Lofty ambitions for organ academy’s pipe dream of ending iPhone hymns

Bernard Pierce on the organ at The Good Shepherd Church, Mytholmroyd. Picture by Simon Hulme
Bernard Pierce on the organ at The Good Shepherd Church, Mytholmroyd. Picture by Simon Hulme
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it was when David Baker put his hands over his ears as an organ was being played that he knew he had to act.

A gifted organist himself he had endured plenty of bad organ playing over the years but this was something else - the performances of a two-fingered organist included. So when he had finished wincing, he resolved to set up an Organ Academy based at Halifax Minster modelled on the St Giles International Organ School in London.

This, he hoped would help improve the standard of playing and encourage people to learn how to play this ‘king of instruments’.

His initiative was also triggered by a perceived decline in the number of people playing the organ in West Yorkshire churches.

Vicars said the shortage meant they had resorted to “karaoke hymn singing” using music played through an iPhone. The academy is designed to provide tuition and support for organists.

A former university college principal in Plymouth he has a natural talent for organisation and last year saw his dream came true when Halifax Minster started the North’s first organ academy.

The day was led by Anne Marsden Thomas, director of the St Giles School, and students came from all over West Yorkshire with ages ranging from nine-years-old to one gentleman in his 70s.

The latter was Bernard Pierce, a game 79-year-old who has been involved with The Good Shepherd Church, Mytholmroyd, for many years and who was anxious to add an extra string to his bow - having also learnt how to play the saxophone and piano.

He said: “I saw an item on TV about this Organ Academy, that they were looking for pianists who wanted to learn how to play the organ and that’s how it all started.

“I think the hardest part was playing the pedals and different manuals. It’s about four to five months since I started playing and it’s coming along slowly. I just love music and I am very glad I got into it.

“I usually have one session with David about every three weeks or so which lasts for about an hour. I took to the organ quite quickly but it’s getting more difficult as it progresses. I have to face it, I just don’t have the dexterity in my fingers that I used to have.”

Prof Baker of Mytholmroyd, said: “I had to put my hands over my ears several years ago - it was a horrid service - and it was then that I finally determined to do something about it.

“I have been very well supported by many people including the Bishop of Wakefield and Dr Simon Lindley, Organist of Leeds Parish Church and of Leeds Town Hall. My hope was that one of things we could do is to have a ‘marriage bureau’ between churches and organists. The idea is that as we get more people coming to the Organ Academy we can assess their level of ability and put them in touch with churches.

“The problem is that there are more organs than organists and although we have a lot of very fine instruments, sadly, some of them are doing nothing more than gathering dust.

“I would say that our estimate is that 50 per cent of churches don’t have a proper organist, that’s over the Calder Valley and I suspect that the statistics are much the same across the country apart from the South East and the Home Counties where there are more opportunities to play the organ.”

One of those who supported the project was Vicar of Halifax, the Reverend Canon Hilary Barber, who at its launch last year said he hoped the academy would help make sure the “organ survives”.

Another is the Vicar of Mytholmroyd, the Reverend Canon James Allison, who in the past has had to lead the music using his iPhone playing it through speakers. Churches are anxious that good music is played during their service because it binds the congregation together and improves the quality of worship. Prof Baker is pleased with the progress made so far with his Academy and is particularly looking forward to Halifax Minster hosting Yorkshire Organ Day today featuring a day full of events with recitals, talks and discussions.