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American Guild of Organists connects 42 organists in the region


Carolyn Payne practices the organ at Salem Lutheran.

Of nearly 60 pipe organs in the Spokane area, about 35 are in churches.  Others are in private homes, a funeral home, a high school, theaters and universities.

The local chapter of the American Guild of Organists (AGO) is a way for local musicians, clergy, worship leaders, technicians and organ lovers to meet, promote organ and choral music, connect organists, encourage young people to study organ and present several concerts each year.

 “Organists often practice alone in a cold church, and then come Sundays to lead music and song,” said Carolyn Payne, an AGO member and organist at Salem Lutheran Church for 20 years.

“The AGO is a place to connect with other people who do what we do, to support each other and to share ideas,” she said.

The guild also helps organists find substitutes when they may miss a Sunday for vacation or illness.  Sometimes organists do exchanges.  In addition, they often share with each other from their own music libraries.  Some organists play digital and electric organs.

Carolyn said 42 organists—from Coeur d’Alene and Hayden, as well as Spokane—are members. About half attend meetings.  Most are in more liturgical Protestant and Catholic churches. 

Fewer Evangelical churches have organs, she said, because many do praise music, using pianos, electronic instruments and praise bands, popular since the 1990s, Carolyn said. 

Some Evangelical churches that bought church buildings with organs still use the organs.  Others sold the organs or organ parts.

An organ produces the sounds of many instruments by using different registrations on combinations of stops to produce sounds like strings, flutes, clarinets, French horns, oboes and other instruments, she said.

Stops vary from organ to organ.  One organ may have an oboe. Another may not.  In addition to having one to four manuals (keyboards), organs have a pedal board.  Some have chimes.

The same music played on different organs sounds different, she said.

When the AGO invites organists to come to Spokane to give concerts, they come several days ahead to practice and register their music for the particular organ.

Air passing through metal or wood pipes produces the sound for a pipe organ. Electronic instruments try to duplicate the sound electronically, she said.

Every organ is a work of art in how it puts sounds together.

Carolyn likens playing an organ with the different sounds at her disposal to being a creative cook with different ingredients to choose to include in a dish. 

Playing the organ requires a different technique from playing the piano, because it involves coordinating more keyboards and playing with the feet.

“It makes your thinking different and requires additional skills to play the organ,” she said.

She considers the organ the most effective instrument for accompanying hymns and traditional church music from before Johann Sebastian Bach and even new music today that is important to the worship life of congregations.

Some say they would not go to church if it wasn’t for the opportunity to hear organ music, she said.

“I use the organ as much as I can, because people love it,” she said, but because some of the new Lutheran music lends better to piano, Carolyn also accompanies it on the piano.

The fast pace of life today and electronic music have shoved aside traditional music for new sounds, but classical music, like classical books, always has a value, she said.

“Often what is new in music is based on what is old,” Carolyn said.  “It’s valued by many church people, and it’s important to expose young people to the inspiring, beautiful music.  It’s like a painting that inspires people.”

Carolyn grew up in Caldwell, Idaho, and trained in organ at the College of Idaho at Caldwell, a Presbyterian liberal arts college.  She began playing the electric organ at Grace Lutheran Church in Caldwell nearly 60 years ago when she was 14. 

“No one knew how to play the organ, so one summer I walked across town to practice.  By fall, I could play simple hymns. I kept studying and working at it,” she said.

Her husband, Frank, also grew up there.  When they were 14 and 17, they decided they wanted to grow old together.  They eventually married. Frank’s construction company in Boise bid to build the Hewlett Packard plant in Liberty Lake in 1981.  They thought they would come for a year and return, but decided to stay. 

Frank and Carolyn established Ernst and Payne, Inc., in Spokane.

They parented seven children of whom four were in elementary school and junior high at that time.  Spokane provided medical services their older daughter Ellie needed for dialysis and a second kidney transplant. 

Carolyn was involved in school activities, helped at Frank’s construction office and volunteered with various groups, including the National Kidney Foundation of Washington and the Spokane Youth Symphony. 

She also served often as substitute organist at many churches, so she knows the churches and organists in the community.

In the early 1990s, she began as organist, playing the 1912 Hilgren Green organ at Salem Lutheran.  She continues to work as part-time organist and choir director.

“There are only a few full-time organist positions,” Carolyn said.  “Most organists work 10 to 15 hours a week practicing, rehearsing the choir, going to meetings and playing Sunday morning.  Most hold down full-time jobs in teaching and other areas, because we can’t make a living on what a small church can pay.  It’s hard for any musician to make a living.

“My time at the organ gave me time to myself, grounding, sanity and much joy in the midst of all I did,” she said.  “It gave me something to work for.”

The AGO connects to Music Fest Northwest, which draws hundreds of young musicians for a week in the spring to play and be judged. It also helps young organists with scholarships.

The national AGO develops interest in children and youth with Pipe Organ Encounters.  The Spokane chapter hosted one about 15 years ago, bringing children for a week to teach them organ, let them practice at different churches and provide recreational opportunities.

The AGO recently hosted concerts by three world-class organists: Andrew Unsworth in October 2015, Christopher Houlihan in February 2016 and Todd Wilson in October 2016.

To build relationships among members, it also offers recitals, hymn festivals, movies, picnics and a Christmas carol concert. 

In 2013, Jim Wallrabenstein, an AGO member, compiled a list of 59 area organs.  He detailed their history and included organs that were moved or taken apart.

The list includes the brand, number of manuals and number of ranks. The 40 churches with pipe organs include Catholic, Slavic Baptist, Episcopal, Nazarene, Presbyterian, Seventh-day Adventist, United Church of Christ and United Methodist.

They are Beautiful Savior, Central, Hope, Salem, St. John’s and St. Mark’s Lutheran; Bethlehem and Pilgrim Slavic Baptist; Holy Trinity, St. John’s Cathedral and St. Stephen’s Episcopal, Our Lady of Lourdes, Sacred Heart, St. Aloysius, St. Augustine, St. Francis Xavier, St. Joseph’s, St. Thomas More Catholic; Spokane First Church of the Nazarene; First, Knox, Manito, Millwood and Whitworth Presbyterian;  Central Seventh-Day Adventist; First Church of Christ, Scientist; Westminster Congregational United Church of Christ; Central and Manito United Methodist.

Some churches inherited pipe organs when they bought buildings: Christ our Hope Bible, Christ the Redeemer, All Nations Christian Center, Holy Temple Church of God in Christ and Plymouth Congregational.

For information, call 535-7145 or visit

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