- Associated Press - Thursday, April 13, 2017

KENNY, Ill. (AP) - Magnificent in appearance and sound, pipe organs still fill churches and concert halls with a regal air.

The need for repairs, preservation and musicians has set a new tone of urgency for an instrument that in the right hands (and feet) produces some of the world’s most recognizable, beautiful music.

In Kenney, the Rybolt Opera House, established in 1898, now houses a business devoted to building and repairing pipe organs.

Schneider Pipe Organs Inc. started with inadequate electrical wiring and dim bulbs hanging from the ceiling, said owner Richard Schneider, who has been a pipe organ wizard for more than 40 years.

Schneider is a member of the American Institute of Organ Builders and has built and installed organs all over the country. Craftsmen in the field are few and far between. Learning to build pipe organs isn’t something offered at universities.



“You almost have to know somebody, and I really didn’t,” Schneider said. “A lot of companies are generational. If you’re on the outside, you don’t know who to ask or where to go.”

At the start of his venture, Schneider could only plug in one machine at a time, so if he needed the table saw, he had to unplug something else. Working on the building sometimes takes precedence over working on organs, too, but the wiring and the lighting are long since upgraded and the building is organized so that the parts and equipment he needs for the various tasks are together in their own areas.

The second floor is a wilderness of organ parts.

“This is where old organs go to die,” Schneider quipped as he walked around among the pedal boards, pipes, consoles and other pieces, stacked on shelves and leaning against walls.

He reuses anything he can, partly because it’s less expensive to repair and reuse than to make new parts, but also because using parts from vintage organs is a way to preserve the history of the art.

“When you have a small shop like ours, you have to pick your battles,” Schneider said. “We do a lot of repurposing.”

Schneider started in Michigan at Wicks Organ Co. when he was in high school and gradually learned all the ins and outs of building a pipe organ, from creating and voicing the pipes to hooking up the stops that make the organ sound like strings or reeds or woodwinds or everything at once.

He’s also a licensed electrical contractor, and with the more modern organs that use tiny chips and wiring inside to create the stops instead of the manual versions of yore, that’s an invaluable skill.

Schneider listens to recordings of pipe organ while he works and attends organ recitals. He truly loves the instrument and what it can do, though he doesn’t play himself. He can do enough to use the keyboard and pipe-testing setup in his shop to fine-tune pipes and connections. It’s the instrument itself, its intricacies and history, that fascinates him.

With the trend in churches moving more and more to contemporary Christian songs and away from hymns and traditional instruments, pipe organs aren’t used as often as they once were, and that saddens Schneider, who loves the sound and the tradition as well as the art of building and maintaining the instruments. He cites the mega-church movement, which popularized praise bands to the point that some churches stopped using their organs entirely.

“The cycle is kind of down with (pipe organs),” said Steve Widenhofer, director of Millikin University’s School of Music. “We don’t have many organ majors anymore. We always had some people taking it as a minor. Not many (still do). We have one or two. It’s very sporadic.”

Widenhofer is one of two organists at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, which has a pipe organ that Schneider moved from the church’s former location on West Wood Street to its present location on West Mound Road. Moving a pipe organ and reinstalling the pipes is not easy, and it took some months to accomplish, using an entire crew. Though the pipes are not visible at the new building as they were at the old - they’re behind a wall where the altar and cross are located in the sanctuary. During traditional services the pipe organ’s majestic sounds fill the church.

A pipe organ has two keyboards instead of one, and a bewildering array of stops to create the different sounds, many of which have to be operated as the musician plays to get different effects for different parts of the piece. The musician also has to play notes with their feet, playing the foot pedals which are, in effect, a third keyboard. Organists even have dedicated, special shoes to wear for those foot pedals.

St. Paul’s other organist, Linda Ippel, started piano lessons at age 5 and was 14 when she started taking organ lessons.

“It was like starting all over,” Ippel said. “The only thing that looks the same is the keyboard. The technique is different, and the coordination is a challenge, to try to coordinate hands and feet and manuals (stops).”

Ippel thought the ability to play a pipe organ would be useful, and her music teacher thought she had reached the level where she was ready for it. Soon after Ippel began those lessons, her teacher sent her to someone who was more accomplished on the pipe organ to continue teaching her. Ippel majored in organ performance and music education in college, and she said she was one of many organ majors at her university.

Trinity Lutheran Church’s organ is digital, but it has three keyboards and the foot pedals, and member Harry Kaminski said it’s been tough the last several years to find someone to play it for services. Trinity is traditional and doesn’t have a praise band, just the organ.

They’ve been relying on Millikin students to play for them, and their latest Millikin student, Amy Mazzeo, will graduate this year. Finding someone to step in after she leaves has been difficult.

“There simply aren’t any other students studying the organ,” Kaminksi said. “There’s one young man, a sophomore, but he already has a church.”

They plan to put up posters and notices at Millikin in the fall, when students come back from summer break, he said, and if they can’t find a student willing to take the job, they’ll resort to prerecorded music. If they could even find a pianist willing to learn to play the organ, they’d help with organ training at Millikin, he said.

“That’s what we’re willing to do, we’ll work with them,” he said.

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Source: (Decatur) Herald & Review, https://bit.ly/2peeduY

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Information from: Herald & Review, https://www.herald-review.com

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