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Monumental pipe organs languish for lack of professionally trained talent

Crisis on the Dutch organ bench

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

LEEUWARDEN, the Netherlands - Many centuries-old Dutch churches are noted for their architecture, glass-stained windows and monu-mental pipe organs. While millions are spent to keep all three in good repair, an internationally known organist has sounded the alarm over a crisis developing "on the organ bench." Jan Jongepier says that today's Dutch youth rather play an electronic instrument and care little for the organ. Increasingly, churches are forced to hire amateurs to play the organ in worship services.

Jongepier who started playing in Leeuwarden in 1981, says that the number of organ students has dropped dramatically. The conservatory at Groningen now only has two students enrolled in its organ program. At other music schools the situation is said to be no different. Both the conservatories and the churches have done little to turn the tide.

Organ teacher Folkert Binnema of nearby Sneek agrees. 'There are too many amateurs,' according to Binnema, who plays at a local Mennonite church. He admits that some self-taught organists have real talent.

Binnema recalls the times of yesteryear when he could choose from a good number of aspiring organists whenever he required help for wedding or funeral arrangements. Those times have changed. Zuidhorn organist Jan Smelik also gets regularly confronted with a shortage of organists. Especially small congregations often are scrambling to get someone to play on Sundays. To colleague Jan van Laar of Deventer the story sounds all too familiar. He knows the level of quality has dropped but he finds it difficult to criticize amateur players, many of whom he calls well-meaning.

A national foundation which promotes church music recently announced a program to upgrade the skills of amateur players by offering courses in music and liturgy. It is too early to know if this measure will help the situation.

However, one specific group of people has expressed an interest to help alleviate the crisis. Binnema reports that pensioners, especially those in early retirement, lately have been expressing interests take organ lessons.

The shortage of organists is not restricted to the Netherlands. In Canada and the U.S.A., congregations of the various Reformed backgrounds have relied on volunteer organists for decades. While many congregations installed pipe organs in their buildings, few actually stimulated young people to enroll in organ studies beyond taking local lessons.