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October 18, 2006
Vol. VI, No. 9

"What's a Poor Organist to Do?"
Last week I subbed for a friend at a church that I'd never played at. I had basically two days to prepare the music, an hour with the organ on Sunday morning before the service, and I hadn't touched an organ in over three months. It was with great relief that I fit into my organ shoes without effort (I don't like playing in my sneakers or socks). Of course, the service went well (congregations are always grateful to hear Bach, especially if they've been hearing a lot of French Romantic) but I was staggered by the amount of physical and mental energy it took to accomplish what used to be relatively effortless.

It's been a while since I've subbed around so my recent experience along with having the summer off gave me a fresh perspective on all the horror stories I've been hearing from organists. I'm not sure if it's a recent trend or something that's been going on all along but recently there have been an amazing number of good organists leaving full-time church positions behind and their reasons seem to boil down to just two issues: salary and working conditions.

First of all, as most of us know, organist positions do not pay a living wage. But, just to be sure, let's do the math. Using the AGO's Time Requirements worksheet, I come up with about 14 hours required for a one-service week. The top of the AGO fee range for a one-service week is $225. So, 225 divided by 14 gives us an hourly wage of about $16.00. That doesn't sound too bad for most folks however that 14 hours doesn't take into consideration, in the AGO's words, "hours required to maintain keyboard proficiency and work on new repertoire" and "personal musical growth and development through ongoing study, research, periodicals, conventions, concerts, etc."

Is that something churches should pay for? Well, based on the amount of abuse that some churches heap on organists in the guise of requiring a high level of quality and professionalism, it appears the answer should be yes. So, let's say you spend 2 hours a day practicing and studying to not only maintain your skills but actually improve them. Suddenly, you've doubled your hours and halved your hourly wage to $8.00.

That's actually the good news. At the low end of the AGO one-service week rate, it only takes one additional hour per day in order to maintain and improve your skills, beyond the required 14, to make you an organist living below the poverty line. You'd actually be better off working at Wal-Mart or McDonalds. How about a vow of poverty with those fries?

Clearly, the AGO suggested pay range is too low. I propose that the pay range should actually be fully double to be fair to organists. Unfortunately, we all know too well that most churches don't even pay within the suggested pay range although they don't lessen their expectations along with their pay. Churches would never dream of offering their plumber or electrician $20/hour when their fee is $50/hr. Somehow they always seem to pay those bills.

Now, if that all weren't depressing enough, enter the city, state and federal governments. As discussed earlier, organist salaries are so low that organists aren't often able to live off their church salaries alone; they usually have some sort of day job. Because of that, the church salary income will be on top of the day job income, pushing it into a higher tax bracket so it is taxed at a higher rate. Obviously, this situation is not restricted to organists today in America however not everyone with two jobs is expected to maintain the professional skills of an organist. It results in a sort of Catch-22: Organists are expected to maintain skills and learn complicated music but because churches don't pay well organists have to get day jobs to survive and then they don't have enough time to learn the complicated music. And then the government takes half.

I think it's too bad that organists don't have the option that some clergy do which is to be considered self-employed. You would still have to pay self-employment tax but at least you would have more flexibility in the ability to deduct your expenses. It's sort of ridiculous for church employees to pay Employment Tax anyway considering that employment laws don't necessarily provide us any protection, as this article clearly shows:
"Where Faith Abides, Employees Have Few Rights"

Which brings me back to subbing. Subbing not only gives you more leverage when it comes to dealing with work conditions but, because you're considered self-employed, you're your own boss when it comes down to dealing with your finances. So you could say that in more ways than one, subbing is less taxing than having a full-time job.

Click this link to read comments and offer your own:

WORKSHOP #7: "November Is American Indian Heritage Month"
This Guest Workshop was written by community member Will W. Rogers. For those who don't remember, Will passed away last year on November 21. In observance of the one-year anniversary of this event, I would like to remind everyone that next month is American Indian Heritage Month. I can't think of a better way to honor Will's spirit than to share his excellent and informative workshop.

Updated Pages
Composition Free Exchange:
Added are compositions by new community member Jim Vyhanek, including "Come, Thou Font of Every Blessing" (Nettleton), Allein Gott in der Hoh (Mvmt 5), Allein Gott in der Hoh (Mvmt 7), "Lord, Bid Your Servant Go in Peace" (Land of Rest) and "With the Lord Begin Your Task" (Fang Dein Werk). Still more updates to come!

Featured Links:
Added is the Choral Public Domain Library. Begun in December 1998, CPDL is one of the world's largest free sheet music sites. You can use CPDL to find scores, texts, translations, and information about composers. Thanks to community member Jim Gladstone for this link.

Art Prints store:
This page has needed updating for a while. Unavailable prints have been removed. There are currently four prints of J.S. Bach, any one of which would make a nice present this Christmas for your favorite organist, especially framed. It's not too early to start thinking about it, really.


Have a great week!

Dan Long

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