Deborah Bagby began her career as a church organist at age 16 out of necessity -- her father, the pastor, needed someone to accompany his congregation as members made joyful noises unto the Lord during Sunday services.
Thirty-five years later, Bagby is still playing sacred music, but now she is a professional church organist and minister of music at Church of the Holy Communion in Southeast Washington. Holy Communion had been looking for an organist for more than six months when it found Bagby. The Georgetown church she left is still searching for her replacement six months later, reflecting a shortage in the area -- and nationwide -- of qualified church organists.
"Churches used to be able to get someone to come and play out of the kindness of their hearts," said Bagby, 53. "But now it's more likely that a church will have to pay a salary. Being a church organist requires a lot of work and a lot of practice."
The problem is worsening as many older organists are reaching retirement age, young musicians are shunning the occupation because of low pay, and few youths are taking up the instrument.
The shortage has sent many churches overseas, particularly to Great Britain, to hire organists. Some organizations, such as the American Guild of Organists, have initiated programs to lure children to the instrument in hopes of expanding the future pool of church organists. Major music schools are offering scholarships to draw applicants, while other music programs are closing their doors for lack of interest.
The problem is multifaceted. Organists must be highly trained -- many hold graduate degrees -- and spend hours each week practicing difficult musical works.
"It's very complicated music -- 16th-, 17th- and 18th-century compositions," Bagby said. "Also, the organist often is the choir director, and that means additional work.
"And not many people want to give up their Sunday every week, 52 times a year," she added. "If you go on vacation, you have to try to find someone who can substitute for you, and that's not easy to do."
On top of that, the profession doesn't pay well, discouraging many young musicians, organists say.
"Lucrative is not the word," said Scott Hanoian, 27, assistant director of music and assistant organist at Washington National Cathedral, who started playing organ at age 9 and made his first church performance at age 11. "It's sustaining."
As primary and secondary schools have slashed funding for music, fewer children are being exposed to programs that teach classical and sacred music. And shorter attention spans among children have led music programs to focus on shorter, less complicated pieces, said Margot Fassler, director of the Institute of Sacred Music at Yale University.
What's more, concerns over the separation of church and state have left some colleges and universities uneasy about offering religious music programs, while others say they have trouble attracting applicants.
Statistics from the National Association of Schools of Music show that the number of college students pursuing degrees in organ music dipped from 728 to 527 between 1985 and 2000, according to the American Guild of Organists.
Northwestern University, whose music department was founded by a church organist in the 1920s and has trained several premier church musicians, ended its church music program in January. The New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, which offered another well-known program, has put its organ program on indefinite hold, college spokeswoman Marilyn Siderwicz said.
Changes in musical tastes have also contributed to the shortage, officials said. Many churches have modernized their services to include music based on rhythm and blues, rock and other forms driven by electronic keyboard, drums and guitar instead of the traditional compositions of Johann Sebastian Bach.
"There are now ensembles, rock bands and electric canned music, as opposed to a real person playing a breathing instrument," said Fassler, of the Yale institute. "Many organs are going unused. It's a great tragedy to think of these magnificent organs being sold off because of a lack of interest."
Musicians said the biggest problem is financial.
"The pay is very minimal," said Douglas Paul Forbes, 53, organist and choir master at Baltimore's Memorial Episcopal Church. "The hours and the dedication it takes make many people unable to afford it. I don't know any organists, unless they are at very well-endowed parishes, who don't supplement their salaries. Then that means two jobs and a six-day workweek."
The American Guild of Organists, a professional organization serving more than 21,000 organ and choral musicians in the United States and abroad, recommends a base salary of about $47,000 to $63,000 for full-time organists holding doctorates; $42,000 to $56,000 for those with master's degrees; and $25,000 to $35,000 for half-time musicians with doctorates. But many churches do not follow those guidelines.
Despite the declining numbers, authorities said there are reasons to be optimistic that the trend will reverse. Programs to introduce children to the organ, such as the guild's week-long Pipe Organ Encounters, were filled to capacity in every city where they were offered in recent years, said James Thomashower, the guild's executive director.
And while some college organ programs are closing, others are starting. Renowned organist Gerre Hancock, who directed the organ program at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in New York City until he retired recently, and his wife, Judith, also a respected organist, plan to start a master's degree program in organ at the University of Texas at Austin.
Two seminaries on the campus of Northwestern University are working to develop master's programs in sacred music, said Christine Marshall Kraemer, who was a lecturer in Northwestern's now-defunct organ program.
"The organ is a fascinating instrument, an incredible machine," Kraemer said. "It seems like the organ has a connection with the church that cannot be denied and that must be preserved."
Gerri Marmer provided research assistance for this report.