From Organist To Surgeon

by   |  October 31, 2012

Experience in organ repair is valuable when the instrument needs a doctor. Organist Felipe Dominguez had to gut and reassemble this massive instrument at the First Presbyterian Church in Annandale, Virginia.

Better study up on organ anatomy.   The organist is dubbed organ doctor when the machine breaks down.


The organ is a huge, intimidating instrument.   What happens when it breaks?   Who do you call in to fix it?   The best technician around is often the organ player himself (or herself).   Felipe Dominguez recently had the experience of fixing a minor problem with the organ at the First Presbyterian Church in Annandale, Virginia, where he works as principal organist.
Now, being able to play the organ doesn’t automatically qualify you as an organ surgeon.   Training in organ building and repair is essential to avoid expensive catastrophe.   Mr. Dominguez had nearly five years of experience assisting organ technicians, so he was confident as he began to disassemble the organ in Annandale.
“I [tried] to find out why the 2′ Principal was so unstable,” Dominguez explains.   “Sometimes it would be incredibly out of tune, then other times, right on. It turns out that the slider for that rank was off the track so sometimes the holes would only align 80% or less, and other times, 100%, which caused the variance in the tuning (which was caused by the variance on the air supply depending on the slider’s alignment).”
Fixing the problem required nothing short of organ surgery.   Felipe removed all the organ pipes and toe spacers and laid them out on a long table, placing post-it notes with their corresponding nomenclature. After reassembling the pieces, the entire process took about six hours.   Felipe had some help from the church’s pastor and a close friend.
So after all that to-do, what was the magic fix?   What high-tech material had the just the right properties to make flexible spacers?   To our surprise, it was nothing more sophisticated than pieces of a cardboard box.   “It turns out that cardboard was the perfect material, because it allows for the wood to expand when it gets humid, which happens a lot here in Washington D.C.”

Organ Doctor

An organist quickly becomes a surgeon when problems arise with the instrument.   At such times, experience in building and repairs becomes invaluable.

On the whole, Dominguez said that fixing the organ was a great experience.   His friend really “enjoyed learning about the inner workings of a tracker organ.”
As an organist, you never know when you will be required to perform a little surgery of your own.   Search for opportunities in your area to gain repair experience alongside organ technicians.   Aside from enhancing your performance skills and general knowledge, unexpected glitches will make all your study of organ anatomy well worth the time and effort.

More on: Careers, Knowledge
About the Author:

Having achieved so many of her own dreams, Mimi West has devoted her career to paying it forward to the rising generation of musicians. You can follow her on Twitter @mydreamteacher.
Publshed: October 31, 2012  | 
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