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'Like driving a Rolls Royce,' Peoria Guild of American Organists highlights their love for historic instrument

St. Paul's Episcopal Church Director of Music Jon Gilbin plays the massive pipe organ at St. Paul's. A man in a blue button up and khakis performs on a massive, four-keyboard organ. He reads music from an iPad.
Collin Schopp
St. Paul's Episcopal Church Director of Music Jon Gilbin plays the massive pipe organ at St. Paul's.

The Peoria chapter of the American Guild of Organists is bringing together those with a passion for the grand old instrument.

Though there are a few types of organ, including smaller portable versions, when you imagine organ music, you’re probably imagining the massive pipe organs that are a common fixture in churches and cathedrals.

Chapter Dean Walter Stout says the Peoria guild has around 20 members. The membership includes both organists and organ enthusiasts.

Stout played organ in church for the first time when he was 15. A love for the instrument stuck with him ever since. He started, like many organists, on piano and he says, though the instruments share some similarities, the transition to organ can be a difficult one.

“You need much more technique at the piano before you can really successfully play the organ,” he said. “I have met, in my day, people, men and women, who may not have a lot of organ training, but were such solid piano players that they really did a pretty admirable job in coming to the instrument and becoming pretty familiar with it.”

Jon Giblin is the Sub Dean of the Peoria chapter of the guild. He’s also the director of music at Peoria’s St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. In this role, he regularly plays the church’s massive organ, boasting four keyboards, or manuals, dozens of knobs and thousands of individual pipes.

“Each of the knobs on this instrument controls a set of pipes. The sets of pipes can differ in sound color, they can differ in just how loud or soft the pipes are,” said Giblin, gesturing at the various components of the massive instrument. “And by controlling them and mixing them, the organist is able to create a huge variety of different sounds and colors on the instrument.”

Not only does Giblin deftly push and pull knobs as he jumps between the four keyboards, there’s also an entire keyboard that an organist works with their feet, known as the pedal board. Coordination is crucial.

“It’s pretty much like if you’re a drummer and playing a drum set, you have to know how to use both your hands and both your feet,” Gilbin said. “And then as you gain experience with the different colors of the instrument and how to combine them all, that’s sort of how you progress as a musician.”

Gilbin says this aspect of learning the instrument has an impact on how students learn to play. He will often start prospective organists on pieces that require a single continuous note on the pedal board, rarely changing as the majority is played in the hands.

Organ player Jon Gilbin pushes keys on one of the four keyboards, or "manuals," on the organ at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Peoria. A close up of hands playing keyboards on an organ.
Collin Schopp
Organ player Jon Gilbin pushes keys on one of the four keyboards, or "manuals," on the organ at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Peoria.

The organ at St. Paul’s is an electric organ, which means the keys are electronically connected to the pipes. However, among the list of more than 20 organs across Central Illinois maintained by the guild, Stout says you can still find an original mechanical organ.

“Westminster Presbyterian Church on Moss Avenue has an organ built in Houston, by a well known company who has since gone out of business but has instruments all over the country,” Stout said. “It’s a mechanical action instrument, which is the original way organs were built for centuries, until the advent of electricity.”

Central Illinois has its own historic organ builders. Stout says Hinners Organ Company manufactured organs in Pekin up until 1942.

But, for Stout, the most notable organ in Peoria is the instrument at the Cathedral of St. Mary on North East Madison Avenue. Stout says the room is acoustically perfect for the instrument and it’s also expertly “voiced.”

“The man whose job it is to voice the organ is the organ voicer,” Stout said. “Once the organ is installed in the space, the job of the organ voicer is to go through every rank of pipes, and a rank is one pipe for every note on the keyboard.”

In total a voicer will go through hundreds or thousands of pipes and dial in tone quality, color and volume, determining how each individual pipe “speaks.” While Stout has great appreciation for the St. Mary’s organ, he’s played many organs all across the world.

“I’ve gotten to play organs that were worth millions of dollars and really well maintained,” he said. “It’s like, the only thing I can tell you to compare it to, it’s like driving a Rolls Royce. If you’ve ever driven a Rolls. I never have, but that’s what I can imagine it being like.”

However, the opportunity to consistently play organs and meet other organists can fluctuate wildly. Stout and Gilbin both say there’s still a fair amount of opportunities in metropolitan areas. They also say, despite the traditional association with churches and cathedrals, there’s contemporary and secular organ music being composed all the time.

St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Peoria is just one of several churches that still have an organ in the area.
Collin Schopp
St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Peoria is just one of several churches that still have an organ in the area.

Churches have always been a consistent employment opportunity for an organist. Though, with many making a move to contemporary, praise band style services, some of those opportunities are going away.

“We're not making many new organists, there's a downturn,” Gilbin said. “Part of that is both a downturn in religion, generally. The organ is, for better or worse, connected to the church and church music. And it's often been connected to older styles of church music.”

Gilbin says there’s a smaller pool of organists, along with a smaller number of opportunities to see performances that get future organists interested in the first place.

“There are many churches just in the Peoria area that are currently looking for part time organists that can't fit the goal,” he said. “And it's just that there's not not enough people around that can do this work.”

The Guild of Organists is still working to create opportunities for the general public to take in performances. Stout says the group has plans to bring a notable Illinois organist from Chicago to Peoria to perform at St. Mary’s later this year. Stout says the performance will also include an original, commissioned composition. The group is also helping to restore and install a small Hinners pipe organ at the Wheels of Time Museum in Dunlap.

“It will be a great thing to draw people to the museum,” Stout said. “And we're hoping to actually sponsor an event for young people that kind of introduces them to the organ.”

There’s no specific dates for these events yet, but you can check for updates and learn more about the guild at their website.

Collin Schopp is a reporter at WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.