Young organ players are bringing new blood to aging field

TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) — Ben Garst was quite young when the organ first piqued his interest.

The 15-year-old grew up with the powerful notes of the instrument accompanying the Catholic liturgies that he and his family would attend each weekend. The musically inclined youngster recalled paying particular attention whenever the organist would slide onto the bench.

“I would always listen to the organ and try (to figure out) out which pipes were playing at which time,” he said.

Today the teen has a better handle on that particular mystery. He’s one of a handful of area organists-intraining, who, on one or more afternoons each week, are themselves the ones manipulating the pipes through a complex choreography of hands and feet.

Ben, Kurt Muller, 17, and Enrico Tabernero, 18, each study under Charlotte Mariasy in the choir loft of St. Rose Catholic Church in Perrysburg. Their youth stands out within an aging field of organists that, in some cities, has raised concerns about the limited availability of musicians who can provide the sort of traditional liturgical music that many congregations hold dear.

The American Guild of Organists indicates that 70 percent of its members are in their late 50s or older, based on a survey released in 2015. Just 11 percent of respondents to that survey are in their mid-30s or younger — a demographic contrast that the survey report acknowledges leaves “strikingly few” younger members to make up for those who will likely retire in the next two decades.

If that national outlook sounds bleak to churchgoers with a preference for pipes, Toledoans can take comfort that, locally, the number of organists aren’t ringing alarm bells.

The Toledo chapter of the American Guild of Organists is still seeing applicants for its annual scholarships, which offset the cost of lessons and which come as one way that education chair Denise Mathias said the group encourages and supports young people who want to pursue the instrument.