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Guide to Purchasing a Pipe Organ


For 500 years, the pipe organ has provided the church its musical structure for worship. No other musical instrument can lead and support voices in hymns, songs, and chants as effectively as the pipe organ; the large sound field created by organ pipes undergirds and guides choirs and congregations in their singing. Since the modern electronic organ substitute can only attempt to reproduce the complex tones of pipes, the electronic sounds emanating from speakers can't begin to match the unmistakable sound of a pipe organ.

The grand support of congregational singing is the pipe organ's most important function, for in these great hymns the congregation forms a single voice. During the prelude, and the postlude, the congregation simply listens; during the hymns, the congregation rises together and sings its testaments of faith. A congregation that sings fervently together can experience the abundance of worship and is united in song.

For New Compositions

As long as pipe organs have existed, composers have been writing for them. This wonderful synergy continues as new pipe organ music is composed in our time. For as long as churches have had pipe organs and choirs, the great composers have written anthems, chants, masses, passions, and cantatas for them. This rich source of music for worship is expanded constantly in modern music. The pipe organ has been, and continues to be, an endless source of inspiration for composers of music for the church.

It is a misconception that a pipe organ renders nothing but "old" or "traditional" music, and that only an electronic organ can suitably play contemporary music; all current and contemporary musical keyboard techniques and equipment can be made available for use with a pipe organ through Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI).

For Architecture, Art and Durability

The pipe organ can be a glorious addition to your church's sacred architecture. For centuries, architects and builders have collaborated with pipe organ builders to create extraordinary works of art, ranging from imposing instruments in great cathedrals to small pipe organs in chapels and missions.

To our knowledge, the oldest continuously used pipe organ is in Sion, Switzerland, built in 1390. With reasonable care, a pipe organ can serve a church indefinitely.

The musical richness and clarity of a pipe organ results from each pipe making its own unique sound. Every pipe adjusts to any acoustical, musical, and architectural setting. Further, the multifaceted sound produced from combining pipes adds great depth and dimension to tone.

With a pipe organ, 500 years worth of art and science comes to your congregation. This project may not be easy; demands will be made on the congregation for time, money, effort, and patience. However, countless churches have found these challenges well worth the rewards that a pipe organ brings.

How Does a Church Buy a Pipe Organ?

In order to purchase a pipe organ, a congregation first establishes the procurement of a new pipe organ as an official church project, and authorizes the formation of an organ committee to develop a plan to bring the pipe organ project to fruition.

Write to APOBA members for more information about the organs they build. Your organist, knowledgeable organists in other churches, or local college organ professors can suggest which APOBA builders to contact for information. Limit your inquiries to perhaps six builders, or you will be inundated with information and seemingly limitless options.

Organizing an Organ Committee

  1. You may need specific authorization to form an organ committee. Be sure to discuss this point with your pastor and appropriate governing body to prevent misunderstandings.
  2. A small committee is generally more manage able than a large one. It is easier to take a small committee on organ trips, and it is easier to come to consensus. A committee of three to six is a productive size.
  3. Select the people carefully. The committee members should be intelligent, of diverse backgrounds and professions, open‐minded, and objective. Certain people in any congregation enjoy the general respect of the membership because they are trustworthy, easy to work with, and have sound judgment. Such people are ideal committee members because the congregation will trust their decisions.
  4. If you know that a respected church member is strongly opposed to a new organ, consider adding that individual to the organ committee. It is better for such a person to operate with real facts instead of rumor and hearsay. Frequently the person's opinions can be changed, becoming an advocate, not an antagonist.
  5. Because you will probably need to raise money for the organ, it is good to include people on the committee who are willing and able to make an above‐average contribution to the organ fund, setting an example for others to follow.

After the Committee is Formed

  1. Set objectives and a timetable for the organ committee's work. The objectives might be defined by making a list of the organ's benefits for congregational worship enhancement and enrichment. Also, your list might include such points as musical tone and style, visual effect in the church, physical size and required space, the organ's life span, and cost.
  2. Be certain of your committee's authority before you begin. Have you been charged with the responsibility of deciding what kind of pipe organ would best serve the church and of choosing an organbuilder? Are you simply to gather information and pass it on to the church's governing body for their decision? If your committee has the task of making the decision about the purchase of the new pipe organ, ask the governing body to document in advance their support of your committee's decision and, if necessary, to send it to the congregation for approval.
  3. It is important to understand your church's chain of command. Know in advance of a decision who must make that decision.
  4. Provide ample opportunities for the committee's education about organs. Visit other churches, study books and videos about pipe organs and pipe organ building, listen to organ recordings and Pipe Dreams on your local NPR station, read topical periodical articles about pipe organs, music, and worship, and attend pipe organ recitals at other churches.
  5. Conduct committee meetings in an orderly fashion, with objectives and time limits for each meeting. Prepare a specific agenda, and keep the focus directed to the agenda.
  6. Solicit assistance from organ professors or organ builders to educate your committee and narrow the focus as your research progresses.
  7. Determine what type of pipe organ action will best suit your church's music program, and solicit proposals from approximately three builders who provide that type of organ. The more proposals you have, the more difficult it is to decide which is the best.
  8. In comparing proposals, the one that offers the most number of pipes for the dollar may not be the best proposal. Such factors as quality of materials, workmanship, location of the builder, future service, etc. affect the final decision. In contrasting proposals, evaluate comparable things so your evaluation will be valid.
  9. When you have made your decision, be sure that it is a narrowly‐focused one. If another group in your church makes the final decision, and if you give this group several options, it is inevitable that they will not make the choice you would have preferred. Your committee needs to make a single recommendation. Well‐meaning members from governing bodies and/or the congregation can potentially render meaningless the hard work of the organ committee.
  10. Don't eliminate a good organ builder from consideration because the organbuilder cannot provide a performance bond. You don't need a bond to be safe. If your church wants financial protection, negotiate with the organ builder for a plan that suits you.
  11. When you decide on a builder, ask for the builder's list of clients for the past five years. Also, ask for a reference at the builder's bank.
  12. It is important to select the organ builder and define the attributes of the proposed organ before raising money for the purchase. People contribute to what you show them, not to what they may or may not be able to imagine.
  13. Should you use a consultant? Many churches go through the entire process without a consultant, A well‐qualified consultant can be helpful, educating the committee and broadening their information base. If you do decide to hire a consultant, determine the consultant's qualifications, establish the consulting fee at the outset, and interview other churches who have used the consultant. Also, organ professors and knowledgeable organists can provide limited consulting service. You should not feel the need to have a consultant if dealing with an APOBA organ builder. Many APOBA builders are also organists, some are singers and choir directors, and many have music degrees.
  14. Because of the nature of their professions, they have expertise in the area of acoustics, engineering, and all areas that have to do with designing, building, and installing pipe organs. Any APOBA builder will treat you with honesty and fairness.

Organ Placements in Typical Buildings

Where in our Church do we put an Organ?

A fine organ is built by hand, custom‐designed to respect the musical, architectural, acoustical, and physical space requirements of a church. The instrument can be configured in a variety of ways to fit its given space.

Pipe organs are not always large, nor do they always require significant room. A pipe organ can consist of a single keyboard and a few sets of pipes, or may have four or more keyboards, many pedals, and over 100 sets of pipes. Many variables determine a pipe organ's appropriate size, including the number of people who will be led in hymn singing, the room's cubic air volume and general size, the type of organ mechanism, the acoustical properties, and the musical needs of the church service (number of choirs, liturgical style, etc.). A cathedral‐sized room with an organ of many ranks is not required for a pipe organ to be effective. Worship in the most intimate chapels can be enriched greatly with the gentle sounds of a small pipe organ.

Rather modest amounts of space can usually accommodate a pipe organ. Pipes and equipment can be stacked vertically; spread horizontally in shallow spaces, or even cantilevered from walls. Some pipes themselves can be mounted either vertically or horizontally. A floor area smaller than that needed by a grand piano may be sufficient. Rarely are building additions needed; however, during the planning stages of a new church, designing adequate space for a future pipe organ is very worthwhile.

Organ pipes should be located without obstacles to their distribution of tone. Location on the central, longer axis of the room (i.e., at the front or the rear) is ideal. The farther away from the central axis and the more barriers to the egress of sound, the less desirable the location. If the organ is to be used to accompany choirs, the console, pipes, and choirs should be located as closely together as possible, with pipes above and behind the singers.

Every pipe of the organ can be regulated to sound well for the acoustical conditions of the room, whether they be good or poor: A smaller organ with fewer pipes may be perfectly adequate if acoustical conditions are good.

Above all, don't assume that your church has no room for a pipe organ. Space can be found!

The Value of a Pipe Organ for the Dollars Spent: Seven Benchmarks

Value means more than price. In providing something as important as the organ for your church, true value can be best determined by considering long‐term advantages. Generations from now, as the congregation considers the work of your organ committee, will you be remembered for the price you paid, or for having the wisdom to invest in lasting value? Compare your work on the organ committee with a decision you might make for your children: Will you be remembered more lovingly for a video game that becomes outdated soon after you buy it, or for the handcrafted heirloom grand‐father clock you pass on to them?

Value in Tradition

The pipe organ is the "King of Instruments." For centuries it has been the chosen means of musical support and inspiration for the church, continually refined to meet changing ecclesiastical needs. The electronic organ is merely an imitation, a substitute. Imitations are never as valuable as the real thing.

Value in Longevity

Longevity is the hallmark of true value. In America, pipe organs built well over 100 years ago are still giving faithful service. In Europe, organs built two and three centuries ago, along with some built as early as the 14th century, are in regular use How many other man‐made products comprised of hundreds of moving parts can claim such a record? Your pipe organ will last as long as the building in which you place it ‐ perhaps longer. Some organs are moved to second and third buildings to continue service. Can that be s aid of the church's computer, heating system, kitchen equipment ‐ or an electronic organ?

Most pipe organ parts employ timeless technology which has remained virtually unchanged for centuries. Compare this with the computer you might have bought last year, which is already out of date. Since computer technology is the foundation of the electronic organ, obsolescence is its fare. Most of the pipe organ's replacement parts, if ever needed, can be fabricated from wood, metal and other readily available materials.

The pipe organ is made of solid, durable materials. Pipe organs have proven to operate with no repair, except for routine timing and minor adjustments, for at least two or three generations. If refurbishment is required, it costs a small fraction of the organ's replacement. Another two or three generations of trouble‐free playing.

Greater longevity means lower cost. Take a period of 100 year scenario, the well‐built pipe organ might require one or two refurbishments. Electronic substitutes usually fail after one generation of use, or less. Over a century, the electronic organ might have to be replaced four or five times. On this basis alone, the pipe organ is a far superior investment.

Value in Substance

What portion of the selling price is represented by the actual cost of labor and materials used to produce the product? In other words, what is the organ's real substance?

Pipe organ builders are just that ‐ builders, not marketers. The bulk of the price you pay is for high quality materials and expert workmanship. There is very little margin for profit, sales commissions, advertising, fancy brochures, and the like. Electronic organ companies must pay to maintain marketing departments, sales forces, retail store operations, and national advertising. All this must be deducted from the price of the instrument to find its value. Electronic organs are priced exactly like other household appliances, allowing for huge profit margins. You simply get more for your money with a pipe organ.

Value in Visual Beauty

Several bonuses come with a pipe organ, and perhaps the most obvious is its decorative beauty. In addition to providing inspiring music, the organ's pipes and elegant handcrafted hardwood cases can embrace the architecture and interior design of the church. Your church is graced by a work of visual art when you invest in a pipe organ.

Value in Custom Design

Considering long‐term value, what tends to be more cherished by future generations ‐‐ a handmade work of art or a mass‐produced consumer item? Pipe organs are individually custom‐designed and custom‐made. Even the smallest pipe organs are singular works of the organ builder's art. Every instrument bears the touch of the builder, especially in the process of acoustically matching its pipes to the building in which it plays.

Value in Distinction

Another advantage of having the real thing is the status it affords your music program. The most qualified organists and music directors are always attracted to serve where there is a fine pipe organ. Such an instrument allows them to produce music of greater refinement and expression. The choir is better supported with the live music of a pipe organ than with the recorded music of an electronic substitute. Most of all, people sing better when accompanied by a pipe organ The pipe organ is a built‐in recruiter for your church, because a church with an excellent music program attracts members!

Value in Timelessness

Considering long‐term value, envision what the future holds. Is electronic technology really the wave of the future? As a true acoustical instrument, the pipe organ uses wind‐ blown pipes to make original sound that is transmitted through the air directly to the listener.

The pipe organ is the most progressive of all musical instruments; it has accommodated every change in functional need since the Middle Ages, and it remains authentic. The pipe organ is as irreplaceable as the human voice, the symphony orchestra, the jazz ensemble, the art of painting oil on canvas, and all other forms of artistic expression that are the mainstays of our culture.

Finally... While the pipe organ might seem to be an expensive initial purchase, by virtue of its longer lifespan and fewer long‐term maintenance needs, it costs less to own over time than an electronic instrument. Further, when refurbishment might be needed, only the problematic areas need be addressed, leaving the body and substance of the organ untouched.

In the final analysis, choosing a pipe organ over an electronic substitute must be based on which of the two sounds better, can better lead congregational hymn‐singing and accompany the choir, and can provide more inspiration for the people of the church. Clearly, the pipe organ accomplishes these vital requirements. By purchasing a pipe organ, you make the very best use of your money, and give your church an asset of lasting value. This alone justifies the decision to own a pipe organ.

The Associated Pipe Organ Builders of America (APOBA) represents a great variety of the very best pipe organs available anywhere in the world today. APOBA members, a select group of highly professional organ builders who have passed stringent membership requirements, are happy to send information about the organs they build to suggest what type of instrument might best enhance your worship experience, and to address specific concerns about installing a pipe organ performance.