reply.

“As a church organist for 75 years (starting at age 10…and making it my life’s work) I have been privileged to be the organist of three major churches in the country, each with fine pipe organs and musically literate congregations. And, as a concert organist, my travels have taken me to churches large and small in each of the United States and several foreign countries.  I have frequently either attended worship or played for worship in many, many of these churches. Thus I have had the opportunity to observe what the pipe organ can mean to a wide variety of congregations.  The stories of how the organ in worship has literally changed lives are legion.

In reading the responses to your blog in response to A Case For the Pipe Organ it is abundantly clear that those most critical have been written by people who have never experienced what a good organ well-played can mean to the emotional and spiritual life of church members.  And/or the writers have minds that are so tightly closed that they would not be willing to give themselves the experience.  Prejudice and closed-mindedness are crystal clear in many of the comments. So there is nothing I, nor anyone can say to change their minds until they are willing to sincerely give themselves the opportunity of experiencing worship with a pipe organ, or one of the excellent digital organs (more determined and unfounded prejudice shown there!) and about which they have no knowledge.

The first duty of the church organist is to lead congregational singing.  No hand-waving ‘song leader’ can inspire a congregation to sing as can an experienced hymn player…in fact they are more often than not a deterrent to good congregation singing. I have been experiencing hopeful signs lately in many of the churches who eschew the organ and think they are filling their pews with the use of a praise band, some of which are quite good from a pure musical standpoint.

Interestingly, these musical groups are beginning to disappear from many churches as YOUNG church members (who have somehow been able to experience a pipe organ and traditional church music) are losing interest in their praise band and very much wanting to experience an organ and more ‘traditional music.’ The pendulum has swung widely throughout history in regard to what music works best in church. Thus it is encouraging to see it swinging again!”

Let it be so!

Frederick L. Swann is an American church and concert organist, recording artist, choral conductor, and former president of the American Guild of Organists. Music critic Tim Smith called Swann “one of the country’s most distinguished organists”. He is Organist Emeritus of the Crystal Cathedral and the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles. Swann currently lives in Palm Desert, California, where he is Artist-in-residence at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church and University Organist and Artist Teacher of Organ at the University of Redlands.

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