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How much money does a professional American organist typically make today?

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  • How much money does a professional American organist typically make today?

    What are typical career paths to becoming a professional organist?

    What type of business entities generally employ paid professional organists or are they usually hired by contract?

  • #2
    A few words of warning may be in order, but I'll try to wrap up on a more positive note. It's hard to talk about this topic without being a bit cynical, as the once-ubiquitous position of organist/choirmaster seems to be disappearing from the church world these days, as churches shrink, budgets are tightened, musical tastes change. And other sources of income for organists, such as playing for large public venues, seem to be dwindling too. Civic auditoriums, ballparks, theaters, pizza parlors, funeral homes, and other places that once might have employed an organist may now have no need for one.

    Here in my state, there are only a handful of positions for organists that could remotely be considered full-time paying jobs. The main employers of organists would be churches, and of course it's only the ones that use traditional music who have an organ to play, and only the very largest of those that pay very much. Other than churches, a few universities have an organ professor on the faculty who probably makes whatever the other teaching staff make.

    The few organists I know who are paid anything above a small token fee are those who graduated from college or university with an actual degree in organ performance. So the career path would probably need to include getting such a degree, possibly going on to the master's level at least.

    By far the vast majority of organists in churches that I know about are receiving only a token salary, perhaps a few hundred dollars a week, and their job is likely to include more than just playing the organ -- often (like me) with the title "minister of music" and charged with overseeing the entire music ministry of the church, including directing the choir or choirs, handbells if present, possibly other ensembles, as well as working with the other staff members to help plan the worship services. They are often given the opportunity to augment their salary by playing for weddings and funerals or by teaching.

    And unfortunately, in this day of the virus, also having to deal with stuff like recording videos and/or doing Zoom sessions in lieu of conducting real worship services. A bit of technical expertise and camera artistry come in handy for that aspect of the work!

    All that said, I do happen to know several young and highly talented organists who are having very successful careers. It isn't true that there are NO good organist jobs out there. There are in fact many churches that still need and pay well for a truly skilled organist, and many bright and amazing young people (and older people) finding these positions and making a good living. There is even a bit of competition among the larger churches for the best and most polished organists. And there may well be an eventual reaction against the pop-music culture than has so invaded and ruined the churches, resulting in a demand for more trained and talented organists. So follow your heart and do what makes you happy.

    I haven't even mentioned the handful of folks like Cameron Carpenter and Gert Van Hoef and all the rest who travel the world playing organs and having a lot of fun, making pretty decent money in the pursuit. Not everybody has the potential to become such a "star," but you never know who might catch fire and become an international organ celebrity!
    John
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    *** Please post your questions about technical service or repair matters ON THE FORUM. Do not send your questions to me or another member by private message. Information shared is for the benefit of the entire organ community, but other folks will not be helped by information we exchange in private messages!

    https://www.facebook.com/pages/Birds...97551893588434

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    • pipeorganfool
      pipeorganfool commented
      Editing a comment
      Extremely well said, sir. I have a degree in music and my church, like so many others, has been forced to cut many programs due to financial restraints. My church has a full-time (paid) Minister of Music, but the church's very talented pianist and I receive no salary for our work, and quite frankly, I would not accept one if offered. My church does, however, give us a generous check during the Christmas holidays. I suspect, as you so correctly stated, that we will be seeing fewer and fewer organists working full time and earning a decent salary.

    • myorgan
      myorgan commented
      Editing a comment
      That said, pipeorganfool & John, many organists don't think to count their "free" service to the church as a charitable donation. In the US, one cannot deduct their time spent playing at church, but one CAN DEDUCT his/her mileage to and from church, as well as the cost of music for services. You cannot be reimbursed for the purchase, though.

      I'm not sure if that has changed in the Trump era, but I've been able to use those deductions for years (my church is 30 miles away).

      Michael

  • #3
    Many people play for churches just for the opportunity of having a practice instrument at their disposal. In the golden days the better organists had a church that was affiliated with a college and the job usually went to one of the music profs.

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    • #4
      In the later half of the 20th century, there were American organ celebrities like E Power Biggs and Anthony Newman who recorded and some records were on big labels like Columbia Records. Is the organ recording star now dead? What about contracts with record companies and producers? It's a shame the art of music and human beings have been both devalued and replaced with technology. I think the Internet age has also largely destroyed the professional performing artist. Electronic stuff in may ways has made entertainment so artificial. Like the character of John Houseman said in the 1980 film "A Christmas Without Snow" there is no substitute for a genuine pipe organ.
      Last edited by jonmyrlebailey; 07-03-2020, 11:40 AM.

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      • #5
        One of the very bad consequences of recorded music is that people think a live performance should not have mistakes. If you listen to the recordings of Biggs and Newman they are full of cuts and edits. (sure giveaway is in the reverb ) This is great for providing a "Reference Edition" but it can't exist in the real world. I once heard C. Carpenter in concert, it was astounding, not a rest out of place, but it was disturbing in its sterility.

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