- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 22, 2005

Richard Alford is perched high above the sanctuary at Clarendon United Methodist Church, testing one of the 2,500 pipes of an organ that’s getting its final checkup before the holidays.

Mr. Alford has little room to move and he carries just a handful of slender tools to help him tune the 39-year-old pipe organ.

But none of the conventional tools he’s carrying can improve the pitch of this pipe. So Mr. Alford reaches for his wallet and removes a dollar bill.

He slides the currency into a seam at the end of the reed pipe, removing a speck of dirt that has been altering the vibration of a tiny flap of metal and corrupting the pipe’s pitch.

“It’s just the right texture and just the right thickness,” he says.

It is one trick of the trade Mr. Alford, 44, has learned during a career as an organ builder and repairman that began when he was in high school 27 years ago.

Pipe organs may be the king of instruments, but they can be a royal pain. They are both sturdy — they can last centuries with proper care — and delicate. They have thousands of parts that require attention and even a slight change in temperature can alter the instrument’s sound.

“I tell people we never tune organs so much as make them less out of tune,” Mr. Alford says.

Mr. Alford spends most of the year building pipe organs for Lewis and Hitchcock Inc., an organ maker and repairer based in Beltsville, Md. He spends about five months a year making house calls at churches throughout Northern Virginia. He tunes 60 to 70 organs, working on some as often as four times a year. The company regularly services 300 organs in all throughout the Mid-Atlantic region.

Arrival of the holidays makes this one of the busiest times for organ repair and maintenance. Church music directors want their grand instruments prepared to blast festive scores during holiday concerts.

Fine tuning the organ at the Clarendon church is a tedious, time-consuming chore that begins with Mr. Alford sitting at the keyboard to test every single pipe and match their pitch against an electric tuner on the bench beside him. A chart in front of him helps him remember, which are problematic pipes that will need more attention.

The pipe organ at Clarendon United Methodist Church, one of dozens in Washington-area parishes, was made in 1966 in Buffalo, N.Y., by now-defunct Schlicker Organ Co. It has been appraised at $600,000.

“There are some grand old churches here with grand old organs,” Mr. Alford says.

The Church of the Epiphany, St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, the Church of the Ascension and St. Agnes, National City Christian Church and All Souls Unitarian Church are just a few that use the king of instruments.

Once Mr. Alford listens to every pipe, he enlists the help of Dwayne Blair, a colleague and organist. Mr. Alford can do the diagnosis himself, but fine-tuning a pipe organ requires two persons. He hoists his tall frame up a lightweight ladder to a landing above the altar where the pipes stand. They are crammed together, so it’s a chore for someone as tall and sturdy as Mr. Alford to maneuver around them.

He is dwarfed by the organ’s largest pipe, an 18-foot-long piece of metal. The smallest pipe is no bigger than a pencil.

Working from Mr. Alford’s notes, Mr. Blair operates the keyboard so air courses through the pipes suspected of being out of tune. Mr. Alford listens to each pipe, one at a time.

Changing a pipe’s pitch “usually requires just a tiny tap” to adjust the air column, Mr. Alford says.

That Mr. Alford can hear the minor differences as he subtly taps a pipe illustrates that his hearing is just as important as his other tools. He guards his hearing carefully. He went to a doctor when he grew concerned that he was having trouble hearing people speak during conversations in large crowds of people, but he checked out fine.

“Most organ tuners do have exceptional hearing, but you also have to train your hearing for this,” he says.

While Mr. Alford keeps busy building and repairing organs at churches throughout the work week, he spends each Sunday behind the altar at his own church. For the past 10 years, Mr. Alford has served as the pastor at St. Gregory’s Orthodox Church, a church in Tenleytown where the Antiochian Orthodox congregation knows him as Father Nicholas.

After attending the General Theological Seminary in Manhattan, Mr. Alford was ordained as an Episcopal priest and served in Episcopal churches in Pennsylvania and Indiana. In 1995 he became Orthodox, moved to Washington to start St. Gregory’s and subsequently earned a Doctor of Ministry in Eastern Christian Studies from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

Working on pipe organs dominates his time, but Mr. Alford considers the secular pursuit his second career that pays the bills.

“I need to put a roof over our heads and food on the table,” he says.

He describes himself as a priest who also works on organs.

“My employers understand I am here to be a priest,” he says.

He may be guiding just one congregation on Sundays, but he’s keeping countless others in tune.

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