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Small Churches Struggle To Find Organists And Pianists

NOEL KING, HOST:

Christmas is a really good time of year to take yourself down to a church and listen to the lovely music of a live church organ. But in order to have organ music, you need an organist. As Anne Kniggendorf of member station KCUR reports, small churches across the country are having a really hard time finding organists or even pianists.

ANNE KNIGGENDORF, BYLINE: In an ideal world, it's a blast from an organ that heralds the holiday.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JOY TO THE WORLD")

JAN KRAYBILL: My goodness. What a magical, magical time to be at the organ.

KNIGGENDORF: Grammy-winning organist Jan Kraybill plays organs in concerts all over the world. Only rarely has she not played the Christmas service.

KRAYBILL: It was lovely to be with my family at those times, but I always felt a little bit of a loss because I wasn't able to contribute musically except as a member of the congregation.

KNIGGENDORF: Lots of churches have been lucky to have Kraybill, and for the most part, those in and around cities have no problem finding an organist. This is not the case elsewhere.

ANTHONY THURMAN: Small churches in the country, for example, may rely upon someone who teaches music in their local school who has learned how to play the organ.

KNIGGENDORF: Tony Thurman is with the American Guild of Organists in New York City.

THURMAN: And if they don't have someone with those skills, then they may not have an organist because the organists are going to go to the churches where they can be paid fairly and paid a living wage for the skills and the abilities that they bring to the job.

KNIGGENDORF: So in lots of smaller churches, Christmas service is not quite so grand. Seventeen years ago, Jacob Hofeling was a child in Show Low, Ariz.

JACOB HOFELING: I started playing the organ at church at 12 years old, partly because the organist who was there had to suddenly move away and there was nobody to fill that role. And so I stepped up to the plate.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "O COME, ALL YE FAITHFUL")

KNIGGENDORF: Today, Hofeling is practicing with the choir at a church near Kansas City, where he's now the music director.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "O COME, ALL YE FAITHFUL")

KNIGGENDORF: He's seen how organ emergencies play out in bigger cities.

HOFELING: The American Guild of Organists, they have a substitute list, and the Kansas City chapter is very active. And so it's very easy to find a substitute from that list. St. Luke's really needed somebody on Christmas Eve, specifically, and so I worked my schedule around to make that happen.

KNIGGENDORF: But three hours south near the Oklahoma border, it's a drastically different story.

JENNIFER MATHES: We tried to go back in some of our records to and just kind of get an estimation of when we recall the last time we saw the organ.

KNIGGENDORF: Jennifer Mathes is with the Crosstimbers Community Church in Edna, Kan., population 400. She says they moved out the organ when they replaced the carpet 20 years ago, and it never made it back into the sanctuary.

MATHES: There was no one there to play it. We're thinking around that 2000 to 2004 time in there that it was donated then to the museum or sold to somebody else.

KNIGGENDORF: Though they did have a pianist for a long time who played from childhood well into her 70s and left a gaping hole when she stepped down. But this week, Crosstimbers is getting lucky.

MATHES: The interim pastor's fiancee will actually be in town, and she plays the piano. So we will be able to sing Christmas hymns and so forth with live music. So that'll be a treat.

KNIGGENDORF: A treat that hundreds of other small churches won't have this Christmas because there's no one to play live music on a keyboard. For NPR News, I'm Anne Kniggendorf in Kansas City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.