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Challenging times for organists as churches change musical ways

By Alf McCreary

Traditional church organists are facing new demands in the wake of big changes to religious services.

Many churches are now using praise bands, as well as the traditional pipe organs, and in some places the congregations are becoming used to a combination of both.

In some areas skilled pipe organists are in such demand that some are playing in several different churches.

Adrian Anderson, a classically-trained organist, who has been at Ballywillan Presbyterian Church near Portrush for more than 40 years, also plays at two other churches in the north coast area.

"The fact that I am doing so tells its own story," he told the Belfast Telegraph. "In recent years there has been a steady change in the provision of church music and now there are quite a number of praise bands in the regular services."

One of the difficulties facing congregations is in attracting the kind of musician who can fulfil several different roles.

Mr Anderson added: "Sometimes they are looking for the kind of musician who barely exists. It is difficult to find someone who can be a music director, an organist and a choir master or mistress all at the same time."

David McElderry, managing director of the Wells Kennedy Partnership, is an organ builder and restorer who helps to look after around 300 instruments.

His firm has restored an organ dating from 1917 that is in Portaferry Presbyterian Church and Portico Arts and Heritage Centre.

He said: "There is a general shortage of skilled organists and there is the danger of a vicious circle developing. The more the churches go down the road of using praise bands, there will be less need for organs, which play such an important role in traditional church music."

Mr McElderry is also a long-time choir member of St George's Church on High Street in Belfast, which has a long record of traditional church music at a very high level.

"A number of churches are looking for a music director, not just an organist, but someone who can look after a praise band and perhaps a choir as well."

Philip Walden, the honorary treasurer of the Ulster Society of Organists and Choirmasters, has been the organist at Wesley Centenary Methodist Church in Bangor for 30 years and plays an organ that's 105 years old.

"There are a lot of people playing today who are not trained to play large pipe organs and they play smaller instruments, which might be called entertainment organs," he said.

Some suggest the future for pipe organs may lie in their skilful combination with other instruments and groups of musicians during each service.

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