Church organists encourage young musicians to take up the ‘king of instruments’
DETROIT, Mich. (The Michigan Catholic) - When Catholics file into churches for Mass on Sunday mornings, the first minister to invite them into prayer does so usually before the priest says a word to the congregation.
PIPES OF PRAISE - Peter Jarzembowski, music minister at St. Patrick Parish in White Lake, stands in front of the pipes at the church. Jarzembowski has spent 30 years in the music ministry and says he can’t imagine church services without the “king of instruments.” (The Michigan Catholic/Joe Kohn)
Its result is the entrance hymn, a song to the Lord.
“Just like the ministry of the presider, the ministry of the organist is one that enables the prayer of the whole assembly,” says Fr. Marc Gawronski, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Monroe and also a clergy member of the National Association of Pastoral Musicians. “There’s a real parallel there between the priest ministry and the organ ministry.”
The world over, the ministry of the organist is one that illustrates great diversity in the Church. It blends music from different cultures and eras. It grows with new technology. It’s discussed by the pope and the bishops, as well as the music minister in a small suburban parish in your own backyard.
As times change, and electronic sound systems replace the majestic pipes both in the Archdiocese of Detroit and elsewhere, local church organists — though smaller in number than in years past — see their ministry as a pillar of the Church. And they put forth great efforts to keep it that way.
‘King of Instruments’
While still in grade school, Heather Nofar, a member of St. Thomas (Chaldean) Parish in West Bloomfield Township, was taking piano lessons when she received a not-subtle nudge from her piano teacher, Maria DiCiccio. DiCiccio told her that a pianist isn’t overly difficult to come by — but organists are increasingly rare.
“She’s the biggest influence in my life in music,” says Nofar, now 27 years old and the music minister at St. Edith Parish in Livonia.
Such is the way many music ministers first made their way to an organ bench. It was true decades ago, and is also true today. Most learn at an early age, usually at the urging of a musically inclined parent, or a music instructor.
Once a musician is at a church organ, it’s not hard for them to fall in love with the instrument that has been at the heart of the Church for centuries, many say.
“The organ is the king of instruments,” says Nofar. “The sound dominates the whole church. The sound carries throughout. It includes all the different orchestral voices to make one big, beautiful blend in sound, and encourage singing and worship.”
Indeed, the moniker “king of instruments” has long been bestowed on the church organ. By the time Christopher Columbus came upon North America in 1492, organs resided in cathedrals and monastery churches throughout Europe.
Still today, few music ministers in the Archdiocese of Detroit aren’t well-versed at the organ — whether it’s a true pipe organ, or one of an increasingly capable fleet of electronic organs that mimic the sounds of a pipe organ.
When asked whether the church organist was a growing or shrinking commodity, many church organists in the Archdiocese of Detroit concede that the numbers — and some say the quality — of church organists has been on the down slope.
“The quantity is declining,” says Louis Cantor, associate director of worship for the archdiocese and also an accomplished church musician who currently plays at St. Charles Borromeo in Detroit. “I’m not quite sure why that is, especially with the electronic age. It’s much easier to sequence and use an electronic instrument… but it’s not an instrument that people are very drawn to.”
Still, Cantor says, the organ remains the official instrument of the Church. And those who play it are hard-pressed to imagine that changing. The fact that the organ can hold a note indefinitely, plus the great diversity it offers in sound — some being able to take on the sound of strings, trumpets, horns and other orchestral instruments — make it the ideal tool for leading a congregation, many church organists say.
“Being a trained organist and somebody who’s loved the organ and organ music for as far back as I can remember, I can’t see church service without it,” says Peter Jarzembowski, who for 30 years has been a music minister — the last 20 at St. Patrick Parish in White Lake.
Not just music, ministry
While the organ is the instrument of choice for many, if not most, Catholic music ministers, it’s important for the faithful to note that the person leading their congregation in song is not just a musician.
While a priest opens the congregation’s mind to the Gospel, and a lector shares the Scriptures, an organist has the responsibility of leading the congregation in musical praise.
“Ministry has to do with service,” Jarzembowski says. “There’s a service that an ordained minister might have to his people; there’s a service that lay ministers perform as well. For us, it happens to be a service in the praise of God through music. That’s what we do from week to week.”
Many music ministers have backgrounds in theology. All ...
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