It's Their Busiest Time Of The Year, But Kansas City Organists Say They Aren't Just For Churches | KCUR

It's Their Busiest Time Of The Year, But Kansas City Organists Say They Aren't Just For Churches

Dec 20, 2019

Organist Jacob Hofeling started working at St. Luke's Episcopal Church on Christmas Eve.

He'd moved to Lawrence to get a doctorate in organ performance at the University of Kansas and was looking for a job.

"As I was applying, St. Luke’s really needed somebody on Christmas Eve specifically," he says. "So, I worked my schedule around to make that happen." He's now the music director.

It wasn't the first time Hofeling had stepped in to fill a need. He was only 12 years old when the organist at his small-town church in Arizona moved away. Hofeling had played hymns on the piano for years and, though he was still a child and had never actually played the organ, the unpaid position fell to him.

"I struggled through learning how to adapt them to the organ; it took several years to be able to do it well," Hofeling says.

More churches might be closing (one estimate suggests as many as 10,0000 per year), but Hofeling says the number of open positions for organists is actually growing as baby boomer organists retire.

However, according to the American Guild of Organists, the jobs that are opening in small places like Hofeling's home town can't offer pay competitive enough to attract new talent.

This, combined with the fact that organ programs at universities are also shrinking or disappearing — with 25 students, the program at KU is one of the nation's largest — several factors combine to give the impression that organ music might be a dying art.

Jacob Hofeling practicing with the choir at St. Luke's in Shawnee.
Credit Anne Kniggendorf / KCUR 89.3

More churches are also using pop- or rock-style bands in their services. Grammy-winning organist Jan Kraybill says she started to see praise bands playing in churches back in the 1960s.

"I have felt displaced," Kraybill allows. "But where I feel best is where an art form isn’t restricted, in this case, to the walls of ideas."

What she loves, Kraybill says, "is when a praise band director comes to me and says, 'Do you have a voice on the organ that could contribute to this band sound?' That’s really exciting. Our musical horizons are only limited by our imagination in worship. So, why not just throw it wide open, then nobody needs to feel displaced."

Kraybill is a travelling concert organist, as well as the organ conservator at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts and organist in residence at the Community of Christ headquarters in Independence. She also helped design the massive pipe organ at Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, which is often used for secular concerts and recitals.

"I hope that organs are appreciated in churches where they reside, but I also hope that there are people who enter this church because the organ is in a different role for a set of concerts, or because it's contributing to an orchestral sound," Kraybill says.

Organist Jan Kraybill at Village Presbyterian Church.
Credit Anne Kniggendorf / KCUR 89.3

The dean of the Kansas City chapter of the American Guild of Organists, Boyd Ahrens, says it’s sad that people only associate organs with churches when organs are in other venues.

But he concedes that churches are largely where young people are exposed to organ music. Because fewer people are going to church, and more of those who do go to church hear the more "contemporary worship" music of a praise band, fewer children grow up familiar with the complex instrument.

"We're always trying to get youth interested in whatever you're doing," Ahrens says. "Just like if you're a mechanic, you'd like to have kids interested in mechanics." 

Kraybill says that's already happening. She says children have approached her to say they've learned about organs on YouTube. One had even taught himself to play an entire song by ear.

"It's a whole other way that people are becoming interested in the organ as an instrument or in playing the organ as a coordinated activity," she says.

Hofeling agrees. "Organ classical music isn't going anywhere. There's a very strong culture of very nice organ music."

Follow KCUR contributor Anne Kniggendorf on Twitter, @AnneKniggendorf.